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Inside San Francisco's Mission District


The rapid-fire chirping of Spanish slang greets visitors to San Francisco's Mission District, a Latin-flavored neighborhood where a rotund Latina preaches Spanish gospel from a microphone and amplifier just outside the 24th Street and Mission Bay Area Rapid Transport (BART) station.


Brightly colored murals engulf the sides of business buildings, apartments, churches, school playgrounds, billboards, and even McDonalds. Almost every inch of the fast food giant's exterior is blanketed in paint, most notably by a naked woman with breasts of fire.

Farther down 24th Street is Balmy Alley, one of the centers of the local mural scene. Here garage doors, fences, and backs of houses all display the talents of some of the Mission District's better-known muralists. It is considered an honor to win a spot in this alley.

Most of the murals in Balmy Alley bear Latin themes: a massive red, white and blue snake winds its way conspicuously through a central American jungle; a young girl holding an empty bowl sits atop a crate upon which is stenciled, "grain for export only"; a village burns, the smoke transforming into the face of a soldier with dollar signs in his eyes.

Some of the district's newer murals address the area's gentrification, the recent onslaught of nouveau riche arriving to the neighborhood ("dot.com" is a virtual obscenity in these parts).

Long-time residents complain that these new arrivals, who drive up rent and drive out the families that are most at home among the taquerias, the open markets, the artwork, the travel agencies with posted window fares to Guatemala City, Managua, San Salvador, Oaxaca, Montevideo.

Viva Fútbol—and Taquerias

On Sundays neighborhood men play in the district's weekly soccer game. They play behind a chain-link fence on what was once a tennis court. Some are teenagers and others are middle-aged, some wear blue jeans and denim shirts and others wear shorts and the soccer jerseys of their favorite Mexican or Latin-American teams.

This is not typical American soccer, this is fútbol—there is no smiling or laughing, not even after a goal—these guys are serious.

Though some of the men carry beer guts, they change directions with dexterity and send floating soccer balls into the middle of the field where opposing heads lunge for the ball and somehow manage not to crash into one another.

Nearby, taquerias abound. Inside, thin strips of beef sizzle on the grill behind the counter as an assembly line of sour creme, salsa, onions, hot sauce, and chunky guacamole are slopped generously onto grilled tortillas with melted cheese.

Customers happily munch on the dripping creations as juice spills their mouths, over their faces. The spicy smell of beef, cheese, and limes is intoxicating, driving those in line ravenous with hunger.

The Mission

The 214-year-old Mission Dolores—the oldest standing building in San Francisco—gives the neighborhood its name. The stark white mission bears the classic Spanish style; its clinking bell betrays its advanced age.

Inside the Mission's courtyard a genial tour guide in a bolo tie points out the 200-year-old tombstones that mark a graveyard. They stand next to a statue of St. Peter, and a row of photographs from the Pope's visit in the 1980s.

Beside the Mission is the Basilica, where Sunday Mass is delivered in Spanish. Mass here is a festive affair, with the priest walking along the aisle to the accompaniment of guitars, shakers, and tambourines. The congregation sings along; some individual families occupy entire benches.

Back at the BART station, there is an ingeniously-placed mural. In it an unending line of identical, expressionless people carry on their shoulders a huge, horizon-spanning pair of metal tracks, upon which is a sleek and modern train—yet another sign of the neighborhood's reluctance to homogenize.

National Geographic Today producers visited San Francisco's Mission District as part of the show's "Great Neighborhoods" series. In the United States National Geographic Today airs on the National Geographic Channel at 7 and 10 p.m. ET/PT.


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