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GentrifIcation and La Miguelito Ericka Li

How does Sean San Jose convey that gentrification is killing America?

Abstract

Who Shot La Miguelito tells mirrored stories of deaths in a community. One death is that of La Miguelito, a young, queer, nonbinary Latinx tagger. The other death is that of a building which acts as a sort of cultural landmark for the community. The play never names La Miguelito’s killer, but suggests that the same killer took both La Miguelito and the building. I intend to analyze the effect of placing these stories in parallel. The mirrored storylines focus on minority communities, cultural differences, identity, and gentrification. I intend to analyze how each of the elements focused on in the storyline create a version of America suitable for San Jose’s specific narrative and how that influences his message. Through this analysis, I will argue that America is being destroyed by gentrification. Gentrification killed La Miguelito and is killing diverse cities and cultures.

Essay

La Miguelito takes center stage. “‘Who shot La Miguelito,’” they say, mimicking the cries of their community, verbalizing the question in the audience’s mind. “I can tell you,” they say, “but you should figure it out for your own self.” Who Shot La Miguelito, written and directed by Sean San Jose, is constructed to allow the audience to do just that. Two stories are told in parallel: one is about La Miguelito and their death. The other is about a local building full of cultural history that is in danger of being sold to developers who intend to tear it down and replace it with whatever will help them make the most money. The story of the building conveys how cities become gentrified and the story of La Miguelito and their community describes the repercussions. By telling these stories together, San Jose constructs a narrative to demonstrate how gentrification is killing America.

La Miguelito’s storyline presents a definition of San Jose’s ideal America. This America lay its foundation in diversity and built unity. La Miguelito’s community in the San Francisco Mission District is made up of a diverse group of people. Because this production was directed by the playwright, characters could be adjusted based on the identities of the actors. The play works to highlight these identities: at one point, the actors announce their ethnicities. Lines are spoken in various languages - Lolito, played by a Latino actor, speaks lines in Spanish. Eklectic, played by a Filipino actress, speaks lines in Tagalog.

Left: Janette Bow-Keola as La Virgen, a Hawaiian spin on the traditional imagery, honoring Bow-Keola's heritage (Photo by Ben Dillon); Right:La Virgen de Guadalupe, Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City (Public Domain Photo)

La Virgen de Guadalupe is a religious figure with a well known look consisting of a plain dress and a simple blue veil. In the play, La Virgen is played by a Hawaiian actress, so not only does she have the iconic blue veil, but she also has an elaborate headdress made of hawaiian plants. The diversity of the cast allows the play to simultaneously highlight the diversity of the fictionalized Mission District and a real community in a way that is not forced but genuine and natural.

This community represents American diversity on a broad spectrum. In this community, people of all different backgrounds have come together and become unified while still celebrating their differences. They are literally unified, as the characters in the Mission District come together to form one chorus, the Coro Crewe. They stand together and they lift up each others voices so they can tell their stories together. In this photo by Ben Dillon, Eklectic delivers a monologue. Behind her stands the Coro Crewe, echoing her words.

In reality, diversity exists, and the heart of the country lies in diverse communities coming together and appreciating each other’s differences. However, America has become a melting pot in which diversity is not celebrated. People are expected to shed all their former identities to just be American. People of color are expected to assimilate by losing their own languages and conform to western trends. Even white people lose their identities, but for them the loss of individuality is an act of power and oppression. As James Baldwin argues, there is no “white community,” and “the people who, as they claim, ‘settled’ the country became white” in order to “deny” the presence of people of color, specifically black people. San Jose introduces this reality in which the privileged take advantage of their power to oppress people of color and suppress diversity and “other” cultures through the gentrification storyline, which hurts the community he has presented as the ideal America.

