Sonata for the Dispossessed: Mexicans in 1930s San Francisco


Pan American Unity, Diego Rivera, 1940

by B. Alexandra Szerlip

Was there ever any domination which did not
appear natural to those who possessed it?
— John Stuart Mill

1. Of Thee I Sing

Unless they lived in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California – all former Mexican territories – most U.S. residents in the 1930s were unaware of the Mexicans in their midst. The popularity of so-called Mexican food (fajitas, burritos, chili and nachos, like Chinese fortune cookies, are north-of-the-border inventions) dates from the 1950s. The transformation of Mexicans into “Chicanos,” “Latinos” and “Hispanics” – terms that quickly infiltrated the national media – didn’t occur until the advent of the civil rights movement, and Cesar Chavez, in the 1960s.

But the fact is that between 1900 and 1930, more Mexicans emigrated to the U.S. than any other single national group, including Germans and Italians: 368,000 to California alone, 6.5% of the state’s total population, and that wasn’t counting the undocumented.

The history of the United States is a history of disparagement, each new wave of ‘outsiders’ looked at askance by the immigrants who had preceded them. By the 1930s, racial prejudice was well entrenched, politically correct, as pervasive in cosmopolitan San Francisco as it was in remote towns and villages, and as likely to emanate from an urbane socialite or civic leader as from a barefoot rural lad, blithely referring to his slingshot as a “nigger shooter.” For many, the only thing worse than a Mexican, an Indian, a Chinaman, a “colored” or a Jew was one of the aforementioned armed, God knows how, with education, prestige, talent, influence and/or money.

Allegory of California, Diego Rivera, 1931

2. Why Hire A Foreigner to Show Us Who We Are?

When Black Thursday hit on October 29, 1929 signaling the Roaring Twenties’ definitive smackdown, San Francisco’s brand-new $2.75 million Stock Exchange building became known as the “monument of the Crash.” In an effort to erase that image, famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was offered a commission to create a fresco glorifying California’s riches on the stairwell wall between the tenth and eleventh floors. The brouhaha was immediate. An avowed Communist “decorating” a Stock Exchange luncheon club! Even the State Department disapproved, initially denying him a visa.

“Through the art colony has run the rumor that Rivera will not overlook the golden chance to exercise his communistic visions in ironic lampoons,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle, “once he gets within the sacred portals of a ‘capitalist’ club.” To ensure that that message got across, the edition the following day ran a photo of Rivera’s “Wall Street Banquet” – sinister American millionaires dining on ticker tape – superimposed onto a photo of the Stock Exchange’s staircase. The caption read: Will Art Be Touched in Pink?

Local artists, Maynard Dixon among them, were furious at having been passed over for an outsider. (Rivera’s political cohorts back home weren’t too happy about the commission, either.) He was, they claimed, a propagandist rather than a painter, and his interest in class imagery was out of place in a city allegedly without class divisions. As for being Mexican, he insisted on championing rather than downplaying the fact.

So be it. The local press was masterful at putting such things in perspective. “A jovial big jowled paisano, beaming behind an ever-present cigar, his clothes bulkier than his frame, a broad brimmed hat of distinct rural type on his curly locks,” was how the San Francisco Chronicle described him on arrival on November 10th, 1930. “Belying in appearance his reputation for biting satire”, Rivera disembarked from the train with “suitcase after suitcase…One looked for groceries or a canary cage to complete the ‘bundle’ picture.” The painter may have been too famous and too strong a presence to be hammered into a ‘migrant worker’ stereotype, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Young, attractive and unthreatening, Mrs. Rivera was treated more graciously, as a “charming, thin-waisted, high-heeled, nugget-beaded senorita.”

But despite the naysayers, Diego Maria de la Concepcion Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodriguez, 44, and his bride Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo Calderon Rivera, 23 (they’d been married a little over a year) were lionized, spoiled, feted.

Photographer Edward Weston, who’d met Rivera in Mexico in mid-1920s, noted that Frida “caused a sensation,” dressed “in native costume, even to huaraches.” San Franciscans stopped in their tracks to look at her, fascinated – and not a little horrified – by the contrast between her doll-like 5‘3, 98-pound frame and her husband’s six-foot, 300 pound bulk.

