Muralist Josué Rojas points to the recently completed mural honoring Sean Monterrosa, located at South Van Ness Avenue and 24th Street. Photo: Rebeca Flores Credit: Rebeca Flores

On a branch that stretches from Argentina to El Salvador is a toucan bird, its small claws perch the bird up, its yellow beak peaks brilliantly through a green forest. 

In Latinoamérica we call them Tucánes, the infamous bird with a beak bigger than its body. It was Sean Monterrosa’s favorite symbol to use in his art and it was also what his friends knew him as, Tucan.

In June 2020, Monterrosa was fatally shot by Vallejo police. This particular police department has an officer shooting rate that results in deaths 38 times more than the national rate, according to KQED . Officer Jarrett Tonn has a history of shooting and wounding young men while in pursuit of detainment, based on the belief that they have a gun. A total of four suspects have been shot according to this reasoning, no guns have ever been found by Tonn, according to OpenVallejo. Jarret Tonn killed Monterrosa based on the reasoning that young 22-year-old Monterrosa was carrying a gun. 

He wasn’t. 

Outside in a Walgreens parking lot — Sean raised his arms up, complying with orders from police. While sitting in the back seat from the comfort of his police vehicle, Tonn fired 5 shots. The bullets shot straight through the front car window, taking the life of Monterrosa. 

Minutes before, Monterrosa was attending a protest for George Floyd, a Black man who was murdered while in Minneapolis police custody less than a month before in May. It was on this night, that Monterrosa texted his sisters Michelle and Ashley, asking them to sign a petition seeking justice for George Floyd. 

There’s something to be said here — the Aztec gods gave tucánes the gift of being a messenger. The gods would place messages and stories inside the long beak and send the tucán flying down to deliver a birdsong to la gente. There’s poetry inside Monterrosa using his voice for George. 

Photo: Amir Abdul-Shakur/Amir the Photographer

“Sean was a young person and he was robbed of that. Imagine the many seeds — if he was still here, he would have planted onto more young people,” said Michelle Monterrosa. 

In pursuit of justice for Monterrosa’s life and legacy — artists Josué Rojas, Angel Velazquez, and Anthony Jimenez, created a mural project that has been three years in the making. Approved by the owners of the building, Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA), it was unveiled to the public in late October.

“My mom grew up taking Sean Monterrosa and his sisters to church, and that’s how I know them,” said Josué Rojas, lead artist on the mural. 

Young Monterrosa planted seeds in his Mission District community by participating in the Boys and Girls Club, working with Horizons Unlimited, and using his resourcefulness to start his own business of selling hotdogs to make his way.

“Having on your mind that you’re actually doing something for somebody that is no longer with us,” Fellow artist on the project Angel Velazquez said. Angel is only a few years younger than Sean and although they never met, Angel can recall a few times where their paths crossed. “He was apart of the community and I could feel the dolor of the familia just by working on the mural.”

Photo: Amir Abdul-Shakur/Amir the Photographer

Right now, a quick Google map search of South Van Ness Avenue and 24th Street shows a blue wall. The graffiti artwork that was there before, is freshly painted over and from the 360° camera, click, circle, view it looks like the mural has yet to happen. Come and step onto calle 24 and the canopy of trees will cover you with shade, as you grab a treat from Jelly Donut, you’ll find a portrait of Sean Monterrosa.

On a wall painted like it’s mirroring the sky, artist Anthony Jimenez paints a portrait of Monterrosa. His smile and fade as clean as it was in person. In the mural, Monterrosa’s portrait is joined by his two sisters holding a picture of their brother. Above them all is George Floyd with tiny figures protesting. 

“The mural is every issue … still ongoing. When we celebrate people who live like Sean, we create more people like Sean. People look at that. And they can say, I want to be involved, or I know someone in that story, or I knew Sean, or I look like him,” said Anthony Jimenez. 

While painting, Anthony recalls a resemblance: “That was something that really broke my heart. During this portrait I was like, ‘I have a cousin who looks like Sean, but he’s in prison.’ It really hits home. It becomes very emotional. We all cried, at some point during this process. It’s a part of the process and feels necessary.”

Lead artist on the project, Josué places Monterrosa in his Ben Davis red tee, his image accompanied by his last text message, casitas, and the life he leaves behind. To the left is Monterrosa’s dog and to the right, is a bright blue tucán wearing a black cap, a painted yellow halo above the tucán’s head. The bright yellow beak carries truth inside as Monterrosa, also known as Tucan, soars in the sky like an angel delivering gospel.

The beautiful thing about birds is they return. They fly from heaven and earth, connecting us. Side by side, on a wall in the Mission, is a sky and here are the tucánes painted as a mural, seeking justice for one of their own.

“It’s a huge weight,” said Josué Rojas. “To answer the question of how do I solve the problem of making this piece of artwork? Is that I don’t do it alone. I call on strength from inside. I call on the Creator to give creativity. I call on the team and I call on these young artists that have been developing. We’ve been working together. They’re committed to this work and so we do it as a community.”

The Monterrosa family hopes the mural sparks conversation about police brutality and invites you to visit the mural and learn from it.

“The intergeneration of Josué, Angel, Anthony how powerful and beautiful to see that there’s mentorship pouring into the young — full circle. That’s how Sean would have wanted it to happen. Young people are at the center of everything,” said Michelle.  

Sean Monterrosa was an artist, a teacher, a carpenter, a brother, and a person with big dreams — there is a Sean in every community. 

“He could have been any one of us, you know what I mean? We think about that all the time,” said Anthony Jimenez. “Murals are a vessel to story tell and they’ve always been political. This is the heart of what being a muralist is. That’s what this mural is doing. It’s carrying on that legacy and that message of educating people about Sean Monterrosa.”

There’s one of us going to school, trying their best to make a living, seizing any opportunity they have to create something real for themselves. Monterrosa was resourceful and smart, it was young Monterrosa who encouraged his mother to learn about her rights as an immigrant living in San Francisco.

Monterrosa is not just a number inside a government database catalog, another young brown man murdered by the police force. No, the story is — Argentinian-Salvadoran Sean Monterrosa, better known as Tucan, is being mourned. Tucan’s legacy of building with community is celebrated. Monterrosa used his voice to help his family, his art a joyous exploration of flight, and his drive to help young people is still vibrating through the lives he helped change. When Tonn hid behind his police car window, Monterrosa lived in the light, he deserves justice and rest and his family deserves peace of mind.

The sound of the morning birdsong is so strong it wakes us from sleep, calls us back to living, and it reminds us of what is sacred. Together, artists Josué Rojas, Angel Velazquez, and Anthony Jimenez mourn a voice that was one of their own. Danzantes came and gave a blessing and if the Mission’s iconic murals were a forest, on this branch is the life and legacy of Sean Monterrosa. A tucan transcends and with a beak formed from rainbows to deliver messages, Tucan can now fly home, reminding us when we mourn we create.