| A Local Latino Tradition: An Ongoing Struggle
By Jonathan Farrell Dec 29, 2008
The holiday season is a time of traditions and gathering. December 12 marks an important tradition for the Latino community.
Virgin of Guadalupe
The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe pulls people together. Among those sharing in this long-honored tradition is Florine Konkle who savors the precious moments to celebrate among family and friends. Konkle grew up in the Mission and cherishes the rich culture.
A celebration at Mission Dolores Basilica for the feast day usually begins before dawn with Mañanitas followed by a Solemn Mass. Previous celebrations in years past have attracted thousands to the Mission.
Yet on Dec. 12 Konkle attends Mass outside the Mission District for the celebration at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church at the foot of Russian Hill in North Beach.
“Many people don’t know that at the time the church was built North Beach was also home to Mexican-American and Latino people,” said Konkle. “This is why the church was built.
Officially noted as Landmark 204 Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe Church) was built in 1912.
“North Beach area was not just the Italians,” she added. Konkle is enamored with San Francisco and its history, especially little known history.
Located on Broadway Street between Mason and Taylor Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe had once been a thriving parish. Despite its historical landmark status, during the past decade the Archdiocese of San Francisco included Our Lady of Guadalupe on its list of church closings.
The loss of this little church has not kept away the faithful who still gather annually. On the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the entire Mexican-Latino community here in the city and all over the world unites in solidarity becoming somewhat enraptured by the phenomenon of the miraculous image which appeared centuries ago to a Mexico City Aztec named Juan Diego.
For mysterious reasons still pondered today by theologian and historian alike, the image that impressed itself upon Diego’s cactus-fiber cloak continues to console, inspire and affirm the people. With the passage of time, nevertheless, and the fractions and divisions within Mexican-Latino culture, it endures.
Images of Our Lady of Guadalupe can be seen in the Mission not only in the churches but also among the murals like the one by artist Patricia Rose in Balmy Alley.
Perhaps because the image of the Lady liberates a people often beset by oppression and misunderstanding. The Catholic Church, which lords over this image, has been baffled by it and its deep connection to the people.
And so it is even here in San Francisco, regardless of the closing of the little church atop Russian Hill by church officials, the devout still gather.
The tradition of the feast on Dec. 12 carries on because the people share its meaning and deep symbolism which according to Konkle, will not be forgotten entirely.
Rain or shine, every Dec. 12, the little church constructed of reinforced concrete is filled beyond capacity. It is now used for secular purposes. But the altar/sanctuary is still intact. Similar to the celebrations at Mission Dolores, “You have to get their early. Because it fills up fast and Mass begins pretty much on time at 7 a.m.,” exclaimed Konkle.
The sound of mariachi music is in the air and the Mass is transformed from the usual liturgy of recitations and formula prayers to jubilation. Konkle described the experience as an ecstatic out-pouring of celebrating in both Spanish and English.
Konkle sees the annual Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe as another way for her to connect to her Mexican/Latino ancestry. “I am a San Franciscan, the Mission District is where I grew up and when I attend Mass here at this little church, I feel a connection,” she said.
Konkle whose maiden name was Sanchez confided that she has distant childhood recollections of her parents’ migration from Colorado to California.
They were fleeing from years of prejudice and discrimination in Colorado. She was surprised to learn that she was not alone in this recollection as Tim Vigil also spoke of his parents making the same journey.
Vigil grew up across the Bay in San Leandro, but lives and works in the city. Like Konkle, Christmastime for him is also full of traditions with family. Every year his family gathers for tamales on Christmas Eve. Our Lady of Guadalupe is an image he knows well.
At family gatherings, everyone visits and relatives recollect. Vigil said that both his parents often talked about their experiences.
Back in the 1930’sVigil’s parents Eliseo and Adeline had just gotten married in their home- town of Durango, Colorado.
“Even though my parents had been born and raised there and had relatives that lived there for generations, the prejudice they faced was constant,” said Vigil. “My father had enough,” he said.
Vigil said that his father Eliseo described a society were lines were drawn between the “Anglos” and the non-Anglos. Equality and justice for all was a dream non-existent.
