It’s a rare occurrence for it to be sunnier in San Francisco than in San Mateo, but upper school students in Chelsea Denlow’s Postcolonial Latin America history class experienced sunshine and blue skies, which made the vibrant colors of the Mission District pop as they visited the neighborhood last week.
The Mission District provided a really good chance for students to see some of what they are learning in class: a historical, nuanced, and multifaceted view of Latin America. Additionally, the class focuses on the issues of sovereignty, the stronghold of dictatorships, underground insurgencies and counter-revolutions, and U.S. intervention by attempting to answer the questions: What makes moments revolutionary and why do people join or resist their call to action? And how do we as historians access their lasting impact?
“In order to understand post-colonial Latin America, we start with colonialism because so much of that impacts the regions and legacies that have developed,” Chelsea explained. “Visiting the Mission San Francisco de Asis gives students a historical example of Spanish settlements in America.”
Students began the morning by exploring the Mission San Francisco de Asis (colloquially known as Mission Dolores), which is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. This mission is also home to a cemetery where, among Spanish, Italian, and Irish gravestones, is a mass grave of 5,000 Ohlone people.
“Going to the mission allowed us to see some of the impacts of earlier colonialism and how Christians dominated during that time,” said senior Elijah d. B. “It was powerful to see the mass grave, which was once unmarked, now being recognized.”
Following ample time to observe, reflect, and discuss, students traveled 10 minutes across town to the 24th Street area of the Mission to explore the Latino culture as it exists today.
“I want students to get a sense of why there have been so many Latino immigrants to this area,” Chelsea said. “I want them to understand how these groups of people have enriched our communities and learn about the hardships they have faced.”
Standing in front of a wall of murals, the class had the opportunity to meet with the executive director of Acción Latina, Fátima Ramírez, and Alexis Terraza, editor-in-chief of El Tecolote, the longest running bilingual newspaper printed in California. The two spoke to the group about the history of the newspaper, the cultural significance, and the impact it has had on the community.
“I am a historian of Latin American history, I spent a lot of time in Latin America, but I am not Latino and I cannot speak to those experiences firsthand,” Chelsea shared. “To try to understand those experiences, we bring in different voices and perspectives all the time.”
Junior Rohan S. reflected, “I found it really awesome to learn about a lot of the outreach programs Acción Latina has to try to communicate a lot of current issues to the Latino community, especially in regards to the voter guide they produce and using their website and podcasts to reach people.”
Students learned that, among other important purposes, the newspaper has helped Spanish speakers learn English and English speakers learn Spanish.
“It was really cool how this newspaper is used a bridge between generations and between immigrant parents and their children,” said senior Emma M.
The students heard from Fátima and Alexis in a poignant meeting spot: in front of some of the famed Mission murals. Alexis pointed out to the group, “Our mission as a newspaper and the mission of the murals are the same: we’re all storytellers.”
They spent time walking through Balmy Alley, a long block containing a concentrated collection of murals depicting Latino culture and history, and issues of human and civil rights. The dichotomy between the 18th century mission and the modernity of 24th Street and its mural really struck a chord with students.
“By visiting key landmarks in the Latinx community in the Bay Area from every time period, I was able to see changing demographics and the history of the Latinx diaspora from the early colonial period to the present,” said senior Rajeev S. “I also had the chance to recognize key trends in the real world; the importance of land and land ownership, for example, was a shared theme from the 17th century to the 21st. The field trip contextualized for me the diversity of the Latinx community in the Bay Area, with immigrants from the Caribbean, Central, and South America all being represented.”
“This field trip sets the stage for the rest of the class in a really interesting way because previously I would have done this trip towards the end of the class when they can more easily recognize the symbolism and people,” Chelsea explained. “Once they start to get into the history, I think we’ll see a number of ‘aha’ moments and students thinking back to what they saw when we were at the Mission.”