On Sunday, 8-year-old Phenix Smith and her mother braved the hour-plus drive from Marin County to San Francisco’s Mission District to revel in the weekend festivities of the city’s 40th annual Carnaval San Francisco. Luckily, the commute proved worthwhile — when asked about her favorite part of the festivities, Smith shrugged, grinning. “I can’t choose one,” she decided. “I love all of them!”
Smith’s enthusiasm resonated further than individual enjoyment — such voluntary participation in Carnaval San Francisco has proven essential to the event’s survival since its conception in the late 1970s. Forty years ago, inspired by carnavals witnessed in her hometown of Colón, Panama, samba instructor Adela Chu worked with drummer Marcus Gordon, costume designer Pam Minor and poet Elaine Cohen to unite San Francisco artists and performers in an organized carnaval. “Carnaval was here to stay because the people of San Francisco had massively decided that this was the case,” explained official event photographer Lou DeMatteis of the city’s first carnaval, speaking to the communal effort behind the event.
In 2018, Carnaval San Francisco has not lost its flair. Throughout the weekend, in addition to a Grand Parade, attendees enjoyed eight blocks of colorful array, representing a vast assortment of groups — vendors selling handmade goods and fresh food, nonprofit groups offering well-being services, city officials promoting their services, and more — as well as public performances. Many of such groups hail from San Francisco, with a sizable portion based in the Mission District itself, and aim to advocate for and support locals. El/La Para TransLatinas, for instance, made an appearance, with program director Jessy D’ Santos offering passers-by a chance to learn about the group’s services at its 16th Street center and its advocacy for translatina rights.
While the street booths and performances offered visitors a more laid-back and interactive carnaval experience, the most visible, and audible, portion of the weekend festivities proved to be Sunday’s Grand Parade down Mission Street. The parade featured a lineup of over 80 groups, which represented an impressively wide range of cultures, including traditions from Mexico, Central America (including El Salvador, Guatemala, Panamá, Nicaragua), the Caribbean (including Puerto Rico), South America (including Brazil, Perú, Colombia, Bolivia), native peoples (including Aztec, American Indian, Maya), Samoa and the Philippines. Many performers donned bright, intricate outfits, filling the streets with vibrant blasts of color as the dancers shook, shimmied, leaped, swung and sidestepped through the blocks.
Onlookers revelled not only in the sheer beauty of the parade, but also in the cultural visibility it afforded. “I just love to see the different types of cultures that we have in San Francisco,” stated Arialis Zubia, a Mexican and Salvadorian San Francisco native. Katie Porter, who lives in the Mission District and who came to see her friend perform in the parade, mirrored Zubia’s sentiment: “It’s just a great way to see people enjoying their dancing and their art,” she said. “(It’s) pride for a lot of different cultures.”
Such an appreciation proved evident in the judges’ booth as well as on the streets. “For me, mostly, I look to see if they have that carnaval spirit, and each culture has a different way of portraying that,” explained Grand Parade judge Blanche Brown.
Though in some ways a lighthearted and joyful event, the tradition of carnaval represents more than a celebration of diversity — the festivities and parade also serve as a voice of resistance in the face of such culturally oppressive forces as gentrification in San Francisco, especially in the Mission District. Clad in glimmering golds, reds and oranges, parade dancers Bascia Lassus and Anna Knox spoke to the sobering forces against which San Francisco Carnaval pushes. “I lived in the Mission for twelve years. I don’t anymore. The rents have gotten so high. The people that are part of the neighborhood can’t be there anymore,” Lassus noted. Participating in the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts dance group during the parade has allowed Lassus and Knox to engage with the culture of the neighborhood in spite of rising rents.
Similarly, the Ohlone Sisters from the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel Tribe used their booth at carnaval to remind festival onlookers of the perseverance of the Ohlone peoples in the face of colonization and genocide. “We’re just showing our presence to show that we are still here and that we still thrive,” stated Rumsen Ohlone Carla Marie Munoz. The Ohlone Sisters also performed the opening ceremony for Saturday morning, which Munoz described as a “land acknowledgement of the first peoples that were here.”
Nonetheless, in spite of the challenges faced by so many participating in the carnaval festivities, event attendees could be seen with smiles on their faces throughout the weekend. Carmelita Lozano, a resident of the Mission District, said she’s been coming to Carnaval San Francisco for years; like Smith, she couldn’t choose one favorite aspect of the celebration. “Favorite part? All of it!” she smiled, “You can’t go wrong with this. It’s free and it’s beautiful.”