Assistant Professor at Hamline University of School of Law in St. Paul Minnesota, Tom Romero, PhD, verified the accounts of Vigil and Konkle.
“I've heard stories like these as well,” said Romero in his reply to the Mission Dispatch. In 2002 he documented some of the accounts in an article he wrote for the University of Colorado Law Review entitled “Uncertain Waters and Contested Lands.”
“I place these stories in context of a particular amount of racial animus directed at the Latino community spearheaded by a Colorado Governor named Edwin Carl Johnson and other Colorado politicians in the 1930s,” said Romero.
He noted that the state of New Mexico and surrounding areas like Texas were also affected by this prejudice. Through his research Romero discovered that, during the Great Depression, Latinos became as scapegoats for deepening (if not causing) the financial crises of various localities during this time. (Does this not sound familiar to immigration and labor issues of today?)
In one celebrated instance Romero cites, Governor Johnson dispatched the National Guard to the border between Colorado and New Mexico to prevent “aliens” from coming into the state and joining the “welfare” rolls.
“This dragnet, not surprisingly ensnared Colorado Latinos,” said Romero. “As well as those throughout the USA,” he added. “And in many cases, these American citizens found themselves falsely under arrest,” said Romero.
Governor Johnson or “big Ed” as he was often called served in the gubernatorial seat for three terms. His power then expanded to three terms in the US Senate. During his tenure in the political spotlight he advocated isolationism and was opposed to the United States getting involved in foreign affairs such as the NATO agreement after WWII.
With his isolationist view apparently he was not able to show much empathy to the non-Anglo population. Oddly, he himself was not native to Colorado but had migrated to the-Rocky-Mountain state to cure his bout with tuberculosis.
Despite the hardship his deportation tactics caused, according to the Colorado State archives his policies and programs had few detractors. Johnson’s political record still stands prominent in the state’s history.
“Colorado had a variety of state and local policies that were viewed as anti-Mexican,” said UC Davis School of Law Kevin R. Johnson (who’s last name has no relation to the late governor). He serves as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and teaches Public Interest Law and Chicano Studies. “Such policies led to mass migrations out of the state,” he added.
And so, seeking refuge from the decades of prejudice the then newlywed Mr. and Mrs. Eliseo Vigil packed up their car and drove to San Francisco.
“My dad wanted so much to get to California as fast as possible that he drove through the night falling asleep a few times at the wheel,” recounted Vigil.
Vigil and his nine other siblings heard such retellings of his parents’ past many times growing up in San Leandro.
Adeline now widowed still lives in the three-bedroom house that she and Eliseo purchased in 1939. They raised 10 children in that one house. All 10 children went off to college and lead productive lives. Vigil is paralegal administrator at a prominent SF law firm.
Vigil mentioned that while his parents maintained many of the Mexican/Latino traditions for holidays, it was made very clear to the Vigil children that English was their primary language.
“My parents spoke in Spanish a lot to each other but discouraged us from speaking it. They wanted us to be American,” said Vigil. He speculated that the memory of discrimination in Durango continued to haunt his parents and so “they feared if we kids spoke Spanish we would also experience discrimination,” said Vigil.
More than sixty years have passed since families like the Vigil’s, the Sanchez’ and many others migrated to California, a land that had once been part of Mexico.
Yet such discrimination and narrow-minded points of view in policy like that of Governor “Big Ed” Johnson still proliferates.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service of the US Government as well as other groups continue to campaign negatively aimed at the migrant worker population nationwide.
News reports still fill the airwaves. The debate about the fate and status of “the migrant worker” is a much-talked-about topic throughout the nation.
Yet everyday citizens, local native San Franciscans, such as Vigil, Konkle and others know very well how fragile democracy is and that discrimination is a detriment to it. Something for us all to ponder as we exercised our right this past Nov. 4, and look forward to a New Year filled with uncertainty.
For details about this year’s celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe at Mission Dolores Basilica call: 621-8203 or visit: http://www.missiondolores.org/
For more information about the Colorado migration to California in the 1930s and Professor Tom Romero’s work visit: http://www.colorado.edu/Law/lawreview/issues/authors/v73-2.html
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