Viator on Cordova, 'The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco'

Cary Cordova
Felicia A. Viator

Cary Cordova. The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017. Illustrations. 336 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4930-9.

Reviewed by Felicia A. Viator (San Francisco State University) Published on H-California (October, 2018) Commissioned by Khal Schneider

Printable Version:

In a recent feature in Boom California exploring the impact of gentrification on the predominantly Latino residents of San Francisco’s Mission District, Lori A. Flores noted something poignant. She observed that “defending murals has become shorthand for defending Latino presence, diversity, and deep history in the Mission” against “what feels like cultural warfare and erasure.”[1] Cary Cordova’s wonderful new book The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco helps us understand why. By narrating the evolution of a cultural and political movement that spanned half a century of San Francisco history, Cordova’s work illustrates precisely what is at stake for San Francisco’s Latino community today.

Using oral histories, local and national archives, visual culture, and secondary works, The Heart of the Mission details the flowering of San Francisco’s oft-ignored Latino arts movement. Cordova begins with the post-World War II years, when art, music, and political experimentation churned inside the nightclubs and cafés of the city’s ethnically mixed “Latin Quarter” (now, North Beach). Here, the author explores the economic forces roiling this uniquely diverse section of the city in the 1950s, including rising rents and the expansion of Chinatown, and she examines the experiences of Latino artists frustrated with the contours of an emerging Beat movement. As Cordova suggests, there is much more for us to understand about this storied era of San Francisco’s bohemian past, particularly about its connection to a Latino cultural renaissance in the Mission District. In other words, the first chapters of The Heart of the Mission demonstrate, first, why it is a mistake to assume that the “cresting wave of radical energy” in San Francisco’s beatnik enclaves was generated by white men alone (p. 48), and, second, why it is insufficient to imagine that the artistic and social movements marking the Mission in the 1960s materialized in a vacuum. In this way, alone, Cordova’s book is a necessary contribution to the literature that places California at the center of postwar American radicalism.

Throughout the rest of The Heart of the Mission, Cordova plots the growth of the Mission from the 1960s to the Ronald Reagan era. She presents intimate portraits of artists, activists, organizations, and art pieces, weaving together, for instance, anecdotes about sculptor Ernie Palomino, Third World strike activist and painter Yolanda López, the Mission Cultural Center, and the Homage to Sigueiros mural painted inside the Bank of America building at Mission and 23rd Streets. The result is an analysis of a complex, multiethnic, multinational, multigenerational, and ideologically varied Latino arts movement that sought to engage meaningfully with local, national, and global events. Cordova successfully demonstrates that the Mission District was more than a place of cultural expression; it was a space where art intersected with the civil rights movement, student protests, war and revolution abroad, and local responses to urban redevelopment. Throughout the late twentieth century, the Mission was a dynamic cultural landscape in which, Cordova writes, “Latino activists and artists could mobilize as a community and organize for and against issues that impacted that community” (p. 11).

Chapter 8, the book’s final chapter, and perhaps its most provocative, reconsiders the place of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in the history of San Francisco activism, placing the ofrenda (offering) right at the center of the AIDS crisis. Here, Cordova narrates the way Latino artists and then, eventually, gay rights activists harnessed a set of intimate mourning rituals “to speak out against social systems that allowed, facilitated, or produced death” (p. 208). The arc of the story here is fairly clear until the end of the chapter when the author hints at resistance from within the Mission to the appropriation of Día de los Muertos themes by gay activists and event organizers in the city’s Castro District, a move exemplified in the decision by the Galería de la Raza in 1993 to withdraw from organizing San Francisco’s Día de los Muertos procession. In describing the gallery’s position, Cordova quotes director Liz Lerma, who explained, “Rather than put all our energy in producing this parade we want something that will attract more families, seniors and children” (p. 231). Cordova attributes this move away from collaborating with gay activists and event organizers to the commodification and watering down of a tradition considered sacred to the Latino community. The author misses an important opportunity here to consider what other tensions—perhaps related to sexuality and Catholicism—may have contributed to this resistance. Such an examination might have also helped the author complicate what she acknowledges are broad generalizations about the leftist politics of Latino artist communities in the Mission District.

Cordova also explores the perpetual marginalization of Latino artists from mainstream art criticism through the 1980s, particularly with reference to Latino installation artists and Día de los Muertos works. The author relies almost exclusively on artists’ oral histories to interrogate this problem of representation and, in the worst cases, erasure. An examination of the landscape of art criticism at the time, particularly in prominent San Francisco journals like Artweek or in the writing of the San Francisco Chronicle’s once powerful critic Kenneth Baker, would have given dimension to this part of the story. It is, indeed, a bit surprising that an otherwise painstakingly researched book about San Francisco art does not pay much attention to the art press.

These minor complaints aside, Cordova tells a deeply compelling story about social and cultural transformation in the Mission District in the twentieth century. Her book is worth reading for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that The Heart of the Mission fills important gaps in popular narratives about the history of California, San Francisco, sixties radicalism, the lineage of Latino creative culture in America, and even postmodernism. Students of history, art, politics, and philosophy are sure to find enlightenment in these pages. For me, a Bay Area native like Cordova and a current resident of San Francisco, the book is a powerful testimony to the historical influence of San Francisco’s Latino artists and activists on the culture of the city. And, crucially, it contextualizes the dramatic changes currently sweeping through the heart of the Mission and the fights that are being waged to stop them.


[1]. Lori A. Flores, “Seeing through Murals: The Future of Latino San Francisco,” Boom California, March 6, 2017.

Citation: Felicia A. Viator. Review of Cordova, Cary, The Heart of the Mission: Latino Art and Politics in San Francisco. H-California, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.