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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.