San Francisco

Meet Morena Perez, A Tenderloin Latina With A Cause

This story is one of a Central City Extra series on the residents of Curran House, the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC)'s first family housing complex. The residents of Curran are a microcosm of the Tenderloin’s diversity, with African-Americans, Asians and Latinos each comprising about a quarter of Curran's population. This story, slightly abridged for Hoodline, was originally published in the June 2015 edition of Central City Extra, and was written by Tom Carter.

In the 1980s and 1990s, El Salvador was one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with 216,000 Salvadorans legally immigrating to the U.S. over the course of a decade. They fled the aftermath of a civil war that left the country poverty-strewn, with mounting gang warfare.

One of those immigrants is 44-year-old Morena Perez, who came to San Francisco in 1993 as the war wound down. Then 22, she moved in with her sister in Potrero Hill, leaving her husband and baby daughter behind in El Salvador. (They later joined her in California.) Perez found employment downtown, but didn’t know English, so she took an ESL course at City College, dropping it after a year because “it was too hard.” She still struggles to find the right words in English to tell her story.

“I wanted to go back home,” she says of her early years in the U.S. "My sister said, 'OK, I’ll buy your ticket home.'" But Perez reconsidered. "I thought maybe I should stay and try to get involved.”

These days, Perez, a single, working mother of two schoolchildren—her eldest daughter, Rosmi, is now 24, and a mother herself—has overcome daunting odds to become an unsung stalwart of the Tenderloin. Before moving to Curran House a decade ago, she separated from her husband, who lives elsewhere in the Bay Area. She carefully divides her time between her children, her job at the Metreon City Target, and her volunteerism, hoping to aid Latinos and the community at large.

Morena (left) and Curran House manager Tammy Walker.

Perez grew up on a small coffee plantation and farm an hour outside of San Salvador, with seven siblings. The farm had cows and a horse, “and we could run around like little animals,” she says with a laugh. She left the farm at 14 to go to school in a nearby town. By that point, the civil war was in full swing. Perez remembers a 6pm-6am curfew, and rebels coming to the house and confiscating her father’s two pistols.

Her father died at age 52. After his passing, the farm fell into disrepair and was vandalized; it was eventually sold to timber harvesters. Perez’s American-born children have never visited El Salvador. “I think it’s time to go to San Salvador,” says Perez. “I’m planning to go this summer and stay two to three weeks [with relatives]. My kids have to see where I came from. But I’m scared, and it’s too dangerous to take them to the farm.” 

Today, El Salvador is still dangerous, and still sending immigrants to the U.S. The civil war was largely fought in the countryside, but San Salvador, the capital, is no longer safe. This March, 481 people were murdered across El Salvador, the highest number in any month in the last 10 years. “It’s too dangerous there now,” she continues.“Many bad people.” She searches for the words. “Delinquents on the buses. Drugs."

Poverty is rampant in El Salvador. The per capita annual income is $7,500, twice Perez’s take-home pay in the U.S. Malnutrition, especially among children, is El Salvador’s leading health concern.

“Before, it was nice,” says Perez, glancing at her 10-year-old son Jeffrey and 12-year-old daughter Tracy. “And kids there [in El Salvador) eat everything,” she says. “Here, they are picky.”

Perez works the graveyard shift at Target, stocking the clothing and shoe departments. Her shift runs from 11pm-7am; leaving home at 10:30pm, she walks down Taylor Street, looking nervously over her shoulder. If she walks quickly, she’s at Target in 15 minutes.

“Sometimes I take the bus from Sixth and Market to Fourth,” she says. "A lot of people laugh at me. But there are crazy people out there.” 

Early one dark morning when she got off work, a man began following her and tried to talk to her. Scared, she said nothing and kept walking. He followed her until she arrived home, safely. Still, she can’t forget. 

But for the most part, life in the Tenderloin is good for Perez. Her rent is $1,035, only a $50 increase from when she moved in 10 years ago. She doesn’t know how to make pupusas, a favorite food of Salvadorans, but weekly food drops to Curran House help add fresh fruits and vegetables to her kitchen.

An avid volunteer, Perez tries to improve the neighborhood and keep it safe for schoolchildren. She has been such a presence at her children's schools and at the school of Rosmi’s young daughter, Labelle, that she has picked up merit and appreciation certificates. She has been a Safe Passage corner captain for three years, donning a yellow vest and carrying a walkie-talkie to discourage dope dealers and shifty adults from hanging out.

“Having residents feeling as [Morena] does about the need to be there is the key,” says Dina Hilliard, Safe Passage's executive director. “It’s personal for them, and everyone’s responsibility, not just the police's.

