Covert Racial Displacement as Shown Through Performance By Diego Piceno


Watching Who Shot La Miguelito was incredibly enjoyable as someone from Oakland, CA which is just across The Bay from San Francisco. The play tells a story of gentrification in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and this essay discusses that story and how it’s performed. America is performed in this play through racist gentrification in a modern and cultural and economic based iteration of Westward Expansion. This is shown through the characters Yip and Yap, and their interactions with other characters. I also discuss the anti-gentrification movements in San Francisco and how the concerns of the Mission residents reflect the threat of a modern Westward Expansion that Yip and Yap pose to the people of Mission.

How do Who Shot La Miguelito’s Yip and Yap expose modernized racism in America through an ongoing racially covert iteration of Manifest Destiny?

To understand my argument that racism in America is performed through the representation of gentrification, it is important to start with the object of study, which is the play Who Shot La Miguelito, written and directed by Sean San José. I am specifically looking at how gentrification is shown in this play through its events, dialogues, and other extensions of Yip and Yap, who are characters that represent gentrifiers with the Mission as their next target. The play tells the story of the death of La Miguelito, who is a non-binary Latinx spray-artist who is shot and killed. The story then moves to the characters who are their friends and family, and their struggle with faith, gentrification, and loss.

Who shot La Miguelito takes place in San Francisco’s Mission District. The Bart map is very symbolic in the Bay Area, and helps show where everything is in relation to the rest of the Bay Area. Mission is labeled on the left part of the map, in San Francisco.

Here is an image of Yap (on the left), one hald of "los dos developers." She is wearing a suit and a glossy blue fanny pack. (Image courtesy of Ben Dillon)

Who Shot La Miguelito has a unique group of characters that tell a lot about San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area through many narratives and stories within this single play. The most important detail that I will discuss is the relationship between the main characters who were friends of Miguelito (which are all people of color), and the two people (who represent wealthy white gentrifiers) who show up to try to buy a building. The building, in this setting, is in the middle of the Tenderloin which is a very clearly gentrified region in San Francisco where one can see the very clear divide between the poor and wealthy communities. I was able to visit this area myself in preparation for understanding the setting of the play better.

An image of the TenderLoin district in San Francisco. This is one of the most quintessential areas that showcase the effects of gentrification. The transition from a poor area to one that was occupied by rich white people is very sudden and clear here. (Photo by Jim Wilson of the New York Times)

Seeing the Tenderloin first hand is very surreal. San Francisco has changed heavily with the surge of tech companies and has become somewhat of a hub for the tech industry. Being able to see an area that has survived this wave of gentrification provides an important perspective and piece of information in discussing how Yip and Yap trying to buy this building and raise property value (which of course they do without any consideration for the people of their area, nor their culture) is a representation of a common real-life occurrence within San Francisco and Oakland. It is made clear in the play that there is a large disconnect between Yip and Yap and the characters of color, and that is an important detail in the argument I am making, along with their similarities and differences with other displacements in history.

The image shows the percent increase in median sales price per square feet from 2003 to 2013.This 10 year gap saw roughly an over 40% increase in property value in the Mission District at the hand of gentrification. The median wage of the people who lived in Mission in 2003 likely did not increase 40% in 10 years implying that they were displaced. (Credits: Property Shark)

The image provides data that tells how severe the situation especially in Mission is, which is a central detail in the story of Yip and Yap buying the building from Nina. Noktolonel describes this crisis' impact on her by saying "raised here but can’t afford it." The kind of displacement displayed in the play that of a modernized version of Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny. Yip and Yap represent the population/culture that they see is bound to take over areas like the Mission in Who Shot La Miguelito.

"And that claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of..." -John Louis O'Sullivan, 1845

The quote behind the coining of the term 'Manifest Destiny' itself gives us a description of Yip and Yap. Though I am not sure if by intention or mere coincidence, the names of these two characters parallel the god-given responsibility to conquer—or as Sullivan calls it, develop. Yip and Yap are called "Los Dos Developers" which serves as a reference to Sullivan's infamous quote on Manifest Destiny. It is also important to notice that "los dos" prefixes the word developers, "los dos" being "the two" in Spanish, which is a commonly spoken language in the Latinx community. This implies that the name was given by the other characters of the play. This furthers helps draw the connection between the threat of displacement Nina and the others face at the hands of "los dos developers" and the threat Native Americans faced at the hands of white settlers.

America is performed in this play through its depiction of the racism that is at the root of gentrification. This racism has been shifted from being more overt as to have actions justified by race, to a more covert operation where different factors are used as justification. This is, however, a matter of race just as Manifest Destiny was almost 200 years ago. The new justifications used by Yip and Yap were the cultural disconnect between them and the characters, and their belief that the cultural genocide in the Mission was inevitable.

Pictured here is Mission District which is looks very different from the more tech-heavy areas of San Francisco. This area is a remnant of san francisco culture pre-gentrification. (Credit: User In between lattes blog on pinterest)

There are many ways in which the disparity between "los dos developers" and the characters who live in the mission are shown. One of the main ways is through interactions between Yip and Yap, and other characters in the play between transitions in scenes.

