San Francisco’s first Carnaval procession in 1979 held at Precita Park. Photo: Lou Dematteis

The Mission District’s annual Carnaval celebration will commemorate its 40th anniversary with a retrospective photo exhibition on Cinco de Mayo hosted by the neighborhood nonprofit Acción Latina.

Those interested in the history of one of the neighborhood’s most vibrant celebrations, will be able to see it on full display at “Roots of Carnaval.”

San Francisco’s Carnaval started when a group of local artists and musicians came together for a procession in Precita Park in 1979. Since then, Carnaval has been a space for Mission residents to celebrate and display their African, Indigenous and Mestizo roots.

There is a parade and festival that includes dance, drumming, procession and spiritual blessings from the diverse cultures that have made up the Mission melting pot. Ohlone, Mexican, Central American, Cuban and Caribbean cultures, among many others, come out to represent themselves, their ancestors and the neighborhood they live in.

“The 40th anniversary photo exhibition highlights the magic and resilience of Carnaval, and the familial aspect as well,” said current Carnaval parade director Rodrigo Duran. “It will be a beautiful showcase of the magic that SF Carnaval has.”

Duran, 28, is a Mission native and part of the new generation that is carrying the torch of Carnaval into the next decade.

Photo: Terry Scussel

“My mom was seven months pregnant with me the first time was I was in the parade,” said Duran. “And now I coordinate the parade.”

More than 20 photographers are participating in the show, some who have documented Carnaval since the very beginning. Lou Dematteis, a photojournalist, instructor and longtime Mission resident, will be showing photographs from the original procession in Precita Park in 1979.

“I’ve been photographing Carnaval since the beginning, 1979, the one in Precita Park,” Dematteis said. “That was very small in comparison to what it is now, only 1,500 to 2,000 people were there. Founders like Adela Chu, Marcus Gordon, and Sir Lawrence Washington were there, and can be seen in some of the photos.”

Roberto Hernandez helped curate the show with photographer Robert Werner, who has photographed many Carnaval celebrations in recent years.

“That Carnaval has lasted 40 years is an act of perseverance,” Hernandez said. “Not many heritage festivals have that kind of shelf life, especially now that we are in a crisis of gentrification in this city. Over 8,000 Latinos have been displaced from San Francisco. We cook the food, we are your waiter, your busboy, we do so many jobs that newcomers take for granted as a part of an affluent lifestyle.”

But Carnaval is also an opportunity for newer residents of the Mission to take part in and gain insight into the neighborhood they now live in. “We are still here,” Hernandez said. “And we welcome help [and] respectful participation.”

Festivities such as Carnaval helped to foster the creative spirit that newbies find attractive about the Mission District to begin with. Businesses and start-ups that have nested in the neighborhood can donate to the festival, and newer residents can volunteer their time. Others can simply come and participate in the magic that happens when people come together to celebrate the spirit and the people who have created the character that the Mission District is so well known for.

“Roots of Carnaval” opens on Saturday May 5, from 5 p.m. at Accion Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, and will run through June 1.  Exhibiting photographers include Lou Dematteis, Albins Peke Von Mayate, Amanda Nelson, David L. Gregory, David Yu, Doug Kaye, Jane Postiglione, Jayasimha Nuggehalli, Gordon Mak, Ken Osborn, Kyle Adler, Marco Sanchez, Michael Kirschner, Pankaj Bhargava, Raven Sky,Robert Werner, Swee Oh and Terry Scussel.