Interviewsand Articles

 

New Trail of Hope : Demetrio Braceros

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2007


 

 

I couldn't resist eavesdropping on the animated conversation at the next table-- something about “a little Asian man” and “this amazing place!”  Judging from the excitement, something had to be really special. A city park was mentioned. Was it Cayuga Street? Once back home, I started searching online.
     There is a park on Cayuga Street. That had to be it.
     So I drove over from the East Bay and there it was, laid out against the high concrete wall of Highway 280. BART trains passed overhead along the park's north side with the high pitched whine of steel on steel. The park was two, maybe three, acres I guessed -- with a senior center and a couple of tennis courts, too.
     The day I found it, the sky was gray with the marine layer overhead—typical for San Francisco out near the Ingleside District. What surprised me was seeing several sculptures tucked into the landscape. Maybe that was what the people at the next table had been talking about.
     Walking into the park to get a better look, I was shocked to see how many pieces of art began to appear. It was hard to believe. This was a city park, after all. Sure, one might see a piece of public art here and there in a park, but nothing like this. And this work was not at all like most public art. It was alive, and the expression of a singular poetic sensibility.
     What was an entire symphony of outsider art doing in a city park? I looked around for "a little Asian man," but the place was deserted except for a woman with a baby stroller casually making her way around the park.
     Well, I could take some photos. And walking around, I happily studied one piece after another. Just before I left, a quick count revealed over a hundred pieces scattered through the grounds: carved animals, birds, insects, all kinds of standing figures, tablets with hand lettered messages ("Education is Life"), whimsical combinations of elements—stacks of them. I'd have to come back and try to find the elusive maestro.
     My second visit was almost an accident. My wife and I, coming back from Half Moon Bay were headed north on 280. Coming into S.F. I realized we would pass right by the park. “The garden's right over there,” I said.
     “Let’s go see it!” my wife replied, to my surprise.
     This time, as I was looking for the artist, I spotted a slight man, head down, pushing a broom—a janitor maybe; he was sweeping leaves in the corner of a patio. Well, who knows? Approaching him, I asked, “Are you the man responsible for all this art?”
     He glanced up at me, and looked down again. Suddenly I felt rude. But after a pause, he looked up again. “Yes.”
     He said it with a little laugh, tinged with something like apology. Our conversation was brief, but full of my unspoken question: What is it you’re doing here so much from your heart?  

I would return. I wanted to learn more about the whole story. I wanted to help spread word of this park. But I’d never met an artist who conveyed less interest in getting attention. I wondered if he’d even allow me take his photo. What would I’d do if he asked me not to publish anything? I still didn’t know this man's name.
     A week later, I called a friend. “Carlo, are you free tomorrow morning? There's someone I think you would enjoy meeting." He was. At 10 am we headed across the bay to San Francisco. It was another overcast day. Perfect for a few more photos. Arriving, I spotted the gardener right away; he was hand-watering a row of hydrangeas.
     Carlo and I walked up and introduced ourselves. I don’t know if he remembered me, but it didn’t matter. He seemed happy to talk. And he was looking almost natty, wearing an argyle sweater and button-down shirt. When he allowed me to take his photograph, after straightening his collar, I knew it was going to work out.
     I’d asked Carlo to come along on a sudden impulse. But no one I knew could more genuinely have appreciated this unusual man. As the three of us talked the atmosphere had been subtly brightening, Carlo and I leaning in to make out his responses to our questions. Between his accent and quiet way of speaking, I was getting less than half of his words, but something else was going on, too. I'm sure we all felt it.
     Somewhere in the middle of it all, I asked for his name. “Do you mind writing that down?” I asked, handing him a pen and piece of paper. Very carefully, and in a fine, ornate hand, he wrote: Demetrio O. Braceros.
     Yes!
     Smiles all around.
     Demetrio was born in the Philippines. He'd taught industrial arts there. He’d come to the Bay Area in 1977, I think. He’d worked at the Arboretum in Golden Gate Park for three years. I didn’t get the details about how he was given responsibility for an undeveloped parcel of land on Cayuga Street. It happened in 1986. The place was just a raw stand of weeds and unkempt trees.
     "There were prostitutes and drug dealers and crime in the neighborhood. It was bad. People got killed up there,” he said, pointing to houses along the southern edge of the park. “I thought to myself, how can I help this place?”
     Then, looking at Carlo, he tried to explain by quoting a biblical reference. We didn't quite get it. So he took Carlo by the arm and we walked over to another carving, a bust which might have been the head of Jesus. It was hard to say, but underneath it “Let there be Light” had been painted. 
     Demetrio pointed to his hand-lettered words and said, “There was darkness here. It needed light.”
     We just paused, smiling. 
     “These are not mine,” he said, with a sweep of his hand indicating all the pieces of sculpture he’d made. Across the language barrier I made out something like this: “Whatever this creative ability is that has been given to me, it’s not mine to claim for myself, but to use for the good of all.” All this work was for others: his employer, the taxpayers, the neighbors. 
     It went beyond that, I knew. His explanation was another piece of shorthand. The little gardener, as best I could understand, had landscaped the entire site. He choose the plants, got them planted, and has maintained it ever since. But that was only the beginning of his work, the part he was being paid for. This other part, the art-part, was something he felt called to do for other reasons.
     All the wood for his carvings came from the park itself, he told us. The first large piece came from a Monterey cypress that had blown over. He led us to a half circle of tall bushes. “Here it is."
     We found ourselves looking at a carved figure I’d missed before, a life-sized man.
     Demetrio explained, “He’s reading the Book of Kknowledge.” He paused searching for the words to explain that more fully... "I wanted to inspire the kids."

