San Francisco's Mission District is one of the most lively and colorful neighborhoods in the entire Bay Area. From its wonderful world-class cuisine to its warm and welcoming residents, the Mission blends many different cultures and backgrounds, and exudes a vibrant spirit that can be felt by all who come here.
"We're blessed to be able to be in the environment that we're in," says Roberto Hernandez, who has lived in the Mission all his life. Roberto is Artistic Director of Carnaval, an annual celebration of life and diversity that honors traditions from all over the world. Roberto is showing me some of his favorite spots in his neighborhood, starting with Valencia Street.
Roberto exclaims, "It's the little hip place to come to now in San Francisco." A stroll down Valencia Street is like a visit to the United Nations. Pizza, Italian restaurants, you know you've got Blondie's across the street -- that's a real hip, happening place," says Roberto. "La Cumbre Taqueria that's been here for years. Indian cuisine, you got sushi. And then you got look: Ramblas Tapas Bar."
There are fascinating shops here as well. I'm gonna take you to Beadissimo, which is one of the most wonderful hidden treasures of the Mission," says Roberto.
Beadissimo has beads from all over the world. They also have everything you need to make beaded jewelry… including classes. Owner Kate Richbourg shows us how to make our own necklaces, which is actually fun. And our necklaces turn out amazingly well. From Beadissimo, Roberto brings me to what has to be one of the Mission's more unusual stores.
Roberto says, "It's stuff that you don't find at Walgreens or Safeway, you know." Oya Nike sells various healing powders, incense, candles, herbs from Cuba and even African art. It's owned by Ruben Texidor, who is very involved in the Carnaval Parade, creating floats and a lot more.
No trip to the Mission is complete without trying some of the district's fabulous food. Roberto takes me to Casa Sanchez. Casa Sanchez has a great assortment of chile rellenos and other traditional items, but it also has some unique offerings such as chocolate tamales. It's long been an institution here in the Mission.
"We started in the Fillmore in 1923. And then expanded out to here," says Marty Sanchez. She and her siblings are the third generation to run the family business. The restaurant is only a small part of it. We were one of the first tortilla factories in the city," Marty explains. Today Casa Sanchez's main claim to fame is its salsa, made fresh every day.
Roberto says, "I'll tell you a little secret about the salsa. The salsa actually has been the champion of all the salsas here in the Bay Area."The food's not too bad, either. After a delicious meal, we're on the move again. Roberto takes me to Flynn Elementary School, where he and others are working hard to insure that the Mission's wonderful spirit lives on in future generations.
Roberto says, "For Carnaval, this is where we're planting the seeds. And the seed begins with our children." With Roberto's help, Flynn School has instituted dance and drumming classes. The classes help the kids build self esteem, and they often end up doing better in other subjects as well.
"Music and dance had a big influence on my life. My abuelito taught me how to play the guitarra. I learned how to dance when I was young," explains Roberto. "It gave me something special. And so when I see these children, I know what it's doing for them."
He adds, "And I tell people everybody can dance. Everybody got rhythm. Because when you get up in the morning, you got rhythm. When you brush your teeth, you got rhythm. Everybody got a heart, and that heart's got rhythm. And it's got a beat to it. So if you look inside of yourself, you'll find that rhythm within you. And then you can learn how to dance and play a drum." There are plenty of opportunities to dance and drum in the Mission or to just appreciate it from the sidelines.
Roberto takes me to an impromptu drum session by Loco Bloco, a performing arts program for youth that was founded in 1994. "And what's great is that they started off with this very small group, and now there are about 500 of 'em strong," declares Roberto. Loco Bloco has twice won first place in the Carnaval Parade. But more important, according to Roberto, is that it's feeding the souls of young people such as twenty year-old Jose Luis Barrajas, who joined the group when he was only ten.
Roberto beams, "And now he teaches actually at John O'Connell High School some of the students, and some of the students are here. Now can you imagine a twenty year-old going into a high school to teach kids?" For Roberto, the Mission is a place where many different cultures come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And he invites all of us to come and enjoy it.
He says, "You know what's so beautiful in the Mission is like it's its own international hub for the Bay Area."