Somarts, Day of the Dead, Altar installation, Oct. 3-Nov. 10, 2014
On October 3rd, Elvira Nieto and I began painting the walls of our SO- MArts altar titled The Twilight of Alex Nieto, in honor of her son, Alex Nieto. Alex Nieto was killed at twilight on Bernal Hill by four still unnamed police officers on March 21st, 2014 at approximately 7:18 p.m. Alex was eating a meal, dressed for his upcoming night shift as a security guard with a licensed holstered taser. Eyewitnesses described him as non-threatening, “just a guy eating a burrito,” watching the sunset over Twin Peaks. Despite the fact that Alex was not doing anything threatening, a dogwalker didn’t like the sight of this young working class man on his path and called 911 to describe a tall Latino male wearing a red jacket and a “gun” at his hip. He added that Alex was eating sunflower seeds or chips. Despite no mention of a threat, police officers rushed to Bernal Hill Park to hunt for Alex.
Alex’s autopsy report shows 15 entrance bullet wounds. Four wounds in an upward trajectory to his wrist, arm, and right lower leg appear to be the initial shots that took him down. The wounds on his wrists seem to indicate that he was raising his hands or taking cover when bullets impacted him. In an impossible story to believe, Chief Greg Suhr stated in a Town Hall meeting that Alex —a young man who had just completed his credits towards a career in administration of justice, and who interned at the probation department— tracked approaching officers with his taser. Chief Suhr admitted that the first shots fired took Alex down to the ground, but in a continued impossible version of events, Chief Suhr explained that Alex —wounded and on the ground— again tracked officers with his taser prompting a volley of shots. The other eleven bullet wounds to Alex’s body were caused by downward trajectory shots to his head, face, chest, and back, indicating that Alex was repeatedly struck by bullets fired by officers from a vantage point, who were evidently intent on killing him, even though he was in a defenseless position.
Over the following first week of October, other collaborators —artist Paz de la Calzada, filmmaker Ivonne Iriondo, Refugio Nieto (father of Alex) and Maria Villalta (friend of Alex and justice cause supporter)— detailed the altar. Our altar references the Nieto Family living room. Here guests are entertained, but here too Alex would watch and translate favorite shows like CSI and Law & Order to his parents, or watch Giants and 49ers games with family or friends. In this room, Alex also slept and dressed, because the living room was also his bedroom.
For our altar, Elvira brought items of Alex’s clothing. She arranged his multicolored baseball caps —all proudly bearing the classic Giants SF lettering—on the same vertical rack that used to hang on his bedroom side of the room. With a mother’s touch, she placed his security guard uniform and vest on a hanger, next to a shiny black Giants shirt with an orange trim. She touched his framed City College certificate in Administration of Justice several times to straighten it just so. The TV remained on in our altar living room with a looping video of the path that Alex last walked on Bernal Heights Park at sunset. At the end of the video, we catch a glimpse of Alex Nieto on his 28th birthday, seventeen days before being killed by police. The video loops much like the effect of trauma, but this altar is not only about loss. This altar is about Alex’s legacy as a community organizer, Buddhist, family-oriented young man, and an intellectual and artistic spirit. This altar is about those who remain living and speaking for him, his family and his affected communities, the underdogs who nobody sees.
The day after the altar exhibit opened at SOMArts, on October 11th, Alex’s Giants shirt was stolen from its hanger. The shirt was a keepsake of his brother Hector. When I told Elvira the bad news, she responded, “Adriana don’t worry. These are just material things. We will overcome this obstacle like every other obstacle that they have thrown in our path.” Elvira was referring to SFPD’s attempt to murder Alex’s character, but also a period of vandalism of Alex’s permanent memorial altar on Bernal hill. On the sidetable in our SOMArts altar, I placed a coffee cup with an image of the sunrise twilight on Bernal Hill. This image was taken during a time when volunteers spontaneously set up vigils through the night and into the dawn and through the middle of the day and back into the night to fend off a moronic vandal who would throw altar items down the side of the hill. In the spirit of mischief of Día de Muertos and taking a cue from Elvira, we chose to believe that the Giants jersey was spirited away by Alex who needed it for the pennant race. That day, October 11th, the Giants won their first game against the St. Louis Cardinals. (Yo, Alex! Your brother Hector would really like a replacement shirt though.)