When acclaimed poet and playwright Paul Flores asked to pick the brain of the late legendary Yolanda Lopez regarding an art project he had in mind, she agreed.
On one condition.
“She said, ‘Bring me some coffee. And if you come over, you have to bring me to my doctor’s appointment,’” Flores fondly remembers.
That was in 2019. Lopez had been living with cancer for years and her activist art from the late 1960s had recently been part of Acción Latina’s Remember Los Siete exhibition. Witnessing the political, visual and theatrical art that Los Siete inspired in the Mission motivated Flores to ponder his own project, one that would pay homage to the Mission’s history of the last 50 years. And—most importantly—one that would not be mediocre.
But to do that, he needed to speak to Yolanda.
“I’d always been talking to her, asking her what her opinion was on art. She was always very…blunt,” Flores said. “She would always tell you exactly what she thought. If some visual art was getting its message across, if it was mediocre. And one of her biggest criticisms was that too much art that we make, even in the Latino community, is mediocre. It’s not historicising things enough, it’s not representing who the people really are.”
And so the two met in Yolanda’s home, over coffee with books and art scattered about, and Yolanda expressed how she missed live street theater. “That’s what is missing,” Yolanda told Paul. She reminisced about the performances of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the theatrical productions of Carlos Barón and the Día de los Muertos festivities. And like a true maestra, Yolanda assigned Flores reading material on the radical theater of the San Francisco scene of the 60s and 70s.
That idea took root and from there, Flores tumbled down the rabbit hole that is the Mission’s rich and radical history and the colorful characters who made it what it is today. It’s a history that will be explored in Acción Latina’s Paseo Artístico, its first live presentation since the start of the pandemic in “History Matters in the Mission,” a mobile street theatrical production taking place at five historical locations on Oct. 23.
The show pulls extensively from El Tecolote’s archive and interviews conducted by Flores with various community members, and features dancing and choreography by Vanessa Sanchez, who stars in the show as the actress portraying Yolanda. Sanchez hopes to educate “people on this history of what made these spaces what they are.”
In addition to interviewing Yolanda, Flores interviewed Juan Gonzales, the founder of El Tecolote whose story intersected with Yolanda from their time during the SF State student strike in 1968. Flores then interviewed artist Michael Rios, who painted the iconic BART mural at 24th and Mission street in 1975. He then connected with Joan Holden, the principal playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the rebellious street theater group who were known to criticize anyone and everyone in power. And finally he spoke with Carlos Barón, a Chilean-born theater producer and professor and regular contributor to El Tecolote. All of those interviewed will be portrayed by fellow actors.
“Vanessa is a great actress, but the dance that she puts on for Yolanda, f****** amazing,” Flores said. “It’s going to blow people away. And that’s what I wanted. For people to see the beauty that Yolanda inspires, but also the fierce women who she also inspires.”
As for Sanchez—an accomplished dancer and choreographer whose 2019 historical dance production Pachuquísmo portrayed the female experiences of the 1940’s Zoot Suit Riot era—Yolanda was someone she studied and looked up to for decades.
“I’ve never trained in acting,” Sanchez said. “And so there was this kind of looming thought. And knowing that she would be there. Watching me deliver her words. And watching us perform based on her words, based on her artwork, based on everything she’s done.”
Surrounded by loved ones, Yolanda died in her Mission District home on the morning of Sept. 3, 2021. Suddenly, the show had an urgency that hadn’t been felt before.
“How do we properly pay homage and honor everything that she’s done, not only through this performance but through everything else that her work continues to inspire and influence? And I am going to be honest. I kind of thought, ‘Is this okay for me to do?’ Wanting to respect Yolanda’s legacy and respect her family, Rio and Sarah. That was something I definitely processed with Paul,” Sanchez said. “I feel that her power, her chingonaness is coming through in the movement, it’s coming through in everything that we’re doing, and I just really hope that people who see this performance feel that and connect with it.”
“It hurts that she’s gone. It hurts a lot,” Flores continued. “She taught me a lot. She did so much to keep me on my toes, to direct me. And she did it out of love. Yolanda was tough love, but also tender love. She didn’t suffer fools around art, especially. She was very humble. She didn’t look for accolades, yet she deserved so much. She helped define Chicano feminism, and she wasn’t afraid to criticize men or young guys like me on what I needed to do, and where we needed to center women.”
As for the production itself, each of the five performance locations on the schedule will feature a different dance and musical style that reflects the cultural roots, traditions and history of the Mission. The music—designed with the help of the shows’ music director, Pedro Gomez—and dance will include Zapateado Jarocho from Veracruz, tapdance, jazz, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Peruvian festejo rhythms.
“That’s actually been one of the most exciting things for me about this project, other than just being able to learn from and honor these amazing artivists and activists in our community, also being able to just tap into all the dance forms that I’ve trained in,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s just really important to know who came before us and who laid the ground for us…how this vibrant neighborhood came to be. And we know the people who are pillars in making that happen. I strongly believe that we can’t move forward, we can’t continue the Lucha, we can’t continue using our voices, our movement, our words to fight until we know how we got here. I just think that that is such an important element in continuing pushing the movement forward.”
“History Matters in the Mission” will take place on Saturday Oct. 23, 2021 from 12PM-6PM along the 24th Street Latino Cultural District from York to Mission Street. For more information, visit paseoartistico.org
- 12PM Precita Eyes History of Balmy Alley Mural Tour
- 1PM Brava Theater (2781 24th Street) Dedicated to Joan Holden (outside), Feat. Edna Mira Raia
- 1:30PM SFMOMA presents Los Murales Today with Josiah Luis Alderete, Olivia Peña and friends. Poets will perform at designated murals along 24th St.
- 2PM Acción Latina (2958 24th Street) Dedicated to Juan Gonzales Feat. Paul S. Flores, with Vanessa Sanchez. AR by Shamsher Virk
- 2:30PM SFMOMA presents Los Murales Today with Josiah Luis Alderete and Olivia Peña and friends.
- 3PM Harrison & 24th Street (continues to Balmy Alley) Dedicated to Yolanda Lopez Feat. Vanessa Sanchez
- 3:30PM Adobe Books (3130 24th Street) Feat. Community Music Center Mission District Young Musicians Program
- 4PM House of Brakes (3195 24th Street) Dedicated to Carlos Barón Feat. Paul S. Flores, with Vanessa Sanchez, Jessica Recinos and Diana Aburto Ibarra
- 4:30PM Dance Mission (3316 24th Street) g Dance Brigade (inside)
- 5PM 24th Street BART Station (East Side) Dedicated to Michael Ríos Feat. Paul S. Flores
- 5:30PM Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (2868 Mission Street) Presents the history of Mission Grafica demonstration by Jesus Perez and a view of the altars of the Day of the Dead (Ni tanto ni tan Muertos en Nuestra Memoria).