The storyline about the building is an explicit narrative about gentrification. It highlights the influence those with power have over diverse minority communities. Merriam Webster defines gentrification as “the process of repairing and rebuilding homes and businesses in a deteriorating area (such as an urban neighborhood) accompanied by an influx of middle-class or affluent people that often results in the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” In the 1900’s, the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation instituted a neighborhood ranking system that became the basis for redlining, a process which promoted housing discrimination by making it difficult for people in certain areas to become homeowners (Nelson). The repercussions of this system are still felt today, as poorer neighborhoods that are targets of gentrification are often cultural hotspots full of people of color who, because of a lack of government support, cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Behind, a map of "redlining" in San Francisco; Green areas had the highest rankings while red had the lowest (Photo

Some argue that gentrification is beneficial; it brings jobs, makes neighborhoods safer, and often changes architecture to be more modern and appealing. However, mass gentrification has taken a corporate, capitalist turn and therefore become more aggressive. This gentrification “sanitizes;” it pushes out poor, working, and middle class people and erases their art, resulting in the displacement of people and loss of cultures (Moss). The gentrification in the play is headed by developers, who plan to turn the building into something trendy and appealing to the affluent young “techies” populating the Bay Area. The building they plan to buy has been in one family for generations. Vuong, a Vietnamese immigrant, and his wife LiliAna, an Afro-Latinx woman, created LiliAna Manufacturers, based in that building. Their granddaughter, Nina, sells the building to make money and leave the Mission District.

Promotional material for the production depicting the mural of La Virgen in front of which La Miguelito was shot, along with an added image of La Miguelito not included in the play (Created by Ben Dillon)

The loss of the building is a massive cultural loss not only because of the historical significance, but because of its connection to La Miguelito: on its wall is a mural painted by La Miguelito’s mother, an iconic tagger in the District known for her murals depicting La Virgen. La Miguelito was shot in front of this mural as they prepared to paint their own, so their memorial is in front of the building. The developers hold the power in this situation because they are the ones with money. Money is their influence, and with their influence, they contribute to the erasure of the culture of the Mission District.

La Miguelito is more than a kid who got shot; they are a symbol. La Miguelito is presented in this play as the figurehead of their community, the unifying factor. La Miguelito is San Jose’s ideal America. As an individual, they represent multiple minority communities. They are Latinx, queer, nonbinary, and a person of color. It is more than their inherent diversity that allows them to be a symbol of America. They are young and full of hope and potential, rising in status and becoming a tagger to rival their mother (pictured to the left in a photo by Ben Dillon), just as America is a relatively young country which quickly rose in status and still carries the hopes and dreams of many who view it as a land of opportunity. La Miguelito’s connection to the building due to the location of their death also makes them a symbol of communities ruined by gentrification.

San Jose constructs his argument through narrative structure. The death of the building represents the “before” and “during” of gentrification. The “before” in this situation, what led to the gentrification of the building, is the building’s history. It is also the oppressive redlining system that led to the deterioration of the District, fueling Nina’s need to leave. The “during” is the sale of the building, as that is when the building is being gentrified. La Miguelito’s death is also the “during” of gentrification. While literally one person’s death does not qualify as gentrification, the loss of La Miguelito is a loss of art and culture because of their status as a tagger. The “after” of gentrification is La Miguelito’s community staying unified but also struggling to cope with the loss. Because La Miguelito represents an ideal America, one could adjust this structure so that the “during,” what gentrification is doing, is the killing of what America should be - diversity, community, art, and culture.

Who Shot La Miguelito tells the story of gentrification. Communities are lost when those with power value financial gain over humanity, art, and culture. This happens because these communities were built through oppression and inequality. As American capitalism continues to push extremes and income inequality increases, the motivation for gentrification increases (“Income Inequality”). Those in power continue to gain, while those without continue to lose. This play is an argument against gentrification. Sanitizing neighborhoods comes at a cost. By losing the art and culture of gentrified neighborhoods, we lose the heart of America.

Bibliography

  • Baldwin, James. “On Being White… and Other Lies.” Essence, April 1984.
  • Feinberg, Ashley. “Watch San Francisco's Rapid Gentrification Unfold on Google Street View.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo, 23 June 2014, https://gizmodo.com/watch-san-franciscos-rapid-gentrification-unfold-on-goo-1588019056.
  • “gentrification.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2019. Web. 15 November 2019.
  • Green, Matthew. “How Government Redlining Maps Pushed Segregation in California Cities [Interactive].” KQED, 13 July 2018, https://www.kqed.org/lowdown/18486/redlining.
  • “Income Inequality.” Inequality.org, https://inequality.org/facts/income-inequality/.
  • Moss, Jeremiah, et al. “The Pros and Cons of Gentrification.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 April 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/04/13/the-pros-and-cons-of-gentrification.
  • Nelson, Robert K, et al. “Mapping Inequality.” Digital Scholarship Lab, American Panorama, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/39.1/-94.58.