Rene, you are my artistic godfather and needless to say, you are an icon; the artistic Capo of the Bay Area Chicano movement. Not only were you one of the founders of Galeria de la Raza, but you were the curator who jumpstarted the multi-cultural, multi-themed Dia de Los Muertos parade and exhibit, one of the cultural fixtures of this city. All these years later, it’s become an international celebration, and it was you who lit that flame.
You were the one who introduced Frida Kahlo’s work to the city with an exhibit at Galeria de la Raza back in 1978. Years later you followed up on that with your infamous “Frida Kahlo Look-Alike Contest.” So padrino, it seems we have you to thank for Fridamania, a trend we are still recovering from.
— Performance artist Guillermo Garcia Pena’s open letter to Rene Yañez, upon hearing that Yañez and his family were being evicted from their Mission District home, September 24, 2013
Only later, a few hours after René Yañez gave me a tour of his annual Dia de los Muertos altar exhibition, do I read my neighbor, performance artist Guillermo de la Peña’s letter to him upon the occasion of Rene’s eviction from his home of 35 years in the Mission.
Fuck the blogalogue and its focus on buses and rental prices. No one knows, no one knows, what it is to be the Capo of the Bay Area Chicano movement and your partner has cancer, and you pick that disease as the 2013 theme for the goddamn Dia de los Muertos altar exhibition you’ve been facilitating in one form or another since you brought the holiday to San Francisco and then your landlord tells you you’re evicted.
But René would want me to focus first on the exhibition that he and his son Rio created. You, AHDM4U reader, should see it. It is the remnant (I’m talking about both SomArts and the exhibition itself) of a neighborhood that, we all agree, is on its way out. Also, it will save Dia de los Muertos for you if you’re sick of seeing white people in calavera makeup. There is an AIDS memorial, an altar for victims of bullying, a mythic yellow lab rowing a boat suspended in midair, a homage to Mission cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, the people who died in the fire at the Walmart garment factory in India, chemo Barbies, papel picado, two homages to Trayvon Martin.
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“I get nervous about that dollar bill,” Yañez confides in me in front of one of the 58 altars in the atmospheric annual mega-exhibit he curates every year. The altar in question is focused on “gathering memories”, and its artist tied actual things that conjure her memories together with string. One of the things is a dollar, an iffy thing to put in front of the thousands who will visit the SomArts exhibit. “Somebody might gather it,” says René, who loves these altars’ artistic intent but is also seasoned with years of having to make sure they don’t look like hell after weeks of schoolkids and San Franciscans filtering past them.
He also worries about the cigarettes on display in the altar dedicated by SomArts’ bookkeeper to her deceased grandmother Enola D. The underage kids like them, he tells me.
I trot after him as he explains each altar, almost all of them. René knows I am not cataloguing each word he says, but it is an easier discussion than the one I want to have, about the headlines (and ick, blog comments) he caused when he went public about the fact his landlord has invoked the Ellis Act and wants him, his cancerous partner Cynthia, his son Rio, and fellow Missionite and artistic deifier of Chicanas, Yolanda Lopez, off of his property.
René shows me his son and co-curator Rio’s 3D altar, the piece that greets visitors when they enter through the back of the two doors that lead to the altars. I ask which of the two of them started doing 3D work first. He says himself, but alludes to the fact they inspire each other. Rio’s work, done in collaboration with Stan Heller (who a SomArts staff member whispers, is also having trouble with his lease. I don’t pry further), is so clean. I imagine Rio and René smoke hella joints together and look at their transcendent appropriations of 1950s cinema tricks.
We have to be careful about talking loudly because a blonde TV anchorwoman is being shot in the middle of the exhibit, narrating interludes of some unknown TV news special in that ubiquitous intonation all TV news anchors have. She hits and misses her lines intermittently.
René shows me the mural he himself created. It was meant to be a wall of clocks, he said, but then his compadre Jose Montaya died 12 days ago and he trashed his plans in order to make it about Jose. He describes nearly every drawing he’s pinned to the wall that Jose, founder of the Latino gang of poets, muralists, silkscreeners called the Royal Chicano Air Force, penned. Some are on napkins. Due to aforementioned hordes of exhibition visitors, René only puts a joint on the altar’s main shelf when he passes by it and the exhibition is closed to the public.
“It really hurt, so.” So he made the altar about Jose.
I’ve been to the SomArts’ exhibition before, and I’ve interviewed René in its midst before, but the celebration of death never felt like a funeral. Today it feels somber, maybe because René chose this “cancer” theme because his beloved has it and he’s realizing now, after spending so many hours in clinics, that so many other people do.
“All these people,” he marvels at the traffic at the clinic. “It’s busy all the time. You ask, where does cancer come from?” he cites the accepted environmental factors: corn, wheat. What does it mean when your very environment makes you sick?
I thought this interview was meant to be with Rio, who does kitty EZLN art for which I die, and have previously died for in this very magazine. Until the very end, I am under the impression that this intricate tour of murals will terminate when Rio gets here, at which point I plan to ask the father-son duo more about what it means to be curating this Chicano holiday in a neighborhood that is systematically weeding out its Chicanos, and its poor people, and its artists.
But someone calls, SomArts events director maybe. Rene has to go meet with his attorney (“I am getting a lot of support,” he tells me when I ask for specifics on the fight against his eviction) and Rio has jury duty. I guess he can’t make it. At any rate, I am free to wander the altars to my heart’s content, says René.
I choose instead to eat a sandwich in SomArts’ garden, where a sign prohibits off-leash dogs out of “respect” for the site’s working cats, participants in a feral cat program through the SPCA.
I feel right here, which makes me fear for the lease.
Mission anti-gentrification march and police escort, 10/12/13