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Why Shoot La Ofrenda? The politics of claiming public space

"There it is, created. A makeshift, slowly materializing memorial." - Coro Crewe

Abstract

In this essay I quote lines that reference the ofrenda from Who Shot La Miguelito?, by Sean San José, to show what the play has to say about displacement in the United States. I look at lines from the developers, Yip and Yap, who don’t view la Miguelito’s ofrenda with respect, but rather they see it as a disruption and feel they are being inconvenienced by it. I also reference some lines from Nina and Lolito, as well as a couple articles and news reports, to help support my arguments. I found it interesting that the play wasn’t heavy in props except for the ofrenda that consisted of candles, fruits, liquor, and photographs. The blooming flowers projected at certain moments in the play act as the floral component to the ofrenda. The play doesn’t revolve around the ofrenda yet it stays present, acquiring objects until the finale, empowering it as the play progresses. I want to explore its purpose beyond commemorating la Miguelito. I believe the ofrenda marks a contested area by resisting removal and occupying public space. The developers hesitated to buy Nina’s building because it enabled the customs of the barrio and its people to dwell and remain untouched. The ofrenda also serves as an indicator that a murder took place, filling the developers with anxiety because they expect people will hesitate to invest in them or want to live there. The people in the barrio may eventually be displaced, but the ofrenda won’t. Its ability to resist displacement and dominate space makes the ofrenda a lasting and effective practice for honoring the deceased. My argument is that by demanding spectatorship, claiming public space, and resisting removal, the ofrenda and its perpetuity can be analyzed to demonstrate the tensions of displacement in the United States.

In what ways does La Miguelito's ofrenda construct space and provoke those within it?

My object of study is the ofrenda devoted to La Miguelito. An ofrenda is a personalized collection of meaningful offerings that serve to honor someone who has passed. La Miguelito’s ofrenda consisted of fruit, bottles of liquor, a framed picture of her, and candles that were all placed by those who she was close to. Not many characters directly speak about the ofrenda, but throughout the play it is used as a point of continual reunion for the community. Instead of having a backdrop and props that inform the audience of the setting, the only props that mark space are the ones used in the ofrenda. The ofrenda indicates the location where events take place. The Coro Crewe were the first to reference the ofrenda referring to it as “A makeshift, slowly materializing memorial” right after La Miguelito was killed (6). Nina,Yip, and Yap are the only characters that communicate they have mixed feelings toward the ofrenda. On top of needing to decide whether to sell her building to the developers or not, Nina is conflicted knowing that if she sells her building it will negatively impact the barrio’s ability to continue honoring La Miguelito and any other future ofrenda or murals. At the same time the ofrenda is turned into a negative symbol for business by Yip and Yap. To them the ofrenda is a threat to potential business by allowing it to thrive. They see it as cheap and worthless calling it a “hobo art instillation” (39). For this reason it also affects the value of Nina’s building. Using Who Shot La Miguelito? as my object of study I will specifically be analyzing how the ofrenda can be used to fight against gentrification by taking up space, how it is catalytic in uncovering social tensions caused by displacement, and addressing the reasons for why it is a contested object.

"Standing near the remains of a crime scene- turned into a makeshift memorial” - Nina
"RIP Dae Dae" spray painted on the side walk as part of Jonathan Bello's ofrenda. Notice the halo emanating from the text.

On May 1st, 2019, 28-year-old Jonathan Bello was shot while riding his bicycle near 22nd and Bartlett St in San Francisco’s Mission district. Later that day he died at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. Not long after his death an ofrenda in his honor amassed on the pavement within close proximity to where he was shot. Similar to La Miguelito’s ofrenda, Bello’s consisted of a build-up of votive candles with catholic imagery, bottles of liquor, and flower bouquets. Within less than 24 hours after Bello’s death an anonymous complaint was filed to 311 asking for the memorial to be cleaned up and removed (Waxmann). In their complaint they referred to the ofrenda as ‘trash’ (Loannou).

Screenshot of the automated tweet of the complaint filed to 311 on may 2nd. Notice the missing "RIP Dae Dae" graffiti.

The complaint was filed on may 2nd, but the graffiti was a later addition to the memorial. Because the graffiti was placed after the complaint, this suggests it might be a response to it. Being that graffiti is difficult and expensive to remove, costing the city over $20 million dollars a year (Bartlett), this intervention plasters the phrase into the sidewalk permanently, and as a result, the memorial as well. What might have been easy to remove, now became a burden to whoever is tasked with its erasure.

