May/June Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 5

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Looking Forward to the 2014 ASA Annual Meeting

Hard Times for Low-Wage Latino Immigrants in
San Francisco’s Mission District

Susanne Jonas, University of California-Santa Cruz)

Historically, San Francisco has been widely viewed in a favorable context as a settlement for Latin American immigrants because of its ethnic diversity and multicultural values. The city has also been prominent for its generally progressive politics and for being one of the most favorable destinations for Central American asylum seekers during the 1980s and 1990s. San Francisco’s elected officials extended its 1985 Sanctuary City provisions for Central Americans to other undocumented immigrants in 1989.

La Victoria, lower 24th Street’s famous, longstanding Mexican bakery and restaurant, now serves both traditional Latino and recently arrived professional high-tech (non-Latino) clienteles.

La Victoria, lower 24th Street’s famous, longstanding Mexican bakery and restaurant, now serves both traditional Latino and recently arrived professional high-tech (non-Latino) clienteles.

However, San Francisco’s largest low-wage Latino immigrant groups—Central Americans and Mexicans—have achieved only limited upward mobility. Further, they have experienced increasing socioeconomic difficulties. Manuel Castells first analyzed San Francisco’s Mission District as a site for Latino migrants and citizens in his 1983 pioneering critical analysis, The City and the Grassroots. His study found that cultural capital (e.g., major festivals, murals, restaurants) did not translate into Latino socioeconomic or political power vis-á-vis the city’s ruling elites and developers—partly because these communities had a high proportion of non-citizens, many of them undocumented.

The economic and political dominance of downtown developers, as well as structural transformations in the post-industrial political economy of San Francisco in recent decades, made life less secure for low-wage Latinos, especially immigrants. The effect of living in a post-industrial, technology-driven economy that was polarized into high-end and low-end service sectors (using Saskia Sassen’s framework) and that underwent spectacular booms and precipitous declines since the 1990s, was felt throughout San Francisco’s labor and housing markets.

In job markets, many Latinos, both U.S.-born and newly arriving immigrants, have tended to remain trapped as the “working poor,” often needing more than one job and/or remaining at the bottom of the informal sector—for example, at day laborer street sites (men) or as maids and nannies (women). In the late 1990s, a Guatemalan soccer-league organizer told me how hard his compatriots had to work, “Aquí, no se vive, se sobrevive” (“Here, we don’t live, we survive”).

In recent years, the presence of Internet cafes such as “L’s Caffé” show the changes in the lower 24th Street neighborhood and the changing needs of its mixed residents.

In recent years, the presence of Internet cafes such as “L’s Caffé” show the changes in the lower 24th Street neighborhood and the changing needs of its mixed residents.

As seen in previous articles in this series, both boom and bust periods transformed San Francisco into one of the least affordable urban areas for low-income residents. While this was the case previously, it has taken on exaggerated proportions recently. According to Census figures, San Francisco had the highest median rent in 2010-2012 (e.g., $3,250 a month for a two-bedroom apartment), higher even than New York City. Additionally, San Francisco has the least affordable home prices in the United States, with just 14 percent of homes being accessible to middle-class buyers. On another dimension, a 2014 Brookings Institution report found that San Francisco’s income inequality ratio, the second highest nationally, grew faster between 2007 and 2012 than with any other city.

Contested Space in the Inner Mission District

For several decades, from the late 1960s to 2000, the Inner Mission District (IMD),1 the primary Latino neighborhood, resisted the tide of gentrification, partly because of the organizing efforts by community coalitions. Some areas in the IMD showed signs of economic deterioration, overcrowded housing, crime and gangs; it was largely a barrio of the working poor, but it was their Latino space. But in the early 21st century, with San Francisco in flux, this relative stability has been shattered.

Perhaps more than any other area of San Francisco, the IMD was impacted by the rapid-fire boom and bust cycles of the high-tech sector in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Preexisting socioeconomic problems for Latinos were compounded by gentrification. Subsequently, the Great Recession reduced the availability of even low-wage jobs for Latinos in San Francisco; and the high tech-driven economic recovery beginning around 2011 accelerated evictions and displacements.

As of 2000, Latino residents had resisted demographic decline, remaining more or less stable from 1970 to 2000 at 14 percent of San Francisco’s population, concentrated mainly in the Mission District (MD) and along the Mission Street corridor to Daly City. During the 1980s and 1990s, outright displacement of Latino immigrants in the Inner Mission District advanced far more slowly than predicted. Unlike other neighborhoods of San Francisco that had been completely transformed by these dynamics in the mid- to late-20th century (as analyzed by Chester Hartman and others), gentrification began on the IMD’s outer edges, but did not yet occur wholesale in the core (around lower 24th Street). Along with six Latino families, I lived from 1988 to 2001 in a 24th Street apartment building, where 2-bedroom units rented for under $850 a month.

Muralists on Cesar Chavez Day in 2010 symbolize the campaign to preserve the Latino character of the Inner Mission District “Hood.”

Muralists on Cesar Chavez Day in 2010 symbolize the campaign to preserve the Latino character of the Inner Mission District “Hood.”

By 2000, according to Census data, Latinos still made up 60.9 percent of the IMD population, compared with 62.3 percent in 1990. But by 2010, Latinos had declined to 50 percent of the IMD population, and from 50 to 41 percent of the entire MD—a sizeable decrease (data compiled by Brian Godfrey). Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population increased notably in the IMD, from 47.3 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2010.