3. There Goes the Neighborhood

A government-sponsored 1930 survey declared that California had “become a Mecca” for alien immigrants, and that 234,000 of its 368,000 Mexicans were of “pure Indian or Mestizo stock.” The number of documented foreign-born Mexicans in San Francisco county had increased almost five-fold since 1910, due in large part to legislation that excluded Asians and established quotas for Europeans, but placed no restrictions on the rest of the Western hemisphere. There was a growing need for railroad workers, farm laborers and construction crews, and the U.S.-Mexican border, the second longest international border in the world, made the dream of a better life impossible to ignore. (As for the world’s longest border, to the north, Canadians didn’t seem in so much of a hurry to cross it.) The term “wetbacks” – the undocumented who allegedly swam or waded across the Rio Grande – was coined at around this time.

The survey purported to be evenhanded, noting that while some employers found Mexicans to be lazy and unreliable, others thought them honorable and industrious. (No mention was made of their often inhumane working conditions.) Overall, however, they were as “primitive” as the Native American peoples the Europeans encountered when they’d first arrived in the United States, with little or no schooling and a history of “meagre diet.” At the same time, in an effort to ‘Americanize’ Mexican-American girls, well-meaning reformers were busy teaching them to cook with Anglo white sauces (flour, butter and milk) and hard sauces (butter and sugar) in lieu of traditional Mexican red and green sauces, which are much higher in vitamins. Chilis and piquant sauces were thought to be too “stimulating.”

The report further described ethnic Mexicans as exhibiting “little attention to sanitation and hygiene.” The latter was of particular concern at a time when tuberculosis – “The Great White Plague” that, despite its name, was extremely democratic in its outreach – was ravaging the country.

Being poor also made them ripe for conversion into cutthroat “Reds,” machetes no doubt clenched between their teeth. (“Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks?” cautioned a Scot Paper Towel advertisement of the era, featuring a snarling, foreign-looking employee drying his hands with a “harsh, cheap” substitute.) What if they organized into unions, started making demands, went on strike? Under the banner of 100 percent “Americanism,” the Ku Klux Klan’s membership swelled to more than two million.

It’s a familiar story. Industry welcomes cheap immigrant labor but there’s little respect for those who answer the call. And scorned as they were in the Lower 48, Mexico’s white-pajama’d peasantry were equally denigrated by the majority of their compatriots to the south. Rivera’s glorification of the working class in his murals was the exception, not the rule. Though they worked the land and layered the bricks of its buildings, they were, in some deep sense, homeless, and so forced to create a ‘country’ of their own.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in San Francisco. From San Francisco Life, March 1941

4. Chiaroscuro

“The city and bay are overwhelming,” Frida wrote of San Francisco to a friend. “I have seen an enormous number of new and beautiful things.” Gringos, however, were not among them. They were hypocritical, puritanical, pretentious, and had “faces like unbaked bread (especially the women).”

Diego had a somewhat different view. As the focal point of his 30 foot mural, he chose blonde tennis champion Helen Wills Moody, resplendent in a necklace of golden wheat, her face looming large, surrounded by images of fruit, oil derricks, mining operations, botanist Luther Burbank, James Marshall (discoverer of gold at Sutter’s Mill), and sculptor Ralph Stackpole (who had been instrumental in arranging Rivera’s commission). Though Moody and Rivera were both relative newlyweds, they began an affair.

Rivera’s enormous profile, topped with a huge Stetson, could be seen outlining the city’s steep hills as Moody chauffeured him around, crammed into her green, two-seater convertible.

By mid-February, 1931, Rivera and his assistants completed “Allegory of California,” having worked to the point of exhaustion.

Though the mural bore no obvious hints of the Depression or of leftist politics, there were objections to having a living person depicted – Rivera saw Moody as typifying California – objections that led him to darken his lover’s hair and alter the contours of her face.

Untitled (The Three Scribes), Martin Ramirez

5. Martin Ramirez

One of the so-called primitives of the 1930 survey was Martin Ramirez. In 2007, more than four decades after his death, the New York art world would “discover” him when the American Folk Art Museum mounted a major retrospective of this “self-taught master.”

The New York Times didn’t mince their words. Ramirez was “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” comparable to such ”accessible, irresistible genius draftsmen” as Paul Klee and Saul Steinberg. As for the onus of being untrained, his “indelible style … should render null and void the insider-outsider distinction.” His drawings, observed The New Yorker, are “a marvel and a joy.”

