Growing up Raza in San Francisco

Growing Up Raza in San Francisco

By Joe Navarro. Posted Oct. 16, 2022.

Back in the early 2000s when I was studying for my master’s degree in Mexican American Studies, I spoke in one of my classes about the influences in my life. Our classes studied different social issues that affected Chicanas and Chicanos and other people of the Americas and Caribbean who are now part of the United States. We looked at various ways which national oppression has manifested itself to la Raza and ways in which people organized themselves to resist oppression. We studied these to evaluate what kinds of meaningful solutions could be developed.

We would often share our experiences to generate discussion about how we became involved in social justice issues to alleviate the suffering of ourselves, families, and communities. In one class I talked about my experiences as a youth in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since the late 1960’s I have always thought of myself as a Chicano. Being born and raised in San Francisco as a Chicano was a little more complex, though. The Mission District was made up of people whose ancestry was from Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico and other ethnic groups. We thought of ourselves as La Raza.

Street Scenes and Businesses for Mayor’s Storefront Project on Mission and 23rd Streets | August 2, 1978. Photo from SFMTA.

Even though we shared some common characteristics, traits and language that every ethnic group was unique. I shared classrooms with people whose families and ancestors were from Central America and Puerto Rico. Even though my roots were Mexican we still had cultural and ethnic lifestyles that were similar but not identical. There were differences in Spanish dialect, customs, food and traditions.

The Mission District was a mix of Mariachi, Cumbia, Salsa, Norteñas, Merengue, Mambo, Chicano Rock, along with R&B and Blues. Restaurants served tasty enchiladas, burritos, tacos, pupusas, menudo, mondongo, pan con chumpe, tortas, tamales, and pasteles (Puerto Rican style). The Mission district felt like the warmest, sunniest spot in San Francisco. When I was a young child Mission Street, 24th Street and others were a thriving business district catering to our community.

To most white folks, especially racists, they couldn’t tell us apart. In their eyes we were basically all Mexicans. Understandably, we shared common issues such as national oppression, discrimination, language oppression, police brutality, diminishing and non-existent civil and human rights, limited or no health care support, limited employment opportunities, poor education and destruction of the neighborhood along Mission Street. Bay Area Rapid Transit began construction and destroyed that neighborhood around 1967-1971.

I was actually born in La Misión to a Chicana mother and Mexican father (who abandoned us when I was seven years old). I was born on Guerrero Street and spent most of my childhood a block away at the Valencia Gardens Housing Projects on Valencia Street.

The oral history project was sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco Chapter Legacy Project in 1998.

My life was a combination of living in a humble apartment with a loving family and of being surrounded by good friends and neighbors of mostly Raza and Black and families. At the same time drugs, alcohol and crime was everywhere. Police harassment and abuse was routine. I was sometimes on the receiving end. I feared police more than I feared the people who were supposed to be criminals.

I remember feeling the resentment of white teachers and staff and being slapped in the face in front of my classmates by a fourth-grade male teacher for daydreaming while he was lecturing. I remember being humiliated in sixth grade by my teacher and principal in elementary school. I spent nearly every day being punished for being quiet and not following my angry teacher’s barks, scowls, and orders. I was often kicked out of my classroom and spent lunch time on the floor of the principal’s office.

My junior high school memories include being in a building with large men who routinely stomped down the halls threatening everyone to get to class. Chewing gum or arguing with a teacher resulted in getting hit with thick wooden paddles. I attended high school unnoticed, an invisible student who rarely attended school. I was finally noticed, disciplined, and eventually expelled for wearing a brown beret, a symbol of Chicano pride.

SF Police harrass Latino youth. Photo by Lou DeMatteis from

Formal schooling didn’t work out for me and many other Raza students. In many urban cities Raza students dropped out (pushed out in reality) at higher rates than their Anglo peers. My alternative was to find a job that would hire workers without high school diplomas. This meant low paying, highly exploited, heavy, and hard work. I got a job through the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a program that employed primarily Raza and Black youth who dropped out of school, at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard for a sub-minimum-wage. This was the beginning of my life as a worker, moving from one factory job to the next.

Some of my co-workers were from the Mission; they were Chicano/Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, South American, Black and Filipino. After work we took the bus back to our neighborhood and hung out, sharing stories, and listening to music. Now that I had a little money, which I shared with my family, I would go down Mission Street to buy clothes and food, go see movies and hang out with friends. I would walk down the street greeting people as they passed by. It just felt right.

