As far as cellphone photos snapped from the hip go, the image an anonymous resident captured in the Mission District in the early morning hours of May 2 is a good one.
The rosy glow of dawn warms a collection of novena candles, still burning, into new-day shades of pink and orange. No one is around, but the charred bundle of sage and the drained bottles of cognac and Modelo arranged around a bundle of flowers give the liminal sensation of someone just having left.
Framed better, it might be beautiful. But it’s the social context that makes this shot of a sidewalk ofrenda, meaning “offering” in Spanish—in this case a memorial set up at the location of a fatal shooting the prior afternoon and reported by the mysterious photographer to the city as “trash” to be cleaned up while the candles were still burning—borderline sublime, and guaranteed viral content in 2019 San Francisco.
Most anyone who’s spent much time in the Mission District has seen an ofrenda, a collection of items placed on display as a memorial.
One need not be an anthropologist to recognize the offerings as what they are: an announcement that someone has died, with many more in mourning. You don’t need to have known the deceased to grasp these phenomenon as an indelible part of San Francisco’s Latin American culture, like Dia de los Muertos or Carnaval or lowriders.
And nor do you need to have spent any time in a theory class to recognize the power of the critique: “Trash,” or understand why the 311 report—which was immediately public, as all 311 reports sent via mobile apps are—sparked fury on the internet.
“This report is what RACISM looks like,” one user tweeted, tagging Mayor London Breed.
“That speaks to the tone-deafness and cultural insensitivity” rampant in a San Francisco riven by gentrification, said Jon Jacobo, a neighborhood native and activist, in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
It had been nearly a week since the photo made the rounds and Jacobo was still shaking his head. In his memory, this—phoning in an ofrenda as trash—was a first, and a new low.
“I was just blown away—I couldn’t even believe it. I was like, ‘Really? This is the level we’ve sank to?’” he said. “We can’t even have an ofrenda up for more than 12 hours because of some disconnect, someone not understanding what it means?”
The good news is that the city’s already-beleaguered Department of Public Works, the workers called to clear away the Calcutta-level misery of the city’s homeless population, again and again, left this ofrenda be, as is the policy.
Wherever they are and however they are received, ofrenda generally stay where they are, untouched, for at least a week and sometimes longer, according to DPW spokeswoman Rachel Gordon.
There is an occasional exception for decaying offerings of food, jagged edges of broken novenas, or a memorial grown so large it blocks the sidewalk. In those instances, the troublesome bits are policed and the rest of the memorial left unmolested until the deceased’s memorial service.
“We want to make sure that it’s not going to be a public nuisance, while at the same time we want to be respectful of the deceased’s friends and loved ones,” said Gordon in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Whether an ofrenda had been narced on in the past, Gordon couldn’t say. DPW doesn’t keep data on how many ofrendas appear in the city nor how many have been reported.
She did say that DPW absolutely took note of the 311 message reporting this ofrenda—and made sure that the street-cleaning crews knew to leave it alone.
Most cleaning crews are staffed with, if not San Francisco natives or longtime residents, people who know the city or are trained sufficiently “to see what’s going on,” Gordon added. “They know not to remove it.”
As for the anonymous iconoclast with a smartphone and an eye for good light, they may remain nameless and faceless forever, their exact motives unknown.
Curbed SF asked the city’s 311 call center for the full record attached to last week’s call and we’ve yet to hear back. Perhaps it’s better this way—though the significance isn’t lost on Jacobo.
“The consensus among the folks I grew up with here is, ‘Is this the new Mission?’” he said. “Is this where we’re getting to?”
“It’s almost like, not funny at all, but comical,” he added. “How could you be so, just—blind to that? To me, that’s a whole new level.”
“Either way, it just reverberates the disconnect that exists.”