A “party bus” may not be the most original idea, but 20 years ago it sort of was. Especially when done like this. Trust anyone who says San Francisco’s Mexican Bus has represented for and even preserved Latinx culture in the Citay. And fashionably.
The Mexican Bus fleet, since “El Volado” took flight in 1990, has also singlehandedly transported virtual hordes of non-Latinx people into a state of relative education about the rich Chicano roots of the neighborhood they’re drinking in.
Complaints about gentrification in the Mission District over the past 20 years are real, persistent, and city-threatening. Such is the state of the world at a time when income inequality is as high or possibly higher than it was during the Great Depression.
On the other hand, the Mission is now recognized as an American neighborhood treasure, a vibrant and colorful celebration of Mexican-American and Latinx heritage and tradition. Day of the Dead goes off down there, and people come from all over the world to partake in Carnaval as well. This cultural continuity despite obvious obstacles is all thanks to a handful of organizations who have held down the Mission since the days of Cesar Chavez.
In this hood, if you want to know about the murals that surround and overwhelm you, you go to Precita Eyes Mural Center. And if you want a ride that impresses all your friends, you catch the Mexican Bus.
Ms Burkes’ Wild Mexican Bus Ride: Eager to bring bits of authentic Mexico stateside, San Francisco artists Toni Hafter and Lalo Obregon have fashioned a 1965 GMC school bus into a whimsical cultural artifact and a rolling weekly salsa party.
by Summer Burkes, 10.20.1998
A slight blond woman wearing a sombrero with a white gauze veil tiptoes up to the bar of Chevy’s restaurant at Fifth and Howard, staggering slightly and drinking a vanilla milk shake out of an oversized plastic penis.
Stunned by the scrubbed, prefab-Mex atmosphere of the place, I sit quietly in the corner of the bar, eavesdropping on her and her noisy, shot-drinking, undertipping office girlfriends. Soon, a multicolored, illuminated vintage school bus pulls up out front and the magpies collectively let out that flat, white “Woo” often heard in strip clubs and during sorority initiations.
I follow them outside, where more thirty- and fortysomething partyers-to-be chatter and smoke and prepare to board. Tonight, to celebrate Bride of Penis’s impending nuptials, and someone else’s birthday, and someone else’s graduation, 30 or so suburbanites will get some culture aboard “el Volado,” San Francisco’s wild and venerable Mexican Bus.
Before the 1960s, bus drivers in Mexico weren’t unionized, and they competed fiercely for business. They decorated their buses lavishly to entice customers and during 15-hour workdays would subject their captive audiences to their favorite (blaring) music.
Reserving the specially upholstered seat behind theirs for their sweethearts, drivers made the bus a home away from home, littering the dash with keepsakes and altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe and San Cristobal, the patron saint of bus drivers.
Murals of beach scenes painted just above the rear windows were often the only vacation spots some drivers ever saw. It was a culture unto itself — an offbeat melding of art and legitimate work.
Cut to San Francisco 1990: Eager to educate the public and bring bits of authentic Mexico stateside (i.e., sick of Speedy Gonzales and Taco Bell), San Francisco artists Toni Hafter and Lalo Obregon decided to properly, entertainingly school folks in Latino culture with a piece of roving art.
They fashioned a 1965 GMC school bus into a whimsical, realistic re-creation of the Mexican buses of yore and (after they were hit with a $10,000-a-year insurance bill) began a monthly guided art tour and weekly salsa party.
Ricardo, our ebullient host, greets us as we board the Mexican Bus (and gawk at the elaborate interior) with a short Spanish lesson and a tequila shot. (“Woo!”) We roll, Herb Alpert’s “Tequila” blares, the yuppies wiggle and squeal in anticipation, and the bus is as loud and animated as a field trip to the amusement park.
We pile out at El Valenciano near 22nd and Valencia to dance to live salsa for an hour or so. The crowd is fully interracial, the margaritas give brain freeze, and Bride of Penis is forced to kiss some of the more attractive bar patrons.
We pile back on after an hour, and to make his wide-eyed flock believe they’re going deep into the ‘hood, Richard, the driver, takes the bus the long, long way through the dark, deserted back alleys of Bayshore. (“Oh my god, are we going to get mugged?,” etc.)We end up at Cafe Cocomo, a cavernous club in Potrero Hill, and then after another circuitous journey, the shiny new Roccapulco (formerly Cesar’s Latin Palace).
Uncoordinated-but-enthusiastic Mexican Bussers lurch among the rancheros and seasoned salseras on the spacious dance floor as the zillion-piece band rocks the house. At the end of the night, in what could have been a staged presentation of Machismo 101, a fight breaks out on the floor (while the band plays “La Bamba,” which is funny for some reason).
As the cop cars pull up, we all settle in for the ride back, and Tom Jones’s “It’s Not Unusual” booms from the bus’s sound system as a balding hippie rides tandem with us on his bike, waving and smiling.
One of the bridal party comes to the head of the bus and screams, “You guys have been the best class on a field trip I’ve ever had!” Could someone get Fellini on the phone?
The next day (and every third Sunday), the Mexican Bus takes tourists and art enthusiasts on a mural tour of the Mission, sponsored by Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. Patricia and Cristiane, our gracious hosts and accomplished muralists, help run the nonprofit, teaching classes to Mission denizens and organizing collaborative projects with children and the developmentally disabled.
The two-hour mural tour, for people who don’t live in the Mission, is a thorough-yet-guarded introduction to the neighborhood; for people that do, it’s a modern art lesson and people-watching session.
Things I learned on the mural tour: Skewed perspective and scale are mainstays of Mission murals. Spray-can murals look cloudier than mural-paint murals and don’t last as long. La Palma (24th and Florida) is one of the last places in town where you can still get handmade tortillas.
Tie is the name of a famous, talented 18-year-old graffiti artist who got shot down in cold blood by a paranoid Vietnam Vet, who still walks free. Cordova, the muralist who painted the inside of the Mexican Bus and several murals around the Mission, was one of the fastest painters this city’s ever seen.
The former Mexican Bus driver, Jaime Aguilar, is pictured on the “Golden Dream of the Mission” mural at 24th and South Van Ness (he’s the one in the red vest). And I don’t like feeling like a tourist in my own neighborhood. We pass my house three times.
In the light of day I inspect the details of the bus: winged hood ornaments, long silver horns, tiny Mexican wrestlers glued to the dash, trophies, tassels, coins, stickers of Jesus and cowboy boots and Mickey Mouse, old album covers, a tiny breast-shaped mug, a a sticker on the rearview mirror that reads “Dios es mi co-piloto …”
A larger version of the Mambo Taxi in Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Hafter and Obregon’s bus accomplishes its mission of educating the sheltered, the white-bread, and the normally uninterested in Latino life.
Hopefully, though, they won’t do too good of a job — otherwise Bride of Penis and her entourage will figure out that there’s more to the Mission than the Slanted Door and Skylark and buy a starter live-work at 18th and Bryant. Hey, Richard, keep driving through Bayshore.
This is the 29th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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