by Woody LaBounty
The Excelsior may have begun as an Italian enclave of the city—roots of which are still evident today—but in the years after World War II it developed as a significant Latinx neighborhood of San Francisco, one in which a third of today’s residents speak Spanish as their primary language.1
Latinx is a generalizing term for people who share recognized cultural traits, but may have roots in very different communities, countries, and even hemispheres. As the San Francisco Latino Historic Context Statement (Draft) points out, “The Latino community in San Francisco has never been monolithic or homogeneous.”2 People with origins from Spain to Guatemala, Mexico to Chile, may share use of the Spanish language and the Roman Catholic faith, but these generalities are often not found in any individual San Franciscan who identifies as Latinx. As with “Hispanic” or “Latino,” the gender-neutral Latinx is a category, a misleading one to group together people of different ethnicities, races, cultures, and nationalities, but also useful to recognize the ties within neighborhoods. In the Excelsior District, Latinx primary refers to foreign- and U.S.-born individuals of Latin American descent.
Casa Lucaz #3 Produce and Meats at 4555 Mission Street. (Heritage photo, December 2019).
Spanish-speaking people first arrived in California starting in the 1770s. What is today the Excelsior District was covered by Jose Bernal’s ranch, Rincon de las Salinas y Potrero Viejo, which he took possession of in 1839. The Gold Rush brought Chilean, Mexican, and Peruvian miners north, and the Bay Area population we call Latinx grew quickly. “In just over a decade,” historians David Hayes-Bautista and Cynthia L. Chamberlin note, “the Latino population in California became far larger, more complex, more cosmopolitan, more bicultural and bilingual.”3
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the majority of the city’s Latin Americans lived in a section of North Beach known as the “Latin Quarter,” but displacement and resettlement following the 1906 earthquake and fire pushed many to move to the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods, a pattern also followed by many of their Italian-American neighbors from North Beach.
Detail of “Waiting for the 52 Excelsior” (2001) by Marta Ayala on Excelsior Avenue at Mission Street. (Heritage photo, December 2019).
Then, as now, the Excelsior was one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Amid a visible Italian-American presence were pockets of Maltese, German, Ukrainian, and Irish families, and various Latinx communities mixed with this melting pot. Jesus and Celso Hurtado, internationally popular and influential Guatemalan musicians, whose Royal Marimba Band was a mainstay of San Francisco nightlife in the first half of the twentieth century, both lived at times in the Excelsior District. The Puerto Rican Social Club of San Francisco, founded in 1912, met in its early years at a bar on the corner of Athens Street and Russia Avenue near the home of its first president, Raymond Milan.4
The “Outer Mission”
In the first decades after World War II, the Mission and Excelsior Districts began seeing more Latinx populations moving from North Beach, South of Market, and the Tenderloin, as well as newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and Central America. With the influx of Latin American immigrants, the proportion of Mission and Excelsior District residents born outside the United States rose by 20% between 1950 and 1980, and tracked ten per cent higher than the city as a whole.5
By the early 1950s, Excelsior businesses with names such as Guadalajara Mexican Groceries (4421 Mission Street), and residents with names such as Mary Sandoval (4449 Mission) and Manuel Gonzales (4789 Mission), show up in the city directories amid the many Cerrutis, Mulvihills, and Pellegrinis.
By the 1970s, Latinx populations overtook the Italians as the Excelsior’s dominant ethnic group.6 This demographic shift in the Excelsior over the mid-twentieth century can be seen in its United States Census Tract, 260 (previous Tract M-6). In 1950, there were 1,006 Italians and 772 “Hispanics” in the tract. In 1960, the gap closed with 1,868 Hispanics and 1,779 Italians now in the minority. By 1970, the Italians held relatively steady at 1,728, but the Hispanic population nearly doubled at 3,714.7
“Music is Freedom” mural by Delvin Kenobe Leake on Francis Street and Mission Street, funded by Excelsior Action Group and the Cucalon Family. Dedicated to the residents, families, and community of the Excelsior as a tribute and celebration of culture and diversity. (Heritage photo, December 2019).
Researcher Phylis Martinelli, after interviewing longtime Excelsior “villagers” in the 1970s, offered a positive assessment on the integration of Italians and Latinx neighbors:
“While the ethnic dominance of the Italians was waning, and in spite of their different perceptions of the neighborhood [some of her Latinx interviewees considered the Excelsior a stepping-stone neighborhood rather than a long-term home], Hispanic Americans and Italian Americans were adjusted to each other. Although some Italians resented the newcomers, there was no overt discrimination. Italians and Hispanics shared many facilities; both groups attended the same churches, shopped at the same stores, sent their children to the same schools, belonged to many of the same social organizations, and used the same recreational facilities.”8
Some of the families moving from the Mission to Excelsior may not have had as positive an experience as Martinelli expressed, but for many Latinx immigrants the single-family homes of the Excelsior represented a successful step up from the more crowded Mission District, and one that kept them close to cultural amenities, congregations, friends and relatives.
A circa 1970 view into the Excelsior’s vibrant ethnic mix can be seen in memories of the building at 4742 Mission Street, in recent years known as Club Tapatio. An Italian bocce ball club in the 1950s, by the late 1960s the building operated as the “Rock Garden” music club, and quickly switched to “The Ghetto.” While a one-off venue for major bands such as Buffalo Springfield and The Grateful Dead (The Dead’s Jerry Garcia grew up a couple of blocks away), the club’s mainstay acts in the late 1960s and 1970s, with Samoan bouncers working the door, were African-America soul groups and Latin Rock bands such as The Aliens and the Prophets.9
The U.S. Census’ blanket “Hispanic” categorization of Excelsior District residents recognized common cultural traits, such as use of the Spanish language, but disguised the heterogeneousness of the communities described. The 1980 United States Census defined 39 percent of San Francisco’s Hispanic or Latino population of Mexican origins, 6 percent from Puerto Rico, 2 percent from Cuba, and more than half of the total as “other Spanish origins.” Researcher Brian Godfrey in 1988 claimed “San Francisco probably has the highest population of Hispanics of Central American origin of any major city.”10 Since the turn of the twenty-first century, notable Salvadoran businesses in the Excelsior include Pacita’s bakery at 10 Persia Street and Metapan Pupuseria in the Storybook storefront of the Royal Baking Company Building.
Metapan Pupuseria at 4769 Mission Street (Heritage photo, December 2019).
While the Excelsior was undergoing its shift to Latinx families in the 1960s and 1970s, the delis, restaurants, and Italian names on businesses along Mission Street still made it feel like an Italian neighborhood. But while Little Joe’s, the pizzeria established by Joseph Russo in 1958, kept its Italian dishes when Alfredo and Gloria Rodriguez took it over in 1978, the menu expanded with Mexican pizza, tacos, and enchiladas.
Today the Spanish on the window signs and awnings of produce markets, bakeries, and restaurants disguise yet another shift in this multicultural neighborhood: over half of residents in the Excelsior are now of Asian descent.
4. Lammers & Cordoba, Part III-b, 16. “Club Puertorriqueno” was still listed at 596 Athens as late as the 1957 San Francisco Directory. The club bought the building and used it as its headquarters before moving to the Mission in the 1970s.
7. Phylis Martinelli, “The Excelsior Villagers: A study of an Italian American neighborhood in transition” in Paola Sensi Isolani & Phylis Cancilla Martinelli (Eds.), Struggle and Success: Italian Immigrants in California (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1993), page 239.