Alex Nieto was a young Latino from San Francisco who was shot at 59 times by four San Francisco police officers on the night of March 21, 2014 in Bernal Heights Park. All four officers were later acquitted of all charges.
All too often in the aftermath of a tragedy like this, our community members and loved ones are only left with negative effects, the loss of young life, the sorrow, the feeling of hopelessness. But since Alex Nieto’s death, several memorials created for him have not only provided comfort to my Bay Area Latino communities, but have also left us lasting symbols of life, joy, resistance, and hope.
It’s one of those days here in San Francisco where it’s foggy in the whole city, but here in La Mision the sun is shining bright. It’s sabado — Saturday May 27th, the first day of Carnaval — a gigante two day celebration of Latino and Latina cultura. Tomorrow, the parade will make its rhythmic way down Mission Street with its gigante colorful floats, squads of whirling capoeira practitioners, glittering samba dancers, and mobs of drummers. Thousands of people from all over the Bay Area will come to watch and dance and generally have themselves a funky good time. But that’s tomorrow, and I’m here today walking down South Van Ness Boulevard.
The food booths are the first signs I see that Carnival has begun. Vendors are selling everything from tacos in baskets, to kettle corn in bags, and elotes on a stick. It’s still early so the newer residents of La Mision -- the techies -- haven’t come out yet. The folks who are out walking alongside me are the older residents of the neighborhood. Familias from Mexico and Guatemala pass by each other smiling, speaking Spanish and Maya. On the next block Latino hermanos and hermanas are selling items of Chicano Pride: Hoodies with pictures of Geronimo with the phrase “Original Homeland Security,” oversized t-shirts with Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata on them. It’s around these images of rebellion and resistance that I find the man I’m looking for: Benjamin Bac Sierra.
I hear him before I see him, greeting strangers like this: “How are you doing brother? Enjoying your family? Donate please to the ‘Amore for Alex Nieto Memorial.’”
Benjamin Bac Sierra was one of Alex’s homeboys. In the years before Alex was killed, he and Ben use to set up this booth together, standing pretty much here at the same spot, reaching out to the young members of the community in La Mision as they walked by.
Now Ben sets up the booth every year with his familia to honor Alex, and to make sure that people don’t forget what happened to his homeboy. Ben talks to the crowd and asks them if they knew Alex, if they know about the future memorial and if they can make a donation.
Ben has been one of the most formidable voices in a community movement to erect a memorial to Alex Nieto in Bernal Heights Park. The memorial itself is a Mesoamerican-inspired shape, a large carved round stone embedded in the ground with a raised platform in the middle. That’s where an image of Alex’s face is surrounded with different kinds of flores. Behind the image of his face there are colores symbolising the four sacred directions. I have seen Ben at numerous community events and meetings, often standing side by side with Alex’s mama and papa, informing people about the progress of the project.
Ben tells me that they are hoping that by the end of summer they will have enough funds to go ahead and break ground. “The memorial will guarantee that Alex Nieto and that case will not be forgotten,” he tells me.
There’s passion in Ben’s voz when he starts talking about what will eventually be built for Alex, and how it will connect his homeboy to the neighborhood that he grew up in. “We have it right now designed so that you will be able to see the memorial from the Mission, from 24th all the way up to Cesar Chavez. If you look up on the hill you'll be able to say, ‘Hey, there goes the Alex Nieto Memorial.’”
Most memorials that I’ve seen are grey concrete markers or mowed patches of lawn where members of the community go to quietly contemplate a loved one’s passing. But the memorial Ben Bac Sierra is describing not only has distinct shapes and colores, it also seems to have a vitality, projecting something besides the sorrow and seriousness that you normally feel when you visit a memorial. “People are going to come up there, they'll have field trips up there, they'll write thousands of educational essays,” he imagines, excitedly. “People will get married up there. People will go drink up there. They’ll have BBQs up there, right? And so it will be a space for us for liberation and love, ‘cause that's going to be a place of peace. It’s going to be a place of inspiration.”
