Murals as performance in the sf mission "Who Shot La Miguelito?" Photo: Berkeley TDPS


The murals of Who Shot La Miguelito? and of the SF Mission are performances of a fluid and dynamic America. Just as there is no "real" America, each mural presents a performance of a different America. Investigation of this topic drew from a live viewing of Who Shot La Miguelito? and attendance of a Questions & Answers session where the playwright Sean San Jose and some of the actors discuss the play. The script of Who Shot La Miguelito? served as a useful reference for recalling scenes from the live viewing and for approaching the analysis of these scenes from different angles. Finally, news stories about murals in San Francisco provided unique perspectives on how murals perform America.


In Who Shot La Miguelito?, the murals are more than a backdrop. They are intertwined with the play's representation of the Mission and of its characters. They are vessels for the ghosts of the past, the hopes of the future, and the intergenerational clashes of past and future. The murals in Who Shot La Miguelito? are themselves a performance of a fluid and dynamic America.

How are the SF Mission's murals as they are portrayed in "Who Shot La Miguelito?" a performance of a fluid and dynamic America?

"This City Is Not For Sale". Photo: CGuttery [Atlas Obscura User]. Location: Clarion Alley, San Francisco, CA.

Noktolonel stares at one of La Miguelito's pieces, reminiscing of the brainstorming they did to create it. La Miguelito had decided the first element of the piece must be the heart. "Let’s get inside the heart through taking the color apart," said Noktolonel. "Pick a color." "Yellow," replied La Miguelito. Then "red." And finally, "green." Green brought to mind sulfur, and sulfur brought to mind gunpowder. Noktolonel is brought back to the present as she remembers the gunshots that turned La Miguelito's piece into a memorial.

Here, La Miguelito's piece is more than paint on a concrete wall. The mural is an embodiment of La Miguelito's hopeful and ambitious spirit. La Miguelito's pieces perform as veins; they are the means by which La Miguelito, the heart, pumps blood to the myriad cells that compose and sustain the Mission. The pieces are La Miguelito's voice, and as La Miguelito puts it, the pieces are about "speaking for the Barrio." In the face of the Mission's gentrification, they scream for the acknowledgement of Latinx and African-American communities that are slowly being pushed out. They perform La Miguelito's America.

Brenda Cisneros (right) as Margarita. Photo: Ben Dillon

"White it out. Last one to white out." Margarita, mother of La Miguelito and respected tag artist of the Mission, stands before one of her murals. Her hands are two fists, clutched near her heart. La Virgen de Guadalupe stares down at her. In a voice bleeding with grief and anger, Margarita tells La Virgen what she once saw in her -- "Me [La Miguelito]. I seen faith. I seen love. I seen home." Now Margarita sees fear in her eyes. She pulls a gun out of her jacket and places the barrel of the gun to her temple as the painted eyes of La Virgen continue to stare down at her. As she is about to pull the trigger, she is interrupted by a bubbly voice with hot pink highlights and a duffel bag of jewel-tone spray paints. Margarita hides as the girl, Eklectic, places her bag before La Virgen and begins pulling out spray paint bottles. When Margarita reveals herself to Eklectic, the young tag artist freezes as if she was caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Margarita and Eklectic make small talk about San Francisco weather and the mural. "The Arts Commission chose this woman to paint this, because she's held in such high regard with the Central American community, they assume taggers would have too much respect to do anything over her work." Eklectic, completely unaware that Margarita is "this woman," tells the legendary tag artist that she doesn't like La Virgen's eyes. Margartia agrees and comments that La Virgen seems to be looking down on everyone. Finally, Margarita wishes Eklectic good luck with her piece and whites out La Virgen, handing the wall over to the young tag artist.

Margarita's performance of whiting-out her very own murals of La Virgen is loaded with meaning. On one hand, the white-out is symbolic of death: immigrant, working-class families are being displaced from the Mission. The voice expressing their America is being muffled. The America that they know is being bulldozed, and they are told that it is inevitable. On the other hand, Margarita's final white-out is symbolic of rebirth: instead of forcing her last mural of La Virgen to watch her commit suicide, Margarita whites-out the mural to create a blank canvas for the hopeful young creative she sees in Eklectic. As such, the performance of whiting-out does not simply have to be a force of destruction or a force of erasure; it can lay the foundation for reform. To liken it to a recent make-belief example, the performance of removing Confederate statues is the abolition of their glorification, not their history, to build the road to a more equitable America.