In 1923, Martin Ramirez had bought a small farm in his native Jalisco, which left him in debt. Two years later, he headed north to find work, leaving behind a wife and four young children. The Twenties were years of plenty in Alta California. He would find his way and send money home.

I imagine him traveling third class, sleeping upright on a cushion-less wooden bench, the compartment smelling of sweat and pomade, the countryside snapping past his window. Charros, some with bright waist sashes, race their ponies along the track, shouting taunts – Hola! Tortuga! – at the engineer. An accomplished horseman himself, Ramirez would appreciate their antics, the old showing up the new; the charros are there at the station, laughing, when the train pulls in to the sound of squealing brakes.

Vendors cluster beneath Ramirez’s window hawking avocados, tortillas, fruit paste made from prickly pears, gardenias nestled in hollowed out banana stalks. One man balances a pile of serapes on his shoulder, another carries carved walking sticks and braided whips.

The whistle blows. The flatlands and maguey fields dissolve into rugged barrancas. Below, trestles span steep gorges; ahead, tunnels open just enough to swallow the snorting iron horse. He crosses the border, a mythic invisible line that separates one of the world’s poorest countries from its richest, and now his window begins to reveal cities named after saints and angels. San Diego. Los Angeles. Santa Barbara. San Luis Obispo. The charros and vendors are gone, but there are orchards, fields of sugar beets and melons, station waitresses wearing starched black uniforms with aprons and white cuffs. The colorful, sanguine and familiar have been replaced with the orderly and the staid.

Unbeknownst to Ramirez, his memories of the former would have to suffice for a lifetime.

Dream train…sound your whistle and gong. Tell the gang I won’t be

He did find work, on California’s railroads and in its mines. But by 1933, with the Depression well under way, immigrant labor was unwelcome. More than 300,000 drought-stricken, Dust Bowl “Okies” were flooding the Golden State, vying for their jobs. Under the Hoover administration, tens of thousands of Martinez’s countrymen, at least half of whom were legal U.S. residents, were forcibly repatriated. With rumors of rebellion and bloodshed to the south, Martinez opted to stay and managed to slip under the radar.

It was a fateful decision. At about the same time that Rivera was beginning a second California commission, Ramirez was picked up for loitering, (mis)diagnosed as a schizophrenic and a mute (he was literate in Spanish but spoke no English), and placed in an East Bay mental institution from which he would escape several times.

Every night when I lie down and close my weary eyes, on my train of
dreams I go to Paradise.

Now, with little to help pass the days, he drew hundreds of images, sometimes collaged with magazine photos – pulsating, hypnotic landscapes inhabited by gun-toting caballeros, Madonnas, tunnels and trains, always trains, diesels, steam locomotives, trolleys – on whatever he could scavenge. Flattened paper bags and cups, cigarette papers, discarded nurse’s notes. Examining table cover sheets were pieced together (using a improvised paste of oatmeal, mashed potatoes and saliva) to create scrolls as long as 15 feet. Tongue depressors served as a straight edge. “The Old Masters, what would they have drawn with?” Van Gogh wrote his brother Theo half a century before, explaining a preference for carpenter’s pencils. Ramirez had fewer options. Mixing melted crayons with charcoal, fruit juice and shoe polish, he meticulously applied the goo with wooden match sticks, charting a precise, intricate, whimsical, and utterly unique universe.

Dream train, please turn on your steam. Morning will soon end my

Ramirez spent thirty-two years, the entire second half of his life, locked away in a northern California ward with 15 other impoverished and “disabled” men, storing his drawings under his mattress for safe keeping. (The staff destroyed many of them but about 440 survived.) In 1963, Martin Ramirez was buried in a pauper’s grave in Stockton. The year of his Manhattan retrospective, some of his larger works fetched $160,000 at auction.

He had, concluded The New York Times, “an unerring sensitivity to the power of blank paper” and “a cast of unforgettable characters…. We are just beginning to fathom his extraordinary achievement.”

Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, Diego Rivera, 1931

6. Self Portrait with Derriere

Rivera’s 658-square-foot “Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City” for the School of the Arts (later, the San Francisco Art Institute) would depict its own creation as well as San Francisco’s. As in Italian frescos of old, it included ‘patron portraits’ – of Timothy Pflueger (architect of the Stock Exchange building) and philanthropist William Gerstle – eliciting much speculation about the implied relationship between them and the labor depicted around them. Rivera appears in the center of trompe d’oeil scaffolding, paintbrushes and palette in hand, his back to the viewer, his backside dropping over the edge of his seat. Some considered the selfportrait “Barnum-like,” an insult, others a joke in poor taste. But this time he would not alter it.

