When artist Fernando Marti landed in San Francisco’s Mission District in the late 1990s, it was a tumultuous time with evictions skyrocketing in what would become known as the first dot-com boom.
In a vicious storm of political turmoil, the Ecuadorian native joined the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and took to the streets to speak out on behalf of his struggling adopted community. That’s when Marti discovered that he had another valuable voice to give to the fight – his art.
“I learned that I could take those skills and create posters,” Marty said, “about politics that we were all experiencing in the community.”
Through his new passion for printmaking, Marti began making political posters dealing with emigration, transit disparities, and waves of displacement. At the same time, he trained his art to channel his Ecuadorian culture, with a focus on heritage and tradition. Somehow it all seemed to come together with his social activism.
“The theme that I keep coming back to,” said Marti, “is this question about the return of tradition and the return of space, the return of what the city is.”
Marti’s journey began in Boliche, Ecuador when he grew up on his parents’ small farm. He was five years old when his parents sent him to the United States to live with his aunt and grandfather. He spent most of his young life between nations, absorbing American culture for nine months of the year — exploring his Ecuadorian roots for the remaining three. He was in elementary school when art began to show.
“I was one of those kids who was always in the background drawing or copying comics,” Marty recalls.
Marti went on to study architecture at UC Berkeley, but increasingly art spoke to him more loudly. When he crossed the bay to San Francisco’s Mission District, he absorbed its culture, filled with empathy for the struggles raging around him, and increasingly using his art to tell those stories.
“Part of what I want to convey with my artwork,” he said, “is the agency that people have to fight to stay in the places they’ve created, shaped or built.”
Perhaps in homage to his family roots, Marty recently began volunteering at Hummingbird Farm, a former abandoned lot in the Crocker Amazon neighborhood that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission turned over to the immigrant rights group PODER for the farm. The group has created community gardens that produce traditional corn, tomatoes and indigenous flowers that are harvested and used in projects such as making food and medicine.
Marti once again found a space for his art, creating a series of paintings based on interviews with the farm’s founders, now on display at the San Francisco Central Public Library.
“I think Fernando’s art really reflects a kind of introspection,” said Tere Almaguer, an environmental justice organizer who coordinates the farm’s programs, “of seeing the different ways that our community can get so much healing from eating ancestral foods, from growing ancestral flowers.”
Marti is currently designing artwork for the farm, which will convey information to visitors. Reclaiming farmland is similar to the themes Marti explored in his posters and paintings — the importance of keeping space for lower-income and working-class San Francisco. It goes to the heart of his work on the streets advocating with his voice and pen.
“I think our ability to maintain a city that is still an immigrant city, a city that welcomes workers, a city that welcomes artists, poets and musicians,” Marti said, “really depends on that fight for the right of tenants to stay here.”
But just because Marty’s art gives voice to the voiceless doesn’t mean he’s immune to those struggles; he was recently forced to move out of his Mission District apartment after a three-year eviction battle. And yet he remains an optimist through challenging times.
“With all the changes,” he said, “there are still a lot of people who stick around and come and contribute to the city.”
After his eviction, Marti and his wife took up residence temporarily in a Bernal Heights apartment while they plan their next move. Stacks of boxes remained unpacked — while bookshelves were already stocked with Marty’s large collection of books. As an artist and sometimes a poet, books are full of knowledge and inspiration that he turns to for his future projects.
“The art and poetry I do is a way for me to reflect on what I’ve learned,” he said, “and give it back to the world in a different way.”