I grew up in Chile, in the mid 1950s. I had the fortune of attending a very good school, in which, besides learning the basic educational subjects, we were exposed to an extremely rich and varied ideological palette. I witnessed many spirited, verbal and/or physical political confrontations between 10- or 11 year-old kids. For example, I recall standing open-mouthed as two of my schoolmates rolled on the floor, beating and insulting each other with words like “dirty communist!” “filthy socialist!” “stupid catholic!” I was also 9 or 10 years old, barely scratching the surface of any clear ideological or political self-definitions. Thus, I did not understand why those kids called each other those names, willing to spill blood in the process.
Eventually, I learned enough to deserve being elected president of the student council. By then, I was close to 17. Among the many phrases I heard in the process of my political education, one called my attention powerfully: “The only good communist is a dead communist!” (“El único comunista bueno es un comunista muerto.”) It was, then and now, a rather shocking statement.
I preface this article with those recollections, because the subject of this particular column, my former student, Berta Hernández (San Francisco State University), is running for the Board of Supervisors in District 11, as a Socialist. I wanted to know more about her and about the reception she is getting by running on that particular platform. We sat down for lunch at My Corner Café, (aka Tony’s place, at the corner of 26th and South Van Ness) and I first asked her why is she running in the Excelsior district.
“I was gentrified out of the Mission a few years ago and have made the Excelsior my new home,” Berta said. “But I remain very much a Mission person. My kids are Mission-born and bred! They are proud of it and so am I!”
She has been a long-time activist.
“I started my political career in San Francisco over 20 years ago. Working with people like Lucrecia Bermúdez , Carlos Petroni, Miguel Pérez. Lucrecia and Carlos were our official candidates, partly because they were the only citizens at that time!” She laughed brightly, her eyes dancing a restless and in constant rhythm. “It’s not as if we had a great faith in the system, but we believed—I still believe—that we needed to participate in all issues, not just ‘immigrant-related’ issues. When I arrived from México, I hated being here. Little by little, by actively participating in many issues, I began to like it.”
Berta has worked with a suicide prevention program, has helped to set up truces between gangs, was a director of Casa de los Jóvenes in the RAP Program (Real Alternatives Program) and currently, she works as a Family Resources Manager at the Instituto Familiar de la Raza—all in the Mission District.
She uses her theater experience in her works. “I love theater! That’s my first and constant love! I started in México, but I continued using theater here. I believe in its power. Look Carlos: I don’t have time for anything, but if you invited to so some theater… I’ll be there! And I’ll be your best trooper!”
On the subject of her Socialist affiliation, Berta said: “The Occupy Movement and Bernie Sanders helped make that affiliation more acceptable.” She pauses again, briefly and then continues, firmly, “Look, the best thing that could happen to the working-class in this city would be if they elect this socialist! I’m the most ethical, capable candidate. I cannot be bought!”
She pauses again, this time as if evoking something pleasant: “I am happy with what I do! I work now in a very ethical organization and I feel that I have the love and respect of the community, and of my children! Can you believe it? At my age! (She is actually just above 50.) To have my kids love and respect me? Sebastián, my son, is 24 and Camila is 19. They still live with me! Camila is a hard worker in my campaign!” She pauses, briefly and then she smiles, proudly, “A few days ago, Camila told me, ‘Mom: you are the most qualified candidate!’ How cool is that?”
Conversing with Berta Hernández helped me to take the edge off of that nasty early reference to communists or socialists: “The only good communist is a dead communist.” Actually, I believe that we need the kind of live-wire socialists that Berta represents.
“I want to live, to do more things, for more people! I want to dance, to sing, to perform! You know, one of my best memories from this campaign, is the time when I was doing door-to-door and this Anglo woman opened her door, heard me a little and then she said: “An immigrant! A woman! A communist! You’ve got my vote!”
On that note, with Berta once again loudly laughing, we ended our meeting.
Story by: Carlos Barón