Matres Dolorosas: A Watershed of TearsUnsettled in the Mission
A Watershed of Tears: Arroyo de los Dolores (extract 1/5)
Ocean fog protected the Bay from European discovery, until 1769, when explorer Gaspar de Portolá viewed the body of water from a mountaintop. Six years later, on August 5, 1775, the ship San Carlos sailed through the golden gate under a moonlit sky. The Huimen Ohlone awoke to find a 193-ton, two-masted brig, 58 feet in length, floating in their landscape. In the following days, the crew of the San Carlos set out to sound the Bay in their longboats. Second Pilot Juan Bautista Aguirre took a boat Southeast to scout for good anchorage. On an inlet of a cove, he observed three native people weeping; their faces painted black and streaked with tears.
The Ohlone ritualized their grieving as a village affair, and prohibited the name of the dead to be spoken, lest the spirit of the deceased be distracted from moving on to the Island of the Dead. A widow, most at risk of being haunted, would singe her hair close to the scalp, smear peet and ash on her face, and demonstratively claw at her breasts and cheeks to draw blood. That day, we do not know for whom cried the Ohlone, but impressed, Second Pilot Aguirre named this cove after them La Ensenada de los Llorones or the Cove of Weepers; later to be renamed Mission Bay. On that day, the watershed of the Mission was first christened by the Spaniards in the name of tears.
The following year in late June 1776, the Mission of San Francisco de Asis was founded. From early days, the Mission became known by its sobriquet of Misión Dolores or Mission of Sorrows, after the Creek of Sorrows that ran in its proximity. The creek was given its Catholic name by Friar Font of the De Anza Expedition, who came upon it on a Friday of Sorrows in April 1776. This tributary of the Mission was thus, by coincidence or prophesy, christened also in the name of grief; a name that came to identify the Mission itself.
The Friday of Sorrows is the last Friday of lent, a week before the Crucifixtion of Christ. On the Friday of Sorrows, Catholics venerate the Mater Dolorosa or Our Lady of Sorrows, which is a devotion to the seven terrible woes of Mary, the mother of Christ. The first sorrow of Mary is a foretelling that due to the life her son would lead, her “own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.” (Luke.2:34-35).” Our Lady of Sorrows is often depicted with her heart crossed by as many as seven swords; one for every sorrow. She is often dressed in Red and Blue, or black for mourning. Red and Blue are also the colors sported by the two current competing gangs of the Mission, respectively the Norteños and the Sureños. These two bands account for many Mission mothers cloaked in grief for their children fallen to gun violence or drugs, languishing in prison, or victimized by profiling and policing.
Recently, residents of the Mission have taken an increased interest in the original Creek of Sorrows. The ground water of the old creek continues to course through the Mission. A hatch in the basement of Mission High School reveals flowing source water. Other buildings on a downhill trajectory have similar hatches, creating a trail of invisible temples to the vanquished rivers of the Mission. On the northern boundary of the neighborhood, the flow of the Creek of Sorrows can be followed to 14th Street and Mission, into the Old Armory (now the ball gag-and-whip armory of Kink.com, a BDSM porn company).
Past the dungeon studios, down into the basement, in a corner, the clear clean body of the Mission Creek bucks and bristles hard against its restraints. It is a river in bondage; an item in a freak show that you can pay to view in a tour of the building. The water marks of old floods stand nine feet above the ground, forcing Kink.com to run water pumps twenty-four hours, seven days a week, to stop this untame slave from flooding the basement, again. The meandering of this creek is repressed by the ignominy of gridded pavement and sewage pipes, and I protest to see it daylighted.
Yet, even more invisible is that other river running in a torrential sweep of grief through the Mission, unchecked and unseen. It is a river of tears teased out by poverty, policing, addiction, gun violence, and discrimination. Entire families are drowning in its waters, mothers are cracked and fractured, and youth are harmed, but this raging violence holds no geeky affinity of palatable liberal interest to us, like an actual river.
A Watershed of Tears: Mrs. Peña (extract 2/5)
Mrs. Peña climbed down the stairs, handed the baby, and started running like a loca, a mad woman, down Shotwell Street to 24th Street. “As I got to the corner, the priest of the Evangelical church on 24th Street stopped me, and told me he would drive me to the hospital. We went down 24th Street towards the hospital, past Harrison, Alabama, Bryant, but as we were reaching York, all traffic was stopped. It was like a war zone with police cars, fire engines, flashing lights, helicopters, and a swarm of people. I made to get out of the car and start running to the hospital, but the priest stopped me and said he would detour around. When we got to the hospital, there was an ocean of people in the parking lot. All my son’s friends had shown up. They never abandoned him, and I will be forever grateful to them for that. … I was put in a waiting room, after being informed that Francisco was in an operation.
Finally, a doctor came in, and I got out of my seat and exclaimed ‘Praise be to God’ for I was certain that Francisco had seen this one through. But the doctor told me that he had been shot in the heart, and that they were able to close that wound, but that he had been shot several times in the stomach and his intestines were destroyed. They fought for Francisco, and he had been strong, but they were not able to save him … I was stunned. I asked to see him.
Soon after, they took me to a room where he lay on a stretcher with a white sheet covering his bare chest. There in the room was Francisco’s father. A lady cop was also in the room, and she prohibited me from touching Francisco. So, we both stood there, one on each side of Francisco, contemplating our dead son.