As a teenager I began to understand that people in my community shared a common struggle to end all the forms of oppression. As La Raza we shared aspirations for self-determination, full equality, equity, political and economic rights, education and employment opportunities, health care and a general improvement in our quality of life. At the same time there was some recognition that we lived on lands that were historically indigenous people’s lands that had also been a part of Mexico’s history. Our community was part of a national Chicana/Chicano movement (recognizing that people of Mexican ancestry constitute more than half of all la Raza in the US), yet at the same time unique and distinct.

Regardless of whether someone was of Mexican ancestry or not, much of la Raza supported Mexican and Filipino farmworkers and the United Farm Workers’ Union’s huelga (strike) for better working conditions and equality. We supported the grape and lettuce boycotts. Many joined La Raza organizations at schools and college campuses where Raza students were on strike to end racism in education. There was a sense of solidarity. There was a desire for political power as if to designate the Mission District as a distinct homeland, deserving of the right of self-determination.

I can remember what caused me to choose a better direction. It was the case of Los Siete de la Raza, seven Latino youths falsely accused and arrested for murdering a cop. The legal team, headed by attorney Charles Garry, convinced the court that one racist cop, Paul McGoran, actually shot his partner Joseph Broderick as McGoran tried to pistol whip the Los Siete youths. Through a legal battle lasted 18 months from 1969 through1970 and street protests Los Siete were acquitted and set free. For more information about the Los Siete case, see Los Siete Study Guide.

The call for justice for Los Siete de la Raza was supported by the Black Panther Party which provided resources and funding and helped forge a broad based united coalition. A backlash against police brutality became a catalyst for a political movement that organized people to fight for expanded political, economic, cultural, linguistic, health care and educational rights and expressed a call for self-determination and unity of La Raza.

Los Siete de la Raza defendants with Attorney Charles Garry.

The Black Panther Party was a significant force at that time that challenged police brutality and national oppression. They had a socialist platform for justice. I listened. “Socialism” from this point of view was new to me back then. I wanted to learn more about other people, such as Native peoples, Asians and Pacific Islanders, who also struggled against national oppression. This was an awakening for me.

As I got involved, I started learning about concepts like oppression, revolution, self-determination, Chicano Power, Aztlan (the Chicano homeland) and the importance of learning and organizing. As a teen I wanted to be identified with militant movements for justice. I wore militant buttons supporting La Causa (the cause), Free Los Siete de la Raza, images of Emiliano Zapata (Mexican revolutionary) and Che, and the Aztec Eagle of the United Farm Workers’ Union.

The police noticed the militant symbolism, too. One day I was walking down 24th Street (another business and cultural area of the Mission District) and decided to cross the street. A San Francisco police cruiser quickly pulled up to me and two cops jumped out holding their pistols and pushed me against a building. I asked what I had done. One cop said, jaywalking. Then the cop asked me if I was from El Salvador and asked why I hate America. I told him I’m Chicano and I’m from San Francisco.

Then he started patting me down. I asked what he was looking for. He said, weapons. I was relieved because I had no weapons. But I was nervous because I had a joint in my jacket pocket. Since they were looking for something large and hard like a gun or knife, I knew it would be okay. Then the cop started jabbing me in the chest with his fingers as he gave me a citation for jaywalking and threatened to personally come after me if I didn’t appear in juvenile court. Unbelievable!

I eventually joined the organization to Free Los Siete because I was impressed that it not only built a movement for justice, but also established a community legal aid office, a clinic, a breakfast program, and a newspaper ¡Basta Ya! In some ways it modeled itself after the Serve the People model of the Black Panther Party. ¡Basta Ya! served the cause by updating the community about the efforts to free Los Siete and informed the public about struggles local, nationally and internationally to end oppression of oppressed nationality people. It became a useful and practical source of information.

Among the things I learned was that drugs and alcohol were ways in which we were controlled and oppressed. As oppressed nationality peoples’ movements became targets of repression they were hit both ways: addictions and arrests for minor drug offenses. To stop using drugs was a political act. I chose that path.