7. José de Jesús Noé

For a brief moment, one-sixth of present-day San Francisco – 4,443 acres in its geographic heart – was owned by a Mexican.

In 1833, California’s Governor Jose Figuero secularized the state’s chain of Spanish-run missions, returning them to Mexican jurisdiction. (Technically, the Spanish colony had been ruled by Mexico’s viceroy, not Madrid’s king, and most of the “Spanish” settlers were Mexican natives.)

That same year, José de Jesús Noé arrived from Mexico to become Yerba Buena’s alcalde (mayor). On December 12, 1845, Mexican Governor Pio Pico granted him Rancho San Miguel, an area cut off from the rest of city by the high hills of today’s upper Haight Ashbury to the north, “The Great Sand Wastes” (later Golden Gate Park) to the west, and Twin Peaks to the east. His domain included Blue Mountain (later Mount Davidson), a name inspired by the seventy-five varieties of wildflowers that carpeted its slopes. José de Jesús Noé was now a member of a homegrown aristocracy, the land-owning Hispanic Californios.

Arroyos que corren leche, jarros y cazos de atole,
Hay barrancas de panochas, hay azucar con pinole.

Noe lived near Mission Dolores, with his wife and baby son, 2000 head of cattle (the hide-and-tallow trade was booming) and 200 horses, commanding a cadre of peons that included former Mission Indian “converts.” But by 1850, California had become a state, Yerba Buena had become San Francisco, and the discovery of gold had brought a tidal wave of Americanos and assorted Europeans who, determined “to seize fortune in a bound, and with one eager clutch,” claimed Manifest Destiny as holy writ.

Confirm thy soul in self-control.
Confirm thy good in brotherhood.
From sea to shining sea.

Squatters were everywhere. Added to that was the convenient notion – a legacy of the recent Mexican-American War, provoked by the U.S. as an unabashed land grab – that Mexicans were bandits and desperadoes, destined to be conquered. The term “greasers,” a reference to the low-end job of greasing mule-cart axles, was already in common use.

Goodbye ranchos! Adios CaliforniosJosé de Jesús Noé was the last alcalde under Mexican rule. Like many original Mexican settlers, he soon found himself land rich and cash poor. (Defending a claim was one way to go quickly bankrupt.) On January 10, 1854, he sold off 600 acres for $36,000 – to Mormon John Horner (from New Jersey), who would turn around and re-sell it for a tidy profit to San Francisco Mayor (and former New Yorker) C.K. Garrison. Later that month, on Jan 30th, Noé sold the remainder (minus a portion deeded to his son, which was in short order “legally” seized) for $90,000.

Rancho San Miguel would remain San Francisco’s last undeveloped frontier until the 1920s, just around the time of Martin Ramirez’s arrival.

8. The Other Side of the Peso

Javier is a handsome, sophisticated, upper-class Mexican national who once lived in San Francisco. His father was Diego Rivera’s personal physician; one afternoon, when he was seven, he accompanied his father on a house call. The painter, wearing an enormous work smock, seemed like a mountain blocking the sun. As Javier peered up in wonder, Rivera charmed his young guest by producing a live Chihuahua from one pocket.

And so I asked him. “Can you suggest any Mexicans, besides Rivera and Kahlo, who’ve made a contribution to San Francisco, artistically or otherwise?”

Javier’s answer caught me completely off guard. “Why would I know about spics or Chicanos?”

Whether in Mexico City, the inland countryside, or traveling through the Yucatan peninsula where, in some spots, Nahuatl has yet to be superseded by Spanish, I’ve always observed Javier to be respectful of Indios (some 30 percent of the country’s population) and other countrymen far less fortunate than himself.

It was my understanding that the definition of ‘Mexican’ was a mix of Spanish and Indian blood. After mulling over his answer for several days, I asked him to elaborate. Like the gracious man I know him to be, he complied.

“Generally speaking, Mexicans aren’t only racists, they’re also classists,” he said. “The darker you are (the more indigenous blood you have running through your veins), the lower you are on the social scale. But a person of ‘pure’ Indian blood is somewhat admired. It’s the “mestizaje” who are considered unfortunate, though practically ALL Mexicans are mestizo to some degree. There are other bloodlines – black blood in certain Gulf and Pacific coast communities, bits of Chinese to a much lesser degree. We also have some Arabic blood. Remember, the Arabs were in Spain for almost 800 years. We are thorough mongrels.”

