In fall 2020, as COVID-19 continued its global spread, Erina Alejo set out on foot to document San Francisco’s Mission Street. The photographer and researcher, whose pronouns are they/them, recorded what they saw on the 7.2 mile meditative walk: shuttered storefronts doubling as murals, continued gentrification, and community elders grappling with new catastrophes and older, enduring injustices.
Alejo, a third-generation renter in the city, had walked the street countless times while growing up in the Excelsior, Mission, and SoMa districts, but this trek was different. “I wanted to walk along the street where I’ve lived for most of my brief life so far — and walk along it intensely — to see, hear, feel, smell, interact, and sense it,” Alejo says. “I saw that the hardships of the small business workers and artists, half of whom are immigrants — if not all working and middle class — had only intensified since the onset of the pandemic.”
Alejo has since turned their documentation into My Ancestors Followed Me Here, commissioned as part of the Bay Area Walls exhibition. The presentation on Floor 3 features seven photographs, along with wall texts that feature excerpts from multilingual community testimonies gathered by Alejo and collaborators Vida Kuang and Lourdes Figueroa. A display case features additional mementos and grassroots organizing materials from Alejo’s collaborations with SOMA Pilipinas Filipino Cultural Heritage District and the Communities United for Health and Justice alliance at Poder SF. Viewed together, the installation is an extension of the artist’s broader practice of preserving local histories with community members. “We take ownership of our stories with simple, effective gestures,” the artist says, “like documenting the world through photography while acknowledging the medium’s origins in imperialism and colonization.”
Here, Alejo aims to preserve the histories of essential workers and muralists whose work brings life to the arterial street. Through photos we see Anh Huynh cutting hair at Yan Yan Beauty Salon in the Excelsior District. In the accompanying wall text, we learn that she immigrated from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and opened the salon twenty years ago. “I can have my own freedom when I open my own business,” Huynh told Kuang and Alejo. “I work for no one else but myself.”
Elsewhere in the gallery, we see the bustle at Discount City, in the Mission District, and JT Restaurant, in SoMa, and are introduced to people working there through an observational account and interview excerpts. “The interviews are snapshots into the quotidian moments we see framed in the photographs,” Alejo explains. “They provide deeper insight into the essential work of the people on Mission Street.”
To document the storefronts, Alejo interviewed the muralists who painted the shuttered buildings, amassing a trove of documentation about artworks that, by their nature, often elude archival treatment. The photographer’s investigation into the former site of Arik Surplus Co. at 2650 Mission Street reconnected the photographer to artist George Harry Crampton-Glassanos, who restored the building’s Ben Davis-brand sign with artist Charlie Ertola. “If you’re from SF, there is a good chance you know that these types of signs are sacred,” he told the photographer. “It was something Charlie and I did for the community—a rogue act. We did not want credit or recognition.”
Research into the exterior of 1885 Mission Street led Alejo to artist Max Marttila, who created the building’s mural of Ronnie Goodman, an unhoused Mission resident who died in 2020. “He talked a lot about growing up in the city, and, particularly, prison and how the homeless should be cared for,” Marttila recalled. Another photograph at 537 Valencia Street connected Alejo to Chris Gazaleh, whose mural decries global police brutality and features portraits of Breonna Taylor and Eyad al-Hallaq. “I literally pulled up on that wall and started painting it,” Gazaleh told Alejo. “…The woman who owned the former store hit me up and expressed appreciation for the art.”
Alejo has larger ambitions for the full transcripts of the mural histories and community testimonies, beyond the museum show that ends on September 6, 2021.
They worked with designer Jerlyn Jareunpoon-Phillips to turn the source material into a special-edition newspaper, subverting a format that has been complicit in prioritizing privileged, white perspectives in the historical record. Distributed locally, the hard copy features parts of the community conversations and additional insight from local cultural anchors Anna Lisa Escobedo and Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik. With an eye toward the future, Alejo also created a digital record (available for download below) featuring full transcripts, photographs, and added context from Alejo, Kuang, and Figueroa. They hope the multi-format approach keeps the Mission Street histories accessible and distributable.
For Alejo, the experience has also been recorded to memory. “I will continue to think of the many ways we all can continue to incorporate cultural humility in our daily lives, and collaboratively communicate across languages and cultures…” the artist says. “I will also remember all the stories of people whom I interviewed and photographed and did not get represented in this final work.”
Download the transcripts below + see “My Ancestors Followed Me Here” on Floor 3 through September 6, 2021.