Another Function
     On that first day when I’d visited the park, halfway through my second roll of film, I’d chatted with the woman with the stroller. She lived nearby, she told me. She loved the park. “Everyone does!” she said.
     As I stood there talking with her, it struck me that having an entirely relaxed conversation with a young woman I’d never met before was a reflection of the gardener’s work and the atmosphere created in the little park.
     Cayuga Park, it occurred to me later, is a commons. I thought of Karl Linn, who devoted a good part of his life to educating people about the importance of having commons in a community.
     Linn’s efforts were responsible for a community garden in Berkeley. I’d met Linn and interviewed him in that garden a few years before he died. Artists had come to him wanting to participate. Linn told me that he'd learned something from these artists. “Now, we’re always trying to help the artists to realize their work," he told me. "It fulfills another function.” That’s how he put it. It fulfills another function

A New Trail of Hope
The three of us continued our tour and stopped before a carving of a woman, her hands gripping a ship’s wheel with the following words painted on it, “Energy is the Capacity of Doing Work. Work is the Tendency of the Moving Body. Keep on Moving for Good Health.”
     I thought of the conversation I'd overheard that had led me here and was glad I'd followed my intuition. We all stopped in front of a large, carved portal painted with these words: “Welcome to the New Trail of Hope.” Indeed.
     Carlo and I stopped to look at another piece-- a man holding his hands over his ears. “Is that about the noise of BART trains coming by?” I asked. 
     Demetrio laughed. “Look closer,” he said pointing to the head.
    There was something on the back of the carved head. “Is that a crab?” Carlo asked.
     Demetrio smiled.
     If I’d had more presence of mind and the language problem wasn’t a factor, I'd have asked if the crab was a metaphor for the things troubling people. But what else could it have meant? Could anyone doubt that the healing influence of Demetrio Braceros’ carvings in Cayuga Park played an essential role in the transformation of a city neighborhood?

We spent maybe forty-five minutes together. At certain points Demetrios laughed and reached out to grab Carlo or me by the arm to make a point. Somewhere in the oddly rewarding struggle to understand each other, I asked, “People don’t steal the sculptures?” Many of them could easily be carried off. 
     Demetrio pointed to a couple of sticks in the ground. They must have served to hold up a now-missing carving. “That one was taken,” he said. He was laughing.
     Carlo looked slightly disturbed, and he pointed to the carving of the man with a crab on his head.
     “Do you want it?” Demetrio asked, brightly.
     “No. No,” Carlo said, laughing. ”It belongs to the park!”
     If Carlo had nodded yes, I’m sure Demetrio would have picked it up right there and handed it to him.
     “I don’t care if people take them,” he said. “I can always make more.” He added, “Whoever takes a piece might need that piece.”
     Hearing that, I confess I had to struggle with a greedy streak of my own, but I managed to keep my mouth shut.
     “Can you take us around and talk about each piece?” Carlo asked.
     Demetrio looked at me, and then at Carlo. "I've got work to do," he said. Then, with a mischievous grin, he said to Carlo, “Next time we can stand hip-to-hip [he made a little gesture] and talk about each one!”


Thank You SF Parks and Rec Dept
I didn’t call the San Francisco Department of Parks and Recreation to congratulate them on employing this exemplary man. I should have, because thanks to them, for over twenty years Demetrio Braceros pulled down a paycheck for creating magic along with carrying out his regular duties as a city gardener. And that magic is still there. 

            
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.

 

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