MCO and Latino Community Formation

Historical Essay


Listen to an excerpt from "All Those Who Care About the Mission, Stand Up With Me!" by Tomas Sandoval (read by Adriana Camarena):

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Previous stop: Flowering communalism
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Beginning in 1967, the largely working-class, heavily immigrant, and decidedly multiracial neighborhood of the Mission District underwent a profound transformation. Incited by the specter of urban redevelopment, and set against the backdrop of local movements for racial justice, this multigenerational population of both the politically-active and previously uninvolved came together under the common cause of community as embodied in the MCO. Called the “largest urban popular mobilization in San Francisco’s recent history,” they united for jobs, housing, education reform, and the power to implement their collective vision.(2) In the process, they asserted a powerful sense of cultural citizenship, “of claiming what is their own, of defending it, and of drawing sustenance and strength from that defense.”(3) By 1973, when the formal organization declined, the Mission remained a far more cohesive community than it was before, reshaping their sense of collective identity in fundamental ways.


MCO Housing Chair Flor de Maria Crane speaks with Supervisor Terry Francois and Assemblyman Willie L. Brown, Jr. (at right) during press conference, c. 1971.

Photo: Spence Limbocker, courtesy El Tecolote archives

Designed as a grassroots, multi-issue coalition composed of scores of local organizations, the MCO actively involved 12,000 residents who sought democratic control over their neighborhood on behalf of the more than 70,000 people who lived there. At its height, the MCO became an institutional force, both the recognized voice of the district in political circles and the local group controlling funds from the Model Cities Program—a 1966 community development effort by the federal government mandating citizen participation. Through an assortment of programs and campaigns, they made lasting and meaningful changes to the infrastructure of everyday life for both contemporary and succeeding generations of local residents. The legacy of the MCO—balanced on a multiracial and working-class population successfully claiming rights and ownership over their neighborhood—extends beyond the programmatic. In the ways it envisioned its collective effort, and integrated and deployed the racial/ethnic diversity of the Mission, the MCO nurtured a collective community identity within the population largely of Latin American descent. As a result, they recreated the historic community identity of the Mission District, substantively rooting a hybrid and shifting form of class-based latinidad in the neighborhood, an identity which continues to shape its present in myriad ways.


MCO's 5th annual convention, 1972, at USF.

Photo: El Tecolote archives

“We are mainly a Latin American community which is proud of its heritage,” proclaimed Ben Martinez at the second annual convention of the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO). Standing before more than 800 community leaders—collectively representing 81 local civil rights, labor, church, and community organizations—Martinez publicly recognized the new dominant racial/ethnic group in the Mission as the foundation of coalition-building. “But this is also a mixed community,” he continued, “and I know that the Samoan, the Black, the Italian, the Irish, the Filipino, the American Indian, the Anglo, and every other group in this community is proud of its heritage.” Speaking as president of the MCO in October 1969, Martinez had already overseen a growth in membership, programs, and public reputation for the fledgling organization. Now, hoping for more success, he addressed a looming limitation to the collective and grassroots effort of this poor, diverse neighborhood. “It is in our interest to recognize the identity each of us has, and then to go from that point to developing a working program that will meet all of our interests.”(1)

In the spring of 1966, the cause of urban renewal served as the catalyst for this transformation. On the surface, the Mission seemed an ideal candidate for renewal, or publicly-funded development to cure urban blight. By mid-decade, however, the promise of federal dollars for local redevelopment created a backlash within poor and working-class communities in the City. An urban renewal project in the Western Addition, rather than improving life for the primarily Black, working-class residents, resulted in massive dislocation, leaving the area’s core surrounded with vacant lots, public housing units, and a growing crime rate. Widely studied as an example of failed urban planning, and popularly understood as urban removal, by the 1960s the bureaucratic buzzwords of “urban redevelopment” incited fear among the City’s communities of color. Not surprisingly, when rumors of a proposed study by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) circulated through the Mission, constituencies as seemingly disparate as landlord and tenant found a common ground of opposition.

In 1966 the SFRA secured funds for a study of the “Mission Street Corridor,” the core of the district where BART construction would be located. Almost immediately, local property and business groups organized their opposition. Led by realtor Mary Hall and self-described “right-wing populist” Jack Bartalini, the conservative group included longtime homeowners’ associations like the Potrero Hill Boosters, East Mission Improvement Association, and Noe Valley Improvement Club, in addition to local merchants. Each feared the proposed clearance of deteriorating properties and the forced relocation of businesses, labeling the downtown-led redevelopment “creeping socialism.”(4)

Bartalini and Hall spoke for constituencies with political clout but a diminishing presence in the Mission. These mostly White, propertied residents with long roots in the district had been joined in the previous decade by a multiracial mix of migrants, most with roots in Latin America. Local officials and the press noticed the growth of the Spanish-speaking population at roughly the same time as the growing exodus of White ethnics and declining conditions in the Mission, leading some to suggest the two were connected. One local resident expressed the views of many when he described the Mission as “running down something awful. Twenty years ago, my wife and I used to stroll around the block after supper, but the streets aren’t safe at night anymore.” To others, the newcomers represented the future potential of the neighborhood, informing formal efforts to assure “they’ll want to stay.”(5) Indeed, in the eyes of many informal leaders of the neighborhood, the multiracial population embodied the strength that had always marked the Mission’s past. As one local priest put it, “whether they were Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, or they came from Nicaragua