Frida Kahlo was a case in point, the child of an Indian-Spanish mother and a German-Jewish father. The difference was that she changed the spelling of her given name, “Frieda,” to downplay her European blood.

California history “is not just about Indians, land and liberty, and trying to be genteel,” wrote historian Douglas Monroy. “It’s as much as anything about who is going to have sex with whom.” (Cecil B. De Mille was reportedly outraged, when in 1937, his adopted daughter married “a black man,” Mexican-Irish actor Anthony Quinn.) Little has changed since the days of Jose de Jesus Noe, nearly two centuries back, when upper-crust, land-owning Californios tried to distance themselves from their provenance by petitioning Spain for a legitimidad y limpieza de sangre, proof that they, or their betrothed, were untainted by African, Indian or other sullied, non-Christian blood.

As for migrant workers and Chicanos, Javier continued, “they no longer fit either here (in Mexico) or there (the U.S.); they form a very particular culture of their own, and so are frowned upon. But at the same time they’re admired” – I suspect he was being generous – “for having the guts to migrate illegally.”

“Our racism is not up for debate,” wrote Mexican journalist Jose Agustin Ortiz Pinchetti. “There is no political official to denounce it, confront it, or overcome it, and of course, this in no way worries the elite.” What mixed feelings it must engender to know that the money braceros and other laborers send back to their families from the States constitutes Mexico’s second highest revenue, after oil.

“I used to stare at the Indian in the mirror,” wrote Richard Rodriquez, the San Francisco-born son of Mexican immigrants and, through his autobiographical writing, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. “The wide nostrils, the thick lips….sculpted by indifferent, blunt thumbs, and of such common clay….what could the United States of America say to me?” The irony is implicit. The question could just as easily have been directed at his ancestral homeland to the south.

9. Foreign Relations

In late 1938, Pflueger asked Rivera to return north for The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), a celebration of San Francisco’s two recently completed bridges. In the end, Rivera would spend more than a year of his life in San Francisco, his two protracted visits bookending the decade.

This time he would create a mural in public view, on 400-acre, man-made Treasure Island. Joining him would be fellow Mexican and friend Miguel Covarrubias, who would create half a dozen panels glorifying the Pacific Rim and its cultures, inventing a new mural technique in the process.

Rivera was still in Mexico when, on May 24, 1940, a group of Stalinists machine-gunned Leon Trotsky’s bedroom. Four years before, Rivera had arranged for Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, but he’d since had a much-publicized falling out with the Russian. Believing his life was in danger from Stalinist thugs, Rivera flew to San Antonio, Texas, where he was photographed with radiant “Cinemactress” Paulette Goddard, who had helped hide him prior to his escape. Rivera arrived, noted Time Magazine, “disheveled, tieless [and] in shirt sleeves,” having “lately enjoyed the services of a beauteous, raven-tressed Indian model” and “the visits of numerous young U.S. women, devotees of art.”

The adventures of the “pot-bellied, brown-skinned” artist “were of more than passing interest to the U.S.,” as they indicated “intensified Communazi penetration in Latin America.” Published under the heading “Foreign Relations,” it was hard to tell if the issues at hand were political or sexual.


10. That’s Entertainment!

The early 1930s saw the debut of “The Lone Ranger,” a radio series about a masked (but clearly Anglo) avenger of the underdog, a righter of wrongs in the Old West, clad in white astride a magnificent white stallion. A national hit, “The Lone Ranger” morphed into a movie serial in late 1930s, followed by a long-running TV series in the 1950s, inspiring a lucrative line of toys, comic books and Halloween costumes, and ultimately coloring children’s dreams for decades.

“Who was that masked man?” was the question always asked in the wake of his departing dust. No less mysterious was his ubiquitous sidekick. An Indian? A Mexican? He had dark skin, spoke broken English, and was named Tonto (Spanish for “slow-witted” or “stupid”). Series’ execs, syndicating to Latin America, didn’t bother to change his name or that of his “boss,” Kemosabe. Many viewers heard the latter as a corruption of quien mas sabe, “he who knows best.”

There was more than a little deja vu. Zorro – a black-clad, black-masked (but clearly Hispanic) Robin Hood who rode a black Andalusian – had preceded the pair by at least a decade. And Kemosabe’s exploits evoked tales of Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Joaquin Murieta, all real-life Mexican folk heroes.