The policewoman asked me, ‘What are going to do with your son?’ I answered the only thing I could think of, ‘I’ll cremate him and keep him at home.’ But, his father kindly interjected, ‘Olgita, you are his mother, and we will do whatever you want, but I have this spot that I bought for myself in Colma next to my mother, and if you wish we could bury him there.’ I agreed and asked him, ‘Can you take care of it?’ ‘Yes, Olga, I can take care of everything.’ His father, you know, he never abandoned Francisco; I’ll be forever grateful to him for that.”
Mothers & Sorrows: Aura (extract 3/5)
Yet one more daughter came to Aura in San Francisco. Aura had survived torture, political imprisonment, domesticity, but this child of hers would walk a path of heartaches. This one made her a single mother and a mater dolorosa.
One day, her fourteen year old daughter bullied a kid at school, and the school called the police. They did not call Aura. They called the police. Aura’s face contorts with pain as she remembers, and she breaks down. Pawing at her breasts and her womb, she repeats a song of grief, “They took my womanhood, my motherhood, my womb, my breasts. They took it all from me… They should have called me! Me! I’m her mother. I would have told her how to behave!.. Just because we lived on Lexington and 18th, they assumed she ran with gangs.” Her daughter was sent to juvie hall for several months, and there she was forced to claim Blue.
“When she came back, she was never the same,” Aura looks into her drink. A few years after juvie hall, her daughter became a crack addict. Today, her grown daughter lives away, as far away from the Mission as she can afford to go within the Bay Area, so that she doesn’t get triggered into her addiction by the streets of her teenage years. “I hardly see her, but she still needs my help from time to time…” The anger swells in Aura again, and she slaps her hands across her breasts and womb, “They took my womanhood, my motherhood, my womb, my breasts. They took it all from me….”.
A Watershed of Tears: Daniela (extract 4/5)
Her son Washington was charged as an accomplice to murder. He was driving a car boarded by a group of Sureño affiliates. His friends got out to check on a 14 year old teenage boy, then they stabbed him to death when he fled from them in the wee hours of that morning in the Mission. At the time, ICE Homeland Security Investigations was running an operation with the Department of Justice focused on the MS-13 gang. The operation turned the murder into a federal RICO racketeering case, which raises the question of the impact that the federal government might have on any high ranking members of the MS-13 gang by indicting youth in San Francisco. The case successfully separated Daniela from her son.
I find Washington—now 26 years old—living in a federal prison in West Virginia. The next day, Daniela and I meet at La Boheme, so that I can give her the mailing address and inmate number of her son. Over coffee, she shares with me the story of the day the police came to take her son away. […]
Daniela and her family did not hear the agents unlock the downstairs door, nor did they hear them creep upstairs. “We awoke to find ourselves surrounded in our bedroom by masked men with weapons yelling at us. I was certain we were being robbed, assaulted, by thieves. I jumped to my feet in alarm, and one of them grabbed me by the hair and slammed me to the floor. I was so confused that I got up again, and they grabbed me again by the hair, and slammed my head into the floor so hard that they gave me a black eye. They entered our sons’ room as well, and started beating on my 14 year old thinking he was Washington. Then, they tied our wrists behind our backs with plastic zip cords, and made us sit there, waiting from 6a.m. until 10a.m., when they finally took us downstairs to wait some more. […]
Since that day, Daniela developed stress-induced Type 2 diabetes, and functions only with the help of depression medication. The contact information I found online mentions Washington’s release year as 2026. “I am so ill, I’m taking about 40 units a day of insulin. I don’t have papers. I can’t travel to see him. I feel that I am going to die before he gets out, and that I will never see him again.”
A Watershed of Tears: Cholita (extract 5/5)
Over the course of the following months, Cholita, Grizzly, and I become Facebook friends, and eventually face-to-face friends. I ask Cholita how she got into a gang. “My momma worked so hard for us. I saw how hard she worked just to bring food to the table, and put clothes on our backs. I wasn’t going to ask her for more money, just so that I could buy some expensive ponytail holders that I wanted. At first, I just stole them. Later, I started selling dope to get some money to cover my extras. That’s how it started. Then, it’s just who I am. Red was always my favorite color, and I wanted to be Bryant Street.” Cholita was jumped into the gang by the block guys, because the elder women were in prison at the time. When they came back, they jumped her in again, because that was the proper thing to do. When Cholita told her mother that she had joined a gang, all her mother could do was cry.
Cholita talks to me about when she was pregnant. “I was in juvie, but my Baby Daddy was allowed to meet me at all my Ob appointments. We were together when we heard her little heart for the first time.” This experience helped them bond together around their daughter. When Aileen started walking, the young little family tried to find a larger place than their room in the Mission. They couldn’t afford anything bigger in the Mission, so they moved to Richmond. Her Facebook friends teased her that she sounded like a 30 year old Mission mom moving out to Richmond with her family. But the place was such a dump that they had to cancel the lease, and move in with Cholita’s mom and uncles back to the Mission. Like most moms, Cholita is exhausted keeping up with a toddler, but I can tell that she herself is craving stimulation. She is a young woman that needs to be out in the world. I remember being 19 years old, and loving the excitement of the streets. I guess I still do.
Grizzly catches up to us and we go to the Precita playground. We are in the company of Bernal moms, some with $800 dollar carriages, all of them hovering over their kids in the sandbox like hawks. Grizzly brought paper, envelopes, and stamps, and while I teach Aileen to run the gauntlet of the jungle gym; they sit and write letters to a friend who just got sent to jail for joyriding.
Note: An earlier version was published in 2013 as a special project with Shaping San Francisco.