“La Virgen” is comforting “Noktolonel” who’s played by Anna Sharp. This image shows the representation of La Virgen as being comforting and being a symbol of hope even in the darkest times. Noktolel is being comforted after her dear friend La Miguelito is shot and killed. (UC Berkeley photo by Ben Dillon)

The images of Noktolel and Yap show the great difference between the “investors” (who are silly caricatures that represent heartless gentrifiers) and people in the areas their actions are affecting. When Yip and Yap have to pass by them to go somewhere, they are very intimidated and shaken by them. A premium example is when they run into Nok and cower in fear, Nok being an incredibly tough and passionate black woman, an OG, one that inspires fear on those that threaten her. This interaction is described in the script when Sean San José writes "Nok approaches, Los Dos Developers grab their stuff and break out," and Nok then yells at them "Why you running? Thought you was paying your respects."

We also see the disconnect between Yip and Yap and the other characters from the Mission in their conversation with Nina, in an effort to convince her to sell the building. Yip and Yap offer to take her out to talk business. Yip and Yap, in unison, say "Lunch? And drinks? Nice little art cafe around the way, nearby." This line accentuates the disconnect between Yip and Yap and the area they are trying to make a profit out of. Mission isn't a place for art cafes; that is not of the culture of the diverse ethnic people of Mission. That is a landmark and manifestation of gentrification. The whole crew later says "Your little art cafe spotty is on the other side the block. Ain’t no restaurant up round here- not inside here. Oh this fool ain’t even trying to see us- no no." They then say two very powerful lines "You don’t see this. You don’t see us." Yip and Yap, though portrayed in this play as silly and funny, are representations of heartless gentrifiers and examples of how racism in America is performed through gentrification. This also serves as a representation of cultural difference and ignorance being used as a way to justify this heartless and savage displacement of people who have more right to the land than they do.

Above is a benner that was put on a building that tells what the people of Mission District want versus what they’re given. San Francisco is no longer an area for working-class people, and this banner is highlighting that also. (Credit: ClockworkGrue via Flickr)
This image is incredibly sad as it has a banner that reads “do not buy our home.” A similar situation can be seen in Who Shot La Miguelito when Nina wants to keep her building which was bought and kept by her grandparents and has stayed in the family, but she needs money. Yip and Yap represent the being that the banner refers to. (Photo Credit: Markus Spiering via Flickr)

The other justification for this new iteration of Manifest Destiny is "los dos developers'" apparent belief that this local cultural genocide was inevitable. The above images tell a story of what the Mission/the Tenderloin is which is important in this context. The “Do Not Buy Our Home” image especially parallels the situation between Nina and Yip and Yap, and the people of Mission and their gentrifiers. The sign about what the people of the mission want, and what they don’t want is also a main idea of the play.

What the people need from real developers is not what Yip and Yap plan to provide. Yip and Yap act partly on the belief that if not them, others would do the exact same, thus their actions do no need to be justified. They imply they are in a "don't hate the player, hate the game" situation through the way they carry themselves as mere players in a race to take over the Mission. One way they imply this is when Yap tells Yip "It’s a big fricking building. Could be a big one for us." Yip tells Yap, “Hello?! Hello: the new mini bedroom apartments, the Dog Yoga spot-- the empty parking lot is like an empty canvas, you look at it right.” The places they describe not only describe schemes that will make them money, but also represent a different culture to that which is already present in the Mission. This culture, which is one that comes with a tech industry, one that wants artsy coffee shops and "Dog Yoda" sports, is a piece of evidence that signals the death of the pre-gentrification culture, and an inevitable change in the eyes of Yip and Yap.

Here, we see people from the Mission District in San Francisco (the setting of Who Shot La Miguelito) protesting the Real Estate giants that buy property in San Francisco to make a profit through increasing the cost of apartments. This price is more suitable to wealthier people moving into San Francisco, and this greed-filled act is carried with no regard for the people already living there... The “Monsters” described in the banner are represented by the characters Yip and Yap. (Photo credit: Kevin N. Hume)

The play Who Shot La Miguelito is incredibly eye-opening for those who have are not currently aware of the threat gentrification poses to San Francisco and especially the people of the Mission. It was also surreal and heart-warming to see a diverse cast (in every aspect, ethnicity, gender, etc.) perform such a beautiful play. For a change, people of color had the chance to imitate those who oppress them and they did so in a very captivating and passionate manner.

Works Cited

Cover Image Mural by Twick ICP, Poster by Ben Dillon

Fuller, Thomas. “Life on the Dirtiest Block in San Francisco.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/08/us/san-francisco-dirtiest-street-london-breed.html.

Mihaila, Georgiana, and Georgiana Mihaila. “San Francisco Gentrification All Mapped Out: See Where Prices Went Up 51%.” PropertyShark Real Estate Blog, 28 Sept. 2017, https://www.propertyshark.com/Real-Estate-Reports/2014/03/21/san-francisco-gentrification-all-mapped-out-see-where-prices-went-up-51/.

San Jose, Sean, Who Shot La Miguelito, Berkeley, CA