Confronting Racism and Gentrification

‘On the Hill: I Am Alex Nieto’ sparks dialogue within UCSC community

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Students from Bay Area high schools and colleges perform “On the Hill: I am Alex Nieto” on March 14. They performed songs, scenes and music to showcase the community’s struggle for justice following Nieto’s death in 2014. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Students from Bay Area high schools and colleges perform “On the Hill: I am Alex Nieto” on March 14. They performed songs, scenes and music to showcase the community’s struggle for justice following Nieto’s death in 2014. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

Alejandro “Alex” Nieto, a 28-year-old security guard and devout Buddhist, was eating a burrito on the top of Bernal Heights Park when four police officers surrounded him. They had gotten a call that a Latino man in a red jacket was “starting trouble.” Hands still in his pockets, Nieto was confronted by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD).

The police officers discharged their weapons — 59 shots were fired.

The memory of Nieto resonated through the Latinx community in San Francisco. The police were deemed not at fault for the fatal shooting because Nieto was carrying a taser for his job, although this weapon was never discharged or aimed at the police, according to the play. Nieto was portrayed as a gang member and a thug by city officials, both of which were untrue. The community reacted with protests and walkouts.

“They can do this and make it seem like he was crazy and violent and a gang member, which is a lie,” said Paul Flores, director and writer of “On the Hill: I am Alex Nieto.” “If we are just quiet and let it go, then this will be the story told about Alex.”

Photo by Alonso Hernandez
Photo by Alonso Hernandez

“On the Hill,” a production by the San Francisco theater company Loco Bloco, transformed the Stevenson Event Center on Tuesday night. A prop hill was in the center of the stage as photos of Bernal Heights Park and San Francisco were projected across the backdrop.

The show, brought to UC Santa Cruz by Student Organization Advising and Resources, Student Media and Cultural Arts and Diversity (SOMeCA), included acting, dancing and music to portray the death and aftermath after Nieto was killed. It showed everything from the anguish of his parents to gentrification in the city to police brutality.

“How do you make a victim of police violence stay in people’s minds? How do you not let them forget?” Flores said. “One thing you can do is fight against forgetting and the erasure of the act. We use the play to keep his memory and the community activism alive.”

The event concluded with a roundtable conversation. Participants discussed their personal experiences with gentrification and police violence and how they identified with characters and narratives in the play.

Loco Bloco is made up of high school and college students of color in San Francisco. It intertwines the narrative of Nieto with its members’ personal struggles, which include acting as translators for their family members, fearing police and walking out of school to protest the injustice behind the Nieto case.

“Every youth has journeyed through things on this stage to get to the point where they are at to be able to portray certain characters,” said Loco Bloco performance and events coordinator and UCSC alumna Alma Herrera-Pazmiño. “I hope other people see a reflection of themselves on the stage.”

Herrera-Pazmiño, who is from San Francisco, said she left the city to attend UCSC and then returned four years later to find a different place entirely. Long-time residents are being replaced by an influx of tech workers, which is instilling a sense of change and fear in the Latinx community. In San Francisco’s Mission District, a predominately Latinx community, the Latinx population will fall from 60 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2025 if trends continue, according to a study done by the city.

“I’ve been one of those people coming back and feeling lost,” Herrera-Pazmiño said. “Being able to see this show and be a part of it has made me feel like there is hope for working class people, people of color, students of color to live and work there. It’s just a matter of fighting for that.”

As the show closed, the audience gave a standing ovation. When the applause subsided, the audience took their seats, ready to engage in discussion — did they think the portrayal of law enforcement was accurate? What characters resonated with them and why?

“We wanted to make sure we were talking about things that impacted different communities and things that aren’t always discussed,” said fourth-year student and event organizer Eron Lake.

Student Organizing Leadership Body (SOLB), which consists of student representatives from SOMeCA, produces events and programs like “On the Hill” for the campus community. Lake, a SOLB member, and other students facilitated these discussions. Like members of Loco Bloco, many facilitators had experiences of being racially profiled by law enforcement.

“[The discussion] creates a space for students to feel safe to talk about things that are very emotional, shocking, confusing, angry — to have a place where they can […] really learn from each other,” said SOMeCA director Sayo Fujioka.

The California State Legislature included $20 million for programming across the University of California system, allowing SOLB and SOMeCA to bring “On the Hill” to campus. The planners hope the event will be replicated and used as a model that emphasizes dialogue and discussion based in social issues that affect the university community.

An actor portraying Alex Nieto’s friend explains the systemic oppression that Latinx and other underrepresented groups endure. Photo by Alonso Hernandez
An actor portraying Alex Nieto’s friend explains the systemic oppression that Latinx and other underrepresented groups endure. Photo by Alonso Hernandez

SOLB will continue this event series in spring, bringing a different play to campus that focuses on the struggles of the Black community, with similar topics of police brutality and gentrification.

“We have this perception that issues are really only impacting one community,” Lake said. “But they are really impacting everyone.”