After Los Siete were freed, we formed La Raza Workers Collective and dedicated ourselves as working class people to organize Raza workers in factories, hotels, laundries and construction sites to improve their working conditions, pay and benefits. One of my jobs was a metal pourer in foundries and I was eventually elected as the first Chicano and youngest president of the Molders Union Local #164 representing foundry workers from the Bay Area to Fresno and Visalia. We had a major labor strike within three months of my being elected. We built a strong multi-national alliance with Raza, Black and Portuguese immigrants and stayed on the picket lines for six weeks, facing police beatings and arrests. We won major victories for wages, benefits, better conditions and created a pathway for the lowest paid, most exploited Raza and Black workers to move into more skilled jobs. For the first time ever, we had a union contract in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

This is a picket line in 1976 tri-state strike covering California, Oregon and Washington. This photo was taken outside Pacific Steel Casting Co. in Berkeley, the largest foundry in Northern California then. I was the President of the Molders’ Union Local # 164, standing in the middle speaking to our striking members. – Joe Navarro.

In addition to labor work, we were involved in immigrant rights issues. Myself and other people of Mexican descent joined organizations like El Frente Unido Salvadoreño (San Francisco and Oakland) to support the rights of Salvadoran refugees and immigrants; El Frente Amplio Anti-Somocista to support the rights of Nicaraguan refugees and immigrants escaping tyrannical oppression and repression of the Somoza dictatorship; and, supported the struggles of Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico and the US, for self-determination, in solidarity with groups like the Young Lords Organization and Young Lords Party.

Pro-Nicaragua revolution mural at 3269 22nd St. at Bartlett, SF Mission District, 1970s. Photo from SF Weekly website.

In 1980 we traveled with busloads of Raza (including Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, and others) to the 10th Anniversary of the National Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles, joining with 10,000 people in marching for justice and self-determination. That era from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was a period of activism and solidarity. Whether you were Chicana/Chicano, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan or Puerto Rican, you were part of La Raza in the Mission District fighting for its own piece of this nation. During this period we began studying to learn about capitalism, imperialism, liberation struggles and revolutionary movements here and internationally. We wanted to know how to replace oppression with a truly democratic society that would recognize the rights of all people and strive to achieve full equality and equity for everyone.

Well, in a nutshell that’s what I expressed to my professor and fellow students. Throughout the year I had shared my experiences in the context of our studies and research. But during this conversation I started feeling like my statements were sounding like politics saved me from being a lumpen-proletarian, participating in anti-social behaviors, and being drug addicted or ending up in prison.

My professor spoke and I knew what he was going to say before he said it. He said something like, “hey you’re starting to sound like an evangelical, except instead of saying that you were saved by Jesus, you say you were saved by el movimiento or politics. “We all laughed.

Chicano power demonstration. Date, Location, Photographer unknown.

Everything I said was my truth. But spilling it all out like that in a short statement, full of passion, did sound kind of like a testimonial of being “saved.”

The big difference for me was that I couldn’t wait for a metaphysical intervention. I had faith in people to struggle for a better way of life and decided that I could become a fighter for justice. Throughout my life I joined collectives, organizations, that were committed to fighting for social change like La Raza Workers Collective, August 29th Movement, League of Revolutionary Struggle, El Frente Unido Salvadoreño, MEChA, La Allianza de la Raza, Freedom Road Socialist Organization,  and Apoyo Tarahumara.

Even my creative writings are influenced by my politics. The path I chose was a path for justice. I can say at least I tried.  Built on a history and tradition of resisting national oppression, we are forced to claim our humanitarian identification. Recognizing the need for solidarity and respecting the distinctness of each ethnic group was critical for a successful movement.

Colorado Jackson delegate Joe Navarro supports Palestine statehood, July 1988. Photo from Unity Archive.

This is my story. It is unique to el movimiento in San Francisco during the late 1960s to the early 1980s.


Author’s Bio: Joe Navarro is a Literary Vato Loco, creative writer, teacher, parent, grandparent and has been an activist for human rights, political rights, and social justice. His writing is inspired by people’s struggles for human dignity, familia, democracy, peace, and preserving our Mother Earth. He has authored seven chapbooks of poetry, has been included in eight literary anthologies and journals, including three educational publications. Joe can be reached at

3 thoughts on “Growing up Raza in San Francisco”

  1. Edward Bernstein

    Joe: Thank you so much for “Growing up Raza in San Francisco “ An extraordinary personal and political journey with a theme that “oppression breeds resistance. “
    We need your lessons more than ever today to build a multiracial and multi-cultural democracy that ends economic and social injustice and protects our rights and the futures for all of us and for our planet. Que Viva La Raza
    Abajo con La Ganga de Trumpistas.

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