Perez is also active in La Voz Latina, a women’s and mothers’ political activist organization at 48 Turk St. She has attended City Hall demonstrations, lobbying for better schools, a safe community, foot patrols, Muni passes, rental subsidies and affordable housing. She also works as a counselor and adviser to the women La Voz serves." To be honest, she gave me an orientation on organizing," says Kelly Guajardo, La Voz’s director.

Perez helped lead the polling of 100 TL families to find why Sgt. Macaulay Park at Larkin and O’Farrell streets wasn’t being used during Boeddeker Park’s makeover. Most said they feared what was going on outside the park fence, an iffy crowd of buyers and sellers of various drugs. So La Voz decided to hold family events at Macaulay Park once a month, attracting 100 or more people each time, sending the suspect crowd to other corners and boosting the mothers’ confidence.

“We have been a voice,” Perez says with obvious pride. “Some [Latinos] are hiding, scared. My job is to talk to them — we have places to go where [officials] will help us." Her services have become increasingly important as more Latinos have streamed into the Tenderloin. From 2000 to 2010, the neighborhood's population rose from 16 percent to 20 percent Latino, and it's likely recent displacements in the Mission have added even more Latino residents.

Morena sharing coffee with her children, Tracy and Jeffrey.

On a Saturday morning, Perez's boyfriend, Guillermo Martinez, answers her door. He has been vacuuming the living room, but no one else is stirring yet. Coffee, sent from family in El Salvador, is brewing. Soon, Perez comes into the room, and then Tracy and Jeffrey. Her older daughter, Rosmi, who lives with her 7-year-old daughter, Labelle, in SoMa, works for Salesforce. Rosmi watches the kids on weeknights, when Perez is at Target.

Perez calls Rosmi “my amazing daughter,” a young mother who was able to finish high school at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts while working part-time.Tracy and Jeffrey both play basketball; Tracy goes to Hamilton Middle School, but missed the deadline last semester for getting in her medical clearance slip and couldn’t be on the school team. Jeffrey played on the basketball team at Bessie Carmichael, where his niece, Labelle, is also enrolled. The family attended all of his games. He transferred a month ago to the Creative Arts Charter School at 1601 Turk St., and expects to play next fall on a SoMa team fielded by the antiviolence youth group United Playaz.

Tracy and Jeffrey used to be in a Curran House play group, but now say it’s for “little kids.” “They have school friends," says their mother. "But they know more people here than I do."

Though she's lived in Curran House for a decade, Perez only knows five or so people in the building by name; four of those speak Spanish. She’s content with her motherly focus. “We are a close family,” she says. Like most Salvadorans, they speak Spanish at home.

Morena Perez's boyfriend, Guillermo Martinez, talks with her children, Tracy and Jeffrey.

Martinez, 44, also of El Salvador, is Perez's boyfriend of “Eight-and-a-half months,” he says, with obvious adoration. They were introduced by a mutual friend, began dating, and then “she wanted to kidnap me,” he jokes, as both laugh. Martinez lives in Antioch, where he's a repairman for Contra Costa Appliance. He learned the trade in El Salvador, moving to the Bay Area a year before Perez.

Many Saturdays, the couple goes to church in Martinez's car, then to one of the half-dozen Salvadoran restaurants in the Mission. El Majahual on Valencia Street is their favorite.

Each member of Perez's family has aspirations. Morena wants to take child-development classes at City College and get a degree to undertake a new career. Jeffrey’s dream is a no-brainer: basketball player. Tracy wants to be a doctor. “It’s interesting work.” She pauses. “Or maybe work for the FBI.”

Martinez doesn’t hesitate to say he wants them all to live together as a family, and that he one day wants to have his own appliance-repair company.

A discussion about basketball free throws ensues. Jeffrey says he can make 8 out of 10. Tracy, who aspires to a spot on the Washington High School girl's basketball team, says she can do that, too. The family decides to go around the corner to the Boeddeker Park court for proof.

At the court, Perez chats with a fellow Latina Safe Passage volunteer as the kids trade shots at the foul line and Martinez fields the rebounds. Jeffrey sinks his first four out of five. But Tracy struggles, finally making a bucket after a half-dozen attempts.

Jeffrey trots over to the deep corner to try those long three-point shots that get no backboard help. For his size, he’s okay with the range and gets the ball close, showing promise.

“I don’t know how he can do it,” Perez says, marveling at her son.“He practices more than Tracy, and Guillermo helps him. He knows a lot about soccer and basketball, and questions Jeffrey about his mistakes.” Like the family, the workout breathed promise.

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