Yellow police tape surrounds a crime scene. This time there is no lifeless body lying on the ground, but a mural, celebrating LGBT pride, displayed on the side of a residential building in the Mission, charred by an arsonist. The voiceless mural speaks volumes about how some in the Mission still feel about LGBT people.
Por Vida (for life) is a mural that depicts two lesbians, a transgender man and two gay men. It’s been under assault in the virtual world of social media, and under physical assault in the real world since it was first displayed on the outside of Galería De La Raza on Bryant Street at 24th Street, the heart of the Mission. It’s been defaced, repaired, and defaced twice more. And in June, vandals struck again, this time with lighter fluid that could have destroyed the building and the six apartments it also houses.
The attack on the mural was especially painful because it closely followed the welcome news that gay marriage was finally sanctioned by law throughout the United States, said Mission resident Lito Sandoval.
“To go from the high of community unity and joy to the punch-in-the-stomach arson act was extremely deflating,” said Lito, a project manager for the Nasdaq stock exchange.
No matter their content, the Mission’s popular, brightly colored murals are sometimes defaced. But attacks on gay-themed public art seem to have a special virulence and have often targeted work exhibited at the Galería, a neighborhood institution dedicated to pushing the boundaries of Latino culture and challenging sexual stereotypes.
“The point of this project is to say that this queer community has been invisible and has been in the periphery of our community, but they have been here, and now we want to honor that, to document that,” said Ani Rivera, the Galería’s executive director.
Por Vida was created by Manuel Paul of the Los Angeles-based Maricón Collective to honor San Francisco Pride Month, and was inspired by the work of queer people of color.
Paul knew that the mural would not be popular with everyone in the Mission, a heavily Catholic, working-class neighborhood, now rapidly gentrifying.
“There was a lot of positive, but the negative was a little bit extreme,” he said. “Some people wanted it to be erased. I never thought of it being torched.”
Galería De La Raza is a nonprofit, Latin art gallery that has never shied away from controversy. Founded in the 1970s with a mission to increase public awareness and appreciation of Chicano/Latino art, the Galería invites artists who explore contemporary issues in art, culture and civic society.
The gallery has presented the work of cutting edge and provocative artists since its inception, and the attack on Por Vida was not an isolated incident, says Rivera.
In 1997, the Galería exhibited an installation called “My Cathedral” by Ales Donis, a collection of light boxes showing the intimate joining of cultural icons from opposing political and religious backgrounds. It featured representations of Jesus and Lord Rama; Martin Luther King Jr. and a Ku Klux Klansman; Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy.
Donis brought these iconic figures together into queer embraces. The light boxes were displayed in the gallery’s front windows. Ten days after it debuted, two of the works had been destroyed, Donis recalls.
The artist didn’t place the light boxes in the window to provoke the neighborhood.
“Having the light boxes in the window was an afterthought,” he said. “I wanted to black out the window so the light boxes would display better.”
Some residents liked the work, but others seemed offended, Donis said. “Some people stopped to appreciate the work, but some others were unhappy to see Mother Teresa and Madonna kissing,” he said. “I even got into shouting matches with some people.”
Other LGBT artists faced similar reactions over the years. In 2000, Galería De La Raza displayed a mural called “Heaven” by Alma López. It was a billboard that showcased two women looking at each other and holding hands in a bedroom setting. It too was vandalized.
Jaime Cortez, an artist and former program manager at the Galería remembers when López’s mural was defaced with spray paint.
“Spray painting is something, but when you set a mural on fire, that is (on) a whole different level,” he said.
Cortez believes that the combination of queer imagery and the traditional, manly Chicano culture of Cholos was what triggered the strong response.
“I wasn’t surprised when the Por Vida was defaced,” he said. “What I was surprised by is that they came back to burn it.”
People upset by the mural took to social media sites like Instagram to voice their anger and disdain for gay culture.
“Mannnn f**k that gay s**t. It ganna keep getting vandalized. You guys wanna call some gay guyz from LA to make this shit in northern califaz. Mannn keep that gay s**t down south.” read the post by valleyqueen.
“This mural ain’t lasting in the mission it don’t belong there take that to Castro and don’t use cholos smh,” jun._.99 posted
An angry Instagram user called fancy @yzs mami said in a post that the mural disrespected local culture and residents, so no one should have been surprised when it was defaced.
“Like seriously? They thought the real mission natives were just going to let it fly – then call them out and say they’re homophobic!? Really?!?!? They have to realize they’re singling ‘cholos’ out to be gay. Why or how can that not be offensive to them?”
While Por Vida was on display outside the Galería, a photo exhibit called “The Q-Sides,” was on display inside. It featured photographs by artists Vero Majano, DJ Brown Amy (Amy Martinez), and Kari Orvik, that challenged long-held assumptions regarding the traditional exclusivity of heterosexuality in lowrider culture.
The show is an homage to the lowrider culture, but with queer models posing next to lowriders, restored cars from the 1940s to the 1960s. The combination of the mural and the Q-Side show touched a nerve in the Mission community.
“We were getting some drama around the opening of our show on Instagram,” Majano said. “Even the night of the show rumors started that someone was coming down to the gallery to f**k things up, because the homies aren’t happy about the show.”
According to Majano, the Q-Side models grew up in and around the lowrider culture and they want to claim it.
“As a woman, as a person of color, I see images around, walking on the street, that offend me all day long,” she said. “It is not my reaction to deface it or burn them.”
Orvik said that the show has been in both Martinez’s and Majano’s minds for a long time. “They have been growing up in a culture and having the desire to be part of a culture that won’t accept them for being gay,” Orvik said. “The idea that there are no queers in lowrider culture is just not true. So it is just a refusal to acknowledge what is there.”
The police have yet to arrest anyone in connection with the arson attack on Por Vida, and Rivera worries that fallout from the incident could push the Galería out of the building that’s housed it for four decades.
“Our existence is threatened, and that is the reality we are dealing with right now. Our building could have caught on fire, and that is a threat that is very real,” she said.
Nonetheless, Rivera is not about to change course or compromise the Galería’s principles.
“The fact that Por Vida received such a violent reaction tells us we are on the right track in terms of the work that needs to be done, and this project needs to continue.”