"The Life of Washington" is a controversial mural in George Washington High School, San Francisco, CA, that the school board voted to cover up. It depicts scenes of Washington's slave ownership and of Native American genocide at the hands of white explorers. Some groups claim that the mural is offensive and glorifies Washington while others claim that the mural provokes a conversation about the ugly parts of U.S. history. Photo: Joe Vazquez, "Controversial George Washington Mural At San Francisco School Gets Public Viewing After Vote To Cover Up" (CBS)

Murals as protest

Protest arises from many forms. Marches. Speeches. Bus boycotts. Lunch counter sit-ins. However, murals can also perform as protest and speak as loudly as a breathing human being. They are concise and eloquent. A 200 sq. ft. wall can convey as much meaning and emotion as an hour-long speech. Across Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley, and other mural locations in the Mission, murals are protesting for their America to be acknowledged.

"Cultivating Resistance" is a piece presented by the San Francisco Poster Syndicate and Clarion Alley Mural Project. It takes grassroots activism to a literal level by depicting a sapling that must be shielded and watered by acts of activism. Photo: Christopher Statton (clarionalleymuralproject.org).

"Missionmakeover," by Tirso Araiza and Lucia Ippolito, is rife with political commentary. Above what appears to be the Supreme Court Building are three monkeys who hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil, representing injustices of the law or injustices quietly ignored by the law. At the bottom of the mural lies a homeless person as the city around him carries on with its busy day, seemingly oblivious to his plight. This image is especially relevant in San Francisco considering the city's major homeless population. "Missionmakeover" provides many more subjects of analysis and conversation. Photo: Mauricio Ramírez.

The mural "Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance," painted by Miranda Bergman and O'Brien Thiele, depicts resistance to state-sanctioned violence in Central America. Photo: Mauricio Ramírez.

The mural "Ceasefire," painted by Juana Alicia, was the product of the artist's anger over U.S. actions in Honduras. Both "Ceasefire" and "Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance" cross U.S. borders, becoming performatives (as defined by Diana Taylor) for a hemispheric America. Location: Mission and 21st Streets. Photo: Mauricio Ramírez.

"Those We Love, We Remember," painted by Edythe Boone, honors lost loved ones, some of whom were lost to the AIDS epidemic. This mural, though not necessarily a political protest piece, evokes strong emotion all the same. Location: Balmy Alley, San Francisco, CA. Photo: Jen Chien (kalw.org)

"Your racism is not patriotism." Location: Clarion Alley, San Francisco, CA. Photo: CGuttery [Atlas Obscura User].

To those crying, "we want our country back," the murals of the SF Mission reply that America is fluid and dynamic and that there is no "real" America.

Each piece performs a different America. Each piece occupies limited space on a wall and demands acknowledgement. Each piece has a unique voice. As generations pass, an old mural is whited out so that a new mural can present a different performance of America.

works cited

San Jose, Sean. Who Shot La Miguelito? UC Berkeley TDPS.

Taylor, Diana. “Remapping Genre through Performance: From ‘American’ to ‘Hemispheric’ Studies.” PMLA, vol. 122, no. 5, Oct. 2007, pp. 1416–1429.

“Clarion Alley.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 8 Apr. 2019, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/clarion-alley.

Vazquez, Joe. “Controversial George Washington Mural At San Francisco School Gets Public Viewing After Vote To Cover Up.” CBS San Francisco, CBS San Francisco, 2 Aug. 2019, https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2019/08/02/controversial-george-washington-mural-san-francisco-school-cover-up/.

McNulty, Jennifer. “Murals Tell a Story of Pan-Latino Solidarity in SF's Mission District.” UC Santa Cruz News, UC Santa Cruz, https://news.ucsc.edu/2017/08/ramirez-murals.html.

Statton, Christopher. “Cultivating Resistance.” Clarion Alley Mural Project, Clarion Alley Mural Project, 24 May 2017, https://clarionalleymuralproject.org/mural/cultivating-resistance/.

“Cease Fire/Alto Al Fuego (1988).” SF Mural Arts | Juana Alicia | Cease Fire/Alto Al Fuego, http://www.sfmuralarts.com/mural/223-421.html.

Chien, Jen. “New Documentary Celebrates San Francisco Muralist Edythe Boone.” KALW, https://www.kalw.org/post/new-documentary-celebrates-san-francisco-muralist-edythe-boone#stream/0.

“Edythe Boone.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 June 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edythe_Boone.