Butch Cassidy meets Cantiflas
june 12, 2000. I am a native San Franciscan. I grew
up in the Excelsior district, but I was born in the
Mission at the old, red brick St. Luke's Hospital, and I
have been organizing here for twenty years. I attended a
great share of movies with my mom. I saw "Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" at the Amazon Theater
— which became the Apollo. And I remember seeing Mary
Poppins at the Parkside Theater. My favorite adventure,
with my parents and sister, was watching scary, PG-rated
thrillers at the Embassy Theater on Market Street. I
remember the spinning of a lottery wheel on stage and
the screams from the audience when their bingo numbers
on our tickets hit!
The Granada Theater (circa 1960–70
in the Excelsior) was a community, youth center. We'd
kiss in the balconies, take out our first dates, and
everybody would know who's with whom in the 'hood. The
tight, crowded smallness of theater space was a truly
genuine form of collective social, class, and ethnic
intimacy. You'd kiss and everybody would tell.
But the most memorable and emotionally
wrenching movie experience was always at the York
Theater at 24th Street & York. We called it, in the
Latino community, the Mexican show, or El Cine Mexicano.
Charm popsicle suckers were five cents, and throughout
the double feature you'd hear a symphony of babies
crying and little kids running up and down the aisles.
Every morning when I'd wake up from the night before,
I'd remember the antics of the Mexican comic Cantinflas
or the romantic, chivalrous, and tender eyes of Pedro
Almendariz. It was a time when the Mission was Mexican.
Now Brava Theater has taken over, and the sounds of
babies crying or Cantinflas's tramp walk aren't even
echoes of a period long lost in the city's past.
If you print anything I've written —
well, please remind newcomers of the sentimental loss of
the Geneva Drive-In Theater in the Excelsior, where
working families were afforded the manageable cost of
piling kids in the station wagon and bringing along all
the homemade snacks that stomachs could bear. The loss
of the "drive-in" in America is a national
cinematic tragedy — working-class, immigrant families
really cannot keep up attendance with the prices so
outrageously out of reach!
Yet the loss of ethnic identity came
not only as a result of Chinese, Mexican, & Yiddish
film houses closing. Hollywood's mainstream commercial
films also produced a "false sense" of
cultural & non-ethnic consciousness in the minds of
people & children of color in the U.S. I remember
when I was five, I wanted to be anything but Mexican. I
wanted to be white, blue-eyed, and blond like the kids
in the Disney films — The Swiss Family Robinson, etc.
Only at the York Theater on Friday & Saturday nights
did I see myself on the silver screen (torn corners of
the screen were actually taped together with silver
masking tape). Only then, never now, did kids from
Mexican families laugh and cry when Cantinflas fell or
lost the one he loved. Only then did I pride myself on
being Mexican — and all that it implies — while we
struggled to live in San Francisco.
I still go to the movies. I attend the
Metreon matinees and I peep at the shows at the Kabuki
and the AMC. But for a comparison to the multiplexes —
there isn't any. The multiplexes are filled with
psychosocial complexes — that is, the complexities
that abound in escalators, glass, and cushy, high-back,
stiff, stoic, and prefabricated dot.com consumers, white
on white. The prices, well, little kids & immigrant
families are simply priced out. The end? Or time for a
new beginning of cultural resistance in the city?
is an organizer for Mission Agenda and for the Campaign
to Elect Chris Daly.