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Carnival San Francisco

"On February 25th, 1979, a windy, cold and rainy Sunday in San Francisco, about three hundred drummers and dancers, dressed in multifarious colors and shapes, paraded around Precita Park in the Mission District."  -

San Francisco Carnaval has roots in traditions and fiestas brought by immigrants from Brazil, Panama and the West Indies to the Bay Area in the 1970s.  In a city that welcomed artists of all kinds into its Mission District neighborhood, the fiesta became a hit, with many willing and able musicians, performers, and costume designers ready to take a role in the festivity.  Dance and music groups organized contingents within the parade, while families and children joined these groups in order to march down their neighborhood in style. Carnaval was a fiesta rooted in the Mission District's Latino culture, embracing a pan-Latino identity inclusive of all descendants of Latin America, even those who may not historically have had a large community in San Francisco. Over time, as the Carnaval grew larger yet funding for arts programs were cut at both the Federal and State level, the fiscal needs and festival sponsorships began to shape the look and feel of Carnaval.  The shifting demographics of the neighborhood also impacted who had access to the fiesta and was able to participate in the festival over time.

San Francisco's Carnaval reflects many of the challenges and tensions the Mission district neighborhood and broader city faces as a result of increasing gentrification to the area, which pushes out local families, artists, and the local businesses that had helped create and support Carnaval from its inception.  As whiter, wealthier, and more tech savvy residents continue to move into the Mission, Carnaval becomes less enjoyable and more of a nuisance to its newest residents, who eventually shape everything from the parade route to its participants.  While the parade had once marched down Harrison Street, one of the widest and easiest to navigate streets, newer residents complained that the parade was too loud, forcing it to re-route.

During San Francisco Carnaval 2016, one of the parade's most startling moments was visible the intersection of 22nd and Mission Street, where floats paraded by an empty lot in the background, which was once a large low income housing unit that had recently burnt to the ground.  Long term residents believe that slumlords are responsible for a slew of arsons in low income apartment buildings, evicting tenants in rent controlled apartments quickly and easily.  One of the Mission's oldest and most revered community organizations, Loco Bloco, continues to participate in the SF Carnaval year after year.  In 2016, they chose the theme "Throw Love into the Fire," a metaphor for the ways their organization fights back against the arsons and other efforts to displace their community.  In truth, while the neighborhood and city currently faces hyper gentrification, many long term residents of the Mission and San Francisco say that Carnaval is a symbol of community resistance and power within an increasingly contested space. 


Written by Beatriz Herrera

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