“ A grave of dollar store candles, circus posters, a hobo art installation. Who is gonna buy this?!” - Yap

This incident shows the complete disconnect and insensitivity, from an outsider, to the mourning practices of this already threatened community. It also demonstrates the impact ofrendas can have on others, whether positive or negative. To whoever filed the complaint, Bello’s ofrenda was such a disturbance that they felt they needed to request the city to eliminate it. Displacement has facilitated and empowered others to take on the role of policing cultural practices. This is evocative of Yip and Yap who both are cold characters who lack empathy towards the barrio because they see them and the ofrenda as undesirable. At one point in the play Yap refers to the ofrenda as ‘crud.’ Similarly to the person who contacted 311, they are not receptive to the ofrenda and its intent. They feel entitled to space and feel threatened by evidence of others’ cultures that don’t conform to their urban fantasy or aren’t made with them in mind. Calling the ofrenda ‘crud’ or ‘trash’ can be extended to believing those who made it are as well. Their reaction reflects their prejudice.

Project Prometo

In my research I came across another performance that has memorialization of displacement as a central theme. Project Prometeo was performed in December of 2002 and 2003 in Bogotá, Colombia. The performance involves residents from El Catrucho performing among the ruins of their neighborhood. Tens of thousands of El Catrucho residents were displaced without compensation by the mayor, Enrique Peñalosa Londoño (1998-2001), in order to ‘clean’ up this part of town and turn it into a park because it became associated with sex work, drug trade, and danger. Images of the former town were projected onto screens along with sounds associated with the town. Many paper bags were lit with candles and arranged to mark out former streets during the performance (Till 3-4).

Picture taken during the performance of Project Prometeo in Bogotá, Colombia.

Till argues that these urban renewal projects are inappropriate by not taking into account the displaced. The performance wanted to include those who were directly affected by the project to challenge the idea that they were seen as invisible to the government (Till 4). Project Prometeo functions as an embodied ofrenda by mourning the loss of the neighborhood through performance. Who Shot La Miguelito? Also shares this theme by being an allegory for the death of the Mission District. The ofrenda is not just in honor of La Migueliuto, it is in honor of the Mission District and its past inhabitants. The ofrenda, like the performers in Project Prometeo, is asserting its cultural presence in the face of citywide erasure.

Por Vida by Manuel Paul (2015) in the Mission. Burned queer Chicanx mural that had been previously defaced and retouched multiple times until it was removed (Sevilla). Notice the ofrenda beneath the now scorched gay couple.

Mural making and ofrenda placing are two cultural practices of the barrio that are presented to us in the play. Both public memorials and murals are at risk of being removed or defaced because they must occupy public space. Mural’s traditionally occupy visual and flattened pictorial space whereas ofrendas additionally take up physical space and have the potential to obstruct the flow of the public, especially when in an urban environment. Although murals tend to not interfere with our ability to navigate space they are still at risk of being defaced because of their content, as was done to Manuel Paul's Por Vida mural seen above. Placing non normative objects or images into public space will cause unease simply because the object or image is now taking up space without favoring the consideration of everyone affected. This is another factor for why the ofrenda is a contested object. The influx of people lacking sensitivity or awareness of local cultural practices will be less likely to accept them or recognize them as valid. A practice that is understood and respected by a past population is now disapproved by a rapidly changing imported population. In the case of the Por Vida mural, it is threatened by the old and new population because of its public display of queerness.

Left: San Francisco Print Collective's poster of Medusa's head (2000). Right: "ARTISTS EVICTED" stenciled onto the sidewalk on Florida Street in the Mission district (2000).