It wasn’t the first time that Anglos had taken something from their neighbor and claimed it as their own. What is called “The Mexican Cession” in U.S. history school books was seized, not ceded, land, and it constituted half of Mexico’s original territory. It’s the natural order of things, Frida Kahlo wistfully observed, for big fish to eat the smaller ones.

11. America for Americans

“Pan American Unity,” Rivera’s massive and massively ambitious 22’ x 74’ fresco for the GGIE, was painted in the manner of Renaissance masters. One of Rivera’s finest works, it juxtaposed Central and South America’s creative genius with the technological and industrial genius of its northern neighbor. In it, Rivera depicted himself holding hands with Goddard (aka Mrs. Charlie Chaplin), his brown and her blue eyes locked. When a Life Magazine reporter asked why, he explained, doubtless tongue-in-cheek: “It means closer Pan Americanism.”

In November, Rivera took his mural crew to see The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s newly released political satire. The Little Tramp’s impersonation of Hitler, along with several other images of the actor, would be incorporated into the Treasure Island mural, juxtaposed with a ghostly Mussolini and a hooded Stalin holding Trotsky’s murder weapon.

The “dictator panel,” which also included Edward G. Robinson (an early collector of Kahlo’s paintings) in a scene from “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” caused a furor. One local journalist referred to it as “Rivera’s Kampf.” Though “probably a masterpiece of technique and color,” conceded a member of the Parent Teacher Association, it “expresses such hatred, horror and destruction…all evil forces combine to make men cry out helplessly, ‘What’s the use to strive? To hope? To live?’” Germany, meanwhile, had conquered most of Europe. Britain was hanging on by a thread.

Painted in ten sections weighing one to two tons each, the mural was slated for installation at San Francisco Junior College at the end of the Exposition. But was it the “right mental and spiritual food for our children?” another “deeply shocked” citizen inquired. Didn’t Mr. Rivera know anything at all “about modern education or even psychology?!” Still others called it unpatriotic, subversive, anti-religious, an abomination.

This was what you got for not hiring an American artist.

“When you say ‘America,’” Rivera wrote before leaving California for the last time, “you refer to the territory stretching between the ice caps of the two poles …. Take out your racism cleaners and clear away those ornamental excrescences.”

And why was it that U.S. artists didn’t tap their own hemisphere for inspiration, instead of always copying Europe?

As for the “dictator” controversy, “You cannot divorce art from life. If life doesn’t get into your art, you are just a faker.” In the end, the Board of Education declared the mural “not only art [but] high art,” adding that if art was evaluated according to political beliefs or moral values, “we’d have to empty half of our museums.”

And if art was evaluated according to racial prejudice, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Leonardo Da Vinci, Titian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Giotto, Raphael, Botticelli, Donatello, Fra Angelico, and all those other “greaser” Italians would have to go.

12. Just Desserts

In the long run, the vociferous would have their revenge.

“Pan American Unity,” one of the most important art works ever created in San Francisco, was crated and more or less forgotten for 21 years. Today, it remains in relative obscurity, towering high above the shallow lobby of City College of San Francisco’s Diego Rivera Theatre.

When the Golden Gate International Exposition closed, Miguel Covarrubias’ six “Pacific” panels were shipped to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for display. At some point during their return to San Francisco, one of them – measuring 15’ x 24’ and appraised at $1 million – went missing; the general consensus is that it was stolen for a private collection. The remaining five graced San Francisco’s Ferry Building, more or less ignored, between 1942 and 2001, and then disappeared from view.


[2] Dream Train. Lyrics by Charles Newman, music by Billy Baskette. 1928.

[3] The creeks flow with milk, pots and kettles of atole, there are brown sugar cliffs, there is sugar with pinole. From “La Cuidad de Jauja,” a song of the era similar to “Big Rock Candy Mountain.”

[4] The Annals of San Francisco, 1855.

About the Author:


B. Alexandra Szerlip was a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow. Chapters from her work-in-progress on maverick designer Norman Bel Geddes can be accessed through and In August 2013, she spoke on Bel Geddes at the Industrial Design Society of America’s international conference in Chicago (IDSA). Her recent mixed media sculpture show in San Francisco, CA, “A Visit to Mad Geppetto’s Workshop,” drew 2,500 visitors.