Beginning in the late 1990s/early 2000s, gentrification and skyrocketing rents as well as outright evictions accelerated significantly in the IMD and the MD overall. As more high-tech workers moved in, evictions escalated in the MD more than in other areas of San Francisco. Anti-displacement and tenant’s rights organizations put up a fight, but were unable to stop this gentrification/expulsion process.

Increasingly during the early 2000s, the MD has lost its traditional character as an affordable working-class neighborhood. Rental and home prices have risen far-higher than in the nearby “Outer Mission” and Excelsior districts, and home prices have become virtually as high as in bordering middle-class Bernal Heights. For example, a 600-square foot MD apartment was being rented for $2,800 a month in 2012. In addition, in a new condo complex on Mission Street between 21st and 22nd Streets (formerly the site of a large discount store patronized largely by Latinos), condos are being sold in 2014 at prices reaching $1,000 to $1,250 per square foot. Home prices in the MD overall rose by 30 percent between March 2010 and March 2013—the highest increase in the city.

No longer is lower 24th Street (at the IMD’s core) simply a Latino ethnic enclave, although Latinos still maintain a significant presence. To mention only a few of the multiplying examples: internet cafes such as“L’s,” exotic ice cream parlors, trendy Oriental and organic restaurants (e.g., “Sushi Bistro”), and businesses such as Metro/PCS have taken over spaces near or previously occupied by Salvadoran/Mexican restaurants such as La Posta and Margarita’s Pupusería. The space occupied for decades by the Cuban-owned record store Discolandia was taken over, when the owner retired, by a very un-Latino restaurant, ”Pig and Pie.”

In addition, some of the surviving Latino businesses began catering to recently arrived professionals and tech workers. The longstanding Mexican restaurant and bakery La Victoria became “La Victoria/Wholesome Bakery” in 2011, offering upscale cupcakes and expensive fair-trade coffee (“De La Paz”) alongside traditional pan dulce, in order to “keep up with the changing neighborhood,” as the owner told us.

From a top-down analytical perspective, this re-socialization of space can be seen as a triumph for developers and new middle-class residents in the city’s warmest, sunniest neighborhood, a mere 10-minute drive or public transit ride to downtown. Viewed from the bottom up, the IMD is, in Godfrey’s formulation, a “barrio under siege,” responding defensively to threats of displacement and neoliberal spatial restructuring. Low-wage Latinos faced with displacement from the MD during the early 2000s have been forced to migrate, some to less expensive neighborhoods in San Francisco, but primarily to Oakland and farther east. Between 2000 and 2005, according to Census data, 10 percent of San Francisco’s Latinos left the city. And many newly arriving Latino migrants in the early 2000s have avoided San Francisco altogether, instead locating directly to the East Bay.

In late April 2014, as Footnotes was going to press, IMD Latino cultural, community, merchant, and political leaders formally launched a major initiative to create a Latino Cultural District around the lower 24th Street core. While it will not affect real estate prices, this is a significant move to preserve the area’s Latino heritage, identity, and contributions to San Francisco.

Sanctuary Contested

Politically, San Francisco’s undocumented Latino immigrants face new threats to sanctuary protections. These protections have been in place for two decades, maintained in part by constant organizing by large immigrant rights coalitions. Sanctuary City has meant, among other things, non-cooperation with deportation procedures of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (currently Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] within the Department of Homeland Security).

In 2008, a few high-profile cases of undocumented immigrant youth committing serious crimes led to a local backlash in which the Mayor unilaterally decreed that information on undocumented arrestees would be shared with ICE at the time of arrest rather than conviction. The Board of Supervisors voted overwhelmingly to force the mayor to retract the measure in 2009. (This resolution was authored by Supervisor David Campos, a Guatemalan immigrant who became the first elected Latino to represent voting District 9, covering most of the MD and Bernal Heights.) But for the longer-range outlook, with the changing voter demographics of San Francisco, it is uncertain whether elected officials will remain as committed to Sanctuary City.

Much more ominous was the mandatory 2008 federal “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) Program, through which ICE imposed the primacy of federal authorities in carrying out deportations, without regard for local laws or public opinion. S-Comm required local police to share fingerprints of undocumented arrestees with ICE and to hold them in detention until ICE could pick them up. While it was supposed to focus on immigrants who had committed serious violent criminal acts, S-Comm detained and deported many non-criminal immigrants, including some legal residents. San Francisco County had among the highest rates of deportation of non-criminals or minor offenders under S-Comm: 77.6 percent (of 241 cases) between October 2008 and February 2011. In 2013, the Board of Supervisors passed a “Due Process for All” measure, refusing cooperation with ICE in most, but not all cases.

On balance, San Francisco, like other local jurisdictions, has lost some of its relative autonomy, so that sanctuary is no longer a guaranteed protection. The tug of war is likely to continue, increasing fear and uncertainty among San Francisco’s Latino immigrants.

Susanne Jonas, University of California-Santa Cruz, is co-author with Nestor Rodríguez of Guatemala-U.S. Migration: Transforming Regions (University of Texas Press, forthcoming)


  1. The Mission District as a whole as defined by census tracts, is bounded by Cesar Chavez Street to the south, the 101 Freeway to the east and north, Market Street in the northwest corner, and Dolores Street to the west; it includes, in addition to the Inner Mission District, the upscale Western area between Valencia and Dolores Streets, and the more industrial/mixed Northern Area from 17th Street north to 101. The Inner Mission District is bounded by Cesar Chavez to the south, the 101 Freeway to the east, 17th Street to the north, Valencia Street to the east. For our purposes, the “core” refers to the smaller area in and around lower 24th Street, between Mission Street and Potrero Avenue.


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