Placing an ofrenda in public is an act of devotion, memorialization, and defiance. Inserting cultural practices deemed unappealing into public space, where those who see it as unappealing are increasing in population, can be rebellious. San Francisco in the 90s saw a huge increase in housing prices and rents as there was a large incentive to move into the city because of tech businesses, this event was called the dot-com boom (Raquel 12). As a consequence of the dot-com boom, gentrification in the Mission District was amplified as well, but wasn’t seen as a problem because it was seen as a change in the right direction. Raquel calls the belief that dot-com boom was “the economic salvation of late twentieth-century capitalism … a positive and necessary byproduct of the growing Bay Area prosperity and wealth.” a mythology because this wasn’t the case for the Latinx community in the Mission District (13). Thinking of displacement as a necessary and uncontrollable consequence for progress is deceit. There is no justifiable way of calling this progress if the Latinx community is being excluded from it and burdened by it. Raquel later adds a quote by Evelyn Nieves commenting on the different types of public art that appeared, being in opposition to the dot-com boom mythos and its ramifications. These works included the words “Artists Evicted!” stenciled on sidewalks, poster that read “GENTRIFY ME!” below the head of Medusa, and graffiti on buildings that read “Dot-Com” with a slash through it. The “GENTRIFY ME!” poster was made by the San Francisco Print Collective in 2000 as part of a campaign to proliferate posters that brought attention to issues surrounding gentrification and who it negatively affected as well as a means to reclaim “public space for low income residents …” (SFPC). The ofrenda can be looked at as an assertion of cultural presence and the ownership of space like the artworks previously mentioned. The graffiti that was spray painted on the sidewalk in Bello's ofrenda uses the same tactics of these artists by permanently marking space and declaring it as theirs.

“Cause the dead don’t go away, we yeah we- we just keep going, la ofrenda stays open.” - Lolito
“Just like this memorial doesn’t just end when the candles blow out or when the sunset scavenger takes it away. The memorial starts, it doesn’t finish, does it?” - Nina

The materials used to create an ofrenda make it ephemeral, yet because the memorialization has no end it is also permanent. That is what Lolito and Nina are stating in the quotes above. Seeing an ofrenda on the sidewalk is proof of a surviving cultural practice and by extension the community from which it comes from. Getting rid of the material components and hiding the ofrenda from public view is an attempt to suppress its capacity to perform its cultural significance. Public space is a medium of the Latinx community. It's the next place available when what you produce culturally isn’t accepted into private spaces. Historically, private spaces, such as museums and galleries, were not attentive or sympathetic to Chicanx forms of artistic production (Ybarra-Frausto 56). As a result, Chicanx artists used public spaces, like “... parks, social events, or community cultural celebrations,” as their canvas and gallery to work outside “... the official cultural apparatus ...” (Ybarra-Frausto 56). Chicanx artists have had to work outside the dominant “high art” world to survive. The incident of Bello’s ofrenda and the ambivalence of La Miguelito’s ofrenda show how even the Latinx’s public space in the U.S. is being reduced and policed.

Left: An ofrenda honoring the death of 24-year-old Aldo Troncoso (Chávez). Image obtained from the Mission Local.

The ofrenda is not passive or solely decorative. There is much more embedded in it. It functions as a gauge for prejudice and inequality, depending on how it is recieved. It can tell us about displacement and cultural erasure in the Mission district by looking into how it is being used today and how it acts as a public, art intervention. The ofrenda in Who Shot La Miguelito? is a witness to gentrification and murder. The characters who interacted with it reacted in similar ways to how ofrendas and displacement are treated today. Let the ofrenda and barrio thrive!

Bibliography

Chávez, Lydia. “The Gang War That Wasn’t.” Mission Local, https://missionlocal.org/2011/04/the-gang-war-that-wasn%E2%80%99t/. Accessed Dec 2019.

Ioannou, Filipa. “A man was killed in the Mission. A day later, someone reported the memorial to 311 as 'trash.'” SFGATE, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/A-man-was-killed-in-the-Mission-A-day-later-13815466.php. Accessed Dec 2019.

Mirabal, Nancy Raquel. “Geographies of Displacement: Latina/Os, Oral History, and The Politics of Gentrification in San Francisco's Mission District.” The Public Historian, vol. 31, no. 2, 2009, pp. 7–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/tph.2009.31.2.7.

Till, Karen E. "Wounded cities: Memory-work and a place-based ethics of care." Political Geography 31.1 (2012): 3-14.

San Francisco Print Collective, http://sfprintcollective.com/mac-posters.html#

Sevilla, Mario. “LGBT ‘Por Vida’ mural in San Francisco defaced again.” KRON4, https://www.kron4.com/news/lgbt-por-vida-mural-in-san-francisco-defaced-again/. Accessed Dec 2019.

Waxmann, Laura. “City orders neighbors to remove graffiti at murder memorial.” San Francisco Examiner, https://www.sfexaminer.com/the-city/city-orders-neighbors-to-remove-graffiti-at-murder-memorial/. Accessed 13 Nov 2019.

Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. "Arte Chicano: Images of a community." Signs from the heart: California Chicano murals (1990): 54-67.

Created By
Daniel Baldauf
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