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Landmark Tuesdays: Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts listed on the National Register

The exterior of the Mission Cultural Center at 2868 Mission Street. In addition to the neon marquee reading “Mission Cultural Center” (installed 1992), the mural “Spirit of the Arts” is the building’s most significant exterior character-defining feature. Photo by Mike Buhler.

By Kerri Young

We are pleased to announce that on December 29, 2020, the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) was placed in the the National Register of Historic Places (National Register). Located in San Francisco’s Mission District, MCCLA is a multicultural, multidisciplinary arts organization committed to the collaborative artistic vision of the Latino art forms, in operation since 1977. Heritage is proud to have nominated MCCLA for the National Register through our Landmark Fund, a program that aims to ensure that the diversity of the city’s architectural and cultural inheritance is more fully recognized, remembered, and preserved. Additional support was provided by a grant from the California Office of Historic Preservation. As a result of being placed on the National Register, MCCLA has also been listed in the California Register of Historical Resources.

Located at 2868 Mission Street, the predominately two-and three-story, reinforced concrete building was constructed in 1947 as a furniture store and converted into the cultural center in 1977. A mural, “Spirit of the Arts,” is the building’s most significant exterior character-defining feature. Painted in 1982 by Carlos Loarca, Manuel Villamor and Betsie Miller-Kusz, the the mural was inspired by Incan, Mayan, and Aztec symbolism and was intended to celebrate the many arts presented within the Center, which has been a vital cultural resource for the community for generations.⠀

Carlos Loarca, who along with Betsie Miller-Kusz in 2017 restored their 3,700 square-foot mural “Spirit of Arts,” which adorns the upper facade of the building. Photo by Lola Chavez.

MCCLA’s creation is intrinsically tied to the ascendancy of the Mission District as San Francisco’s most concentrated Latino enclave during the Latino cultural center movement of the 1970s. In this sense, the building serves as a physical manifestation of the Latino experience in San Francisco.

Several factors made 2868 Mission Street an attractive location for the cultural center: the first floor was large enough for a theater, the mezzanine could be adapted into gallery space, and the third floor could accommodate storage, artist workspace, and a graphic arts studio. Its location adjacent to the Calle 24 (veinticuatro) Latino Cultural District also enhances its mission to preserve and promote Latino cultural continuity, vitality, and community in the greater Mission neighborhood.

The early years of operation at MCCLA (previously Mission Cultural Center (MCC)) were marked by a great diversity of artistic output and provided a foundation for what became more than four decades of community cultural programming. For example, a common thread in its early programming was the Third World identification with the indigenous and the oppressed. On October 1978, a number of community groups participated in the “International Day of Solidarity with American Indians” as an alternative to Columbus Day. MCC also included regular programming featuring members of the Mission District’s vibrant Chicano/Latino literary community, with Latino writers and poets such Alejandro Murguía, Raul Salinas, Nina Serrano, and Roberto Vargas playing a critical role in the founding the center. The cultural center also contributed significantly to the development of Latino musical talent in San Francisco with the founding members of The Music Committee (including Guillermo Guillén, Luis Medina, Mario and Carlos Gallardo, and John Santos) offering music classes and performing benefit concerts. Some of the first classes to be offered included music ensemble, musical theory, piano, and percussion.

Serigraph of the MCC logo by Alfonso Maciel, 1979. Image courtesy of MCCLA’s National Register nomination form.

Murals in the lobby of MCCLA. As included in its National Register listing, the property retains “integrity of feeling. The retention of essential features and spaces, such as the murals, graphic decorations, theater, studio spaces and graphics workshop, all combine to convey the building’s historic character as a neighborhood cultural center with an overtly Latino focus.” Photo by Mike Buhler.

One of the most important developments at the center was the creation of its graphic arts department. Known as Mission Gráfica, the department was led by founders and directors Rene Castro and Jos Sanchez. Part of a statewide movement of Chicano/Latino graphic arts, the image-makers at MCC assumed major status as visual educators and memory keepers. According to art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, the graphic arts, especially posters, “were significant for mobilization and indoctrination of the goals of cultural reclamation.”

The fourth-floor space for Mission Gráfica, a highly significant graphic arts studio, remains largely unaltered. In 1994, the graphics department was enhanced when La Raza Silkscreen Center/La Raza Graphics merged with MCC.

The textile shop inside MCCLA. Photo by Mike Buhler. 

Today, the cultural center continues to function exactly as it did when it first opened in 1977: as a neighborhood cultural center focused on supporting and promoting the full spectrum of Latin American arts and culture, including visual and graphic arts, music, theater and dance, writing and poetry, and cultural festivals. While MCCLA remains temporarily closed during the pandemic, it has a slate of upcoming virtual events planned including its 44-year birthday celebration on February 13.⠀

MCCLA’s performance space. Photo by Mike Buhler.

On the heels of the MCCLA’s listing in the National Register, San Francisco is now additionally pursuing City Landmark designation for MCCLA. Last Wednesday, January 20, the Historic Preservation Commission voted to initiate landmark designation for this Mission community hub, as well as for the longtime home of food business Casa Sanchez on 24th Street.

Read the full National Register nomination for MCCLA here, which includes helpful historic context for the evolution of the Mission District as a predominately Latino neighborhood, and how a variety of forces all contributed to the creation of the Mission Cultural Center.


National Register of Historic Places Registration Form for MCCLA, prepared by Jonathan Lammers and Desiree Aranda on behalf of San Francisco Heritage.

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