Ben catches the eye of another passerby and goes off to engage her. He talks to her in Spanish, asks her if she’s heard of Alex, and begins to explain to her who he was and what they are doing out here today. He gently touches the arm of the older Latina and within a few seconds Ben has her full attention. I can see the interest and concern in the woman’s eyes as Ben tells her about Alex.
What was it about Alex that touched so many gente in our communities? Long time Mission resident Paul Flores thinks it’s because he was what Ben Bac Sierra called a “homeboy intellectual”: one foot in the hood the other in a book. “I feel like we need to have those types of folks who can talk street but can also talk history and ideas, and he was that type of dude," Flores says. "Y'know, he was going to school, he was working, he was supporting his immigrant parents.”
Paul is a poet and playwright. Like many local writers he was so struck by Alex’s story that he turned to his art to help him cope with what happened. “I didn’t know Alex personally but his community was my community,” Paul says. “The art is definitely a part of the healing process.”
Paul wrote a play about Alex Nieto called “On the Hill” which premiered in La Mision last December at the Brava Theatre on 24th Street. It featured music of the local youth organization Loco Bloco. Paul’s play is in part a reenactment of the night that Alex Nieto was killed, and uses young brothers and sisters from the neighborhood in the cast.
This play is a memorial that Paul has created for Alex. Just like the one that will eventually be built in Bernal Heights Park, it is not a somber recollection or a quiet place to sit and hold inside the injusticia of what happened. This is a vibrant tribute that takes the senseless and violent thing that happened to Alex, and leaves us with something made up of youth, colors, music, and hope.
A few weeks after Alex was killed, a simple black and white line drawing began to appear wheat pasted on the walls of La Mision and across the Bay in Oakland. The image is of Alex’s face, with a goatee and a SF giants cap on, staring straight ahead. The caption below says “Justice for Alex Nieto.” For many people here in the Bay Area it’s this image they associate with Alex. The person responsible is Chicano artist Oree Originol, who lives and works in the Fruitvale. Oree started a project in 2014 called “Justice for our Lives” that was a portrait series of people who have been killed by police.
Oree’s image of Alex, just like Paul’s play, is undeniably a memorial, but it’s a memorial that stares back at us from death, emanating a palpable sense of life. That memorial that Oree created of Alex’s face has been held up high at rallies against police brutality in places like Arizona and East LA. Oree says they’re definitely memorials, just “not necessarily placed in a single spot, and that’s how it lives, more like a memorial that lives pretty much everywhere.”
I personally saw this last year. At the San Francisco parade that went down Market Street on May 1st -- the traditional workers’ holiday known here as “Un Dia Sin Immigrantes” -- I saw that image of Alex that Oree created staring back at me defiantly so many times. There, and in so many other marches, that image of Alex has been held up alongside banners that read “Aqui Estamos Y Nos Vamos” -- we’re here and we’re not leaving. His face has stared down the people booing us as we march to protest the waves of gentrification that have displaced us from our own neighborhoods.
Back at Carnival at the “Amor for Alex Nieto” booth, I’m talking with Alex’s mama. She’s talking to me in Spanish and saying that she thinks this memorial is important, so that the community will remember and not forget about the injustice of what happened to her son. She wants what any good mama would want for her hijo.
These memorials that are planned and that have been created will make it certain that we will not forget Alex, that the community will remember what was done to him. But in the creation of these memorials we have also touched upon something that has always been a deep part of Latino culture: The power that we have as a community of taking the pain that la vida gives us and creating something beautiful from that; those lagrimas that we shed end up watering the tierra that sustains us.
In every image I see of Alex, whether it’s his face up on a new mural on 24th Street or one of Oree’s prints, I see vida, I don’t see death. In every song where his name is spoken, I hear vida, I don’t hear death. When I think about that memorial is finally being built up there in Bernal Heights Park, and about how it will become a permanent part of the view from La Mision, how people will see that memorial and talk about Alex Nieto, and how those discussions about the injusticia of what happened might light a fire under someone — looking at it in this way, Alex’s memorials are actually reaching out to people, engaging people. Just like he used to when he worked that table in La Mision during Carnaval.