The 40-Year History of San Francisco Carnaval

Carnaval launches its 40th celebration Sunday, so we spoke to a few of the founders about how it all started, and how it's paraded on for 40 years.

One Mission District cultural institution that hasn’t been displaced is Carnaval San Francisco, which celebrates its 40th year with Sunday’s 9:30 a.m. parade down Mission Street and afterparty on Harrison Street. Among this year’s grand marshals is the woman who started it all, seen above wearing silver at the very first Carnaval in 1979.

Adela Chu now lives in Hawaii, where’s she’s a translator and interpreter by day, and performer with the band Espiritu Libre by night. And she loves what Carnaval has become since she left.

“Most of the people are from Latin countries,” Chu tells SF Weekly. “They’re bringing their Carnaval to the Carnaval. So we don’t have just one culture being represented, it’s the whole world dancing.”

But the first Carnaval was not a parade down Mission Street, and it wasn’t on Memorial Day weekend. It was in the freezing month of February, like a traditional Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras arrangement. And that Carnaval in Precita Park was not as tightly organized as it is these days.

“The first Carnaval was done without one sit-down meeting, believe it or not,” Chu says. “[Costume designer] Pam Minor was the one who got the permits to go through Precita Park, because she had just gotten the permits for Bring Back the Sun, who were a bunch of people who walked down the streets with signs that say ‘Bring Back the Sun.’ When she came in to get a permit, they gave it to her. They didn’t even ask.”

The first Carnaval in 1979, Image: Lou Dematteis



“It was a very grassroots community then,” says photographer and filmmaker Lou Dematteis, who took these photographs and more that are on display at Accion Latina’s Juan Fuentes Gallery show Roots of Carnaval. “A lot of it was the Mission Community and the Bernal Heights people, and the musicians and the dancers.”

Adela organized the dancers, bata drummer Marcus Gordon put together a large percussion section, and Minor designed the costumes for a cold day march through Precita Park. “There was about 300 of us participating, and there were about 1,000 people watching us,” Chu says. “At the end of it, everyone was in the parade. I was feeling a little disappointed that no one was watching us. And then I looked behind me, and everybody had joined the parade.”

A second Carnaval in 1980 moved to Dolores Park. “That was a fantastic Carnaval,” she says. “[Carlos] Santana played at that Carnaval. He just showed up and played.”

But the runaway popularity of Carnaval took organizers by surprise. “All of a sudden it jumped to ten or fifteen thousand people,” Dematteis says.

“The neighborhood people complained, they thought it was too loud,” Chu remembers. “They thought that we left too much trash, so they wouldn’t let us go there again.”



Carnaval added the parade down Mission Street that year, but the city only gave them one lane of traffic. “The first year we were on Mission they only gave us half the street,” she says. “They kept trying to move us through like we were cars or something.”

The unexpected growth forced a move to Civic Center the following year. “I was against that completely,” Chu tells us. “I felt like Carnaval belonged in the Mission. The reason I started Carnaval in the Mission is because I wanted the kids to have something. I wanted them to be able to wake up one morning and hear the commotion and open the windows and see a parade going right through their community.”




Carnaval has since bounced between Civic Center and the Mission in the 80s and early 2000s, but has been firmly placed in the Mission since 2003. Production of the event switched hands to the Mission Economic Cultural Association, but now it’s operated by a nonprofit called  Cultura y Arte Nativa de las Americas (CANA).

“It’s been well taken care of,” Chu says, just hours before her flight to return 40 years later as the grand marshal of more than 400,000 Carnaval attendees. “I feel like the fact that Carnaval is still going on 40 years later is a real blessing for the community.”

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