Call her Christina

Tiny - Posted on 17 January 2012

(Photo taken by "Sidewalks are for people")


I remember when I first met Christina Olague.  I had just lost my downtown job.  After 5 years of selfless service to a large insurance brokerage, I was dispatched out the door, ass-first in less than 5 minutes.  I walked down Mission Street waiting for the next thing.  I thought about that downtown job and how it was killing me.  I was wilting under florescent lights while my co-workers mistook it for sunlight.    I walked along 6thstreet and smelled the smell of the Filipino restaurant, the smell of books from the Filipino bookstore; I looked at the elders and youth and disabled living in a city picked apart by developers.  I saw the things that I missed being cooped up at that insurance brokerage, that big office building—the big tomb in the sky.


At that time, Christina was a tenant advocate and member of the San Francisco Planning Commission.  A local non-profit was looking for a tenant organizer.  I applied for the position and Christina asked me about my organizing experience.  Truth be told, I had none.  I couldn’t organize my house, my clothes, check book—anything really.  But what I did have was empathy—thanks to the eldership provided to me by my Uncle Al, who dedicated his life to serving Filipino elders and fighting for the I-Hotel—and I sensed that Christina did too.  I later learned she too had worked that downtown job, florescent lights and all.  After a few days I was hired.  I was going to start living.  I soon began working at the Mission SRO Collaborative with Christina and a young white organizer who spoke Spanish.


Funny thing was that I am Filipino-American but look Latino.  I speak no Spanish so I had to defer to the young white organizer when a Spanish speaking person came in to enlist our help with a problem with a landlord or other issue.  The young white organizer would speak rapid Spanish while the man or woman would look at me as if to say “Why ain’t you speaking Spanish?”  I would play it off, sitting back, nodding at the white guy approvingly, as if to say, “Yeah…all that Spanish he’s talking…I taught him that…he works for me, theH.L.I.C (i.e.: Head Latino in charge)”.  Christina was our supervisor and Latina.  I think she spoke less Spanish than the young white organizer, who had spent time in Costa Rica.  We’d look at each other, knowing and laughing silently.  Then I told her of the time the white guy and I went to an SRO Hotel where the majority of tenants spoke Mayan.  It turned out the white guy spoke a bit of Mayan too.  I just looked at him and tried to nod in Mayan.


What I liked about working with Christina was that she let me be myself.  Non-profits can sometimes be as structured as a corporation, just as insidious, punitive and impersonal.  There I was, disorganized with papers piling up on the desk.  She very seldom told me to clean the desk because she saw a method in the madness.  We helped tenants—that was priority.  Christina was just as at home writing a letter to a landlord as she was making tea for our tenant meditation group, sitting in meditation, all the while listening to the phone ring with calls from activists, developers, politicians, those on the left, the right, in between or in the neither.  Sitting in meditation with tenants who were living with very real poverty and disabilities was just as important as those calls.  Listening to the stories from tenants, their fears and struggles, and sharing her own—at that moment--was the thing that mattered. 


At the time, my uncle, the poet Al Robles, worked at Self Help for the Elderly at the International Hotel on Kearny Street.  I would sometimes visit my uncle and help him carry pots of rice and trays of food up flights of stairs to be served at lunch.  I’d call Christina and tell her I’d be a little late because of this.  She never reprimanded me about this because she saw the connection of our work to the greater community—the work we did and the work of a senior meal program being connected, their work being our work too.  I’d then arrive at work with a belly full of stories about the elders at the I-Hotel singing karaoke in Chinese or Filipino or about how my uncle nearly dropped a pot of rice down a staircase or how the Tai Chi class allowed me to carry the rice and myself more steadily.   To Christina, we were connected to that, it too was our work. 


When I learned that Christina Olague was appointed Supervisor in District 5, I just had to laugh because, to me, laughter is the best part of Christina.  Dostoyevsky wrote that one could read a person’s character in the way they laugh.  And laughter is also fire.  I remember her fire and laughter when she organized tenants in meetings and around issues that affect them.  I remember the way she treated the mother of a disabled son living in a cramped SRO hotel with no accommodations and unresponsive landlord.  She treated the mother like her own, the son like her own, helping them get into new housing.  I also remember the way she helped a formerly homeless activist who’d moved into a newly opened apartment.  She loaded dishes, utensils, a dining table and other things into her car and helped make that new apartment into a home.  She followed that up shortly after, on Thanksgiving by dropping off a small ham and some company—laughter, conversation.  What more is there?


Recently I began volunteering at Senior Action Network, which allowed me to work with Christina again.  I have been teaching beginning computer skills and creative writing to elders.  Again, she was advocating for seniors and people with disabilities, taking on quality of life issues in SRO hotels and aging in place.


Word around the office and in the media was that Christina was being considered for the Supervisor 5 post, vacated by newly elected Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.  Those of us in the office waited.  Any word, we’d ask.


Last week Senior Action Network launched its first general meeting of 2012.  The discussion centered on “Aging in place”, an issue close to Christina’s heart.  As the panel spoke, those in attendance were also anticipating the arrival of the new supervisor who was to appear during the program.  When she arrived she was introduced by Gabriel Halland, who said that consensus building and listening to all sides of an issue was one of the new supervisor’s biggest strengths.  She was then presented with a floral bouquet.  Christina then spoke of her own mother, who became quadriplegic following a car accident.  She said that her mother’s experience gave her empathy and determination to advocate on behalf of seniors and people with disabilities.  Saying that she still has a lot to learn, she urged the audience to “Keep me accountable”.  A member of the audience asked, “What do we call you now that you are supervisor?”  Just call me Christina, replied the new supervisor. 


Yes, for people to walk on. Keep moving.

...brokerage, I was dispatched out the door, ass-first in less than 5 minutes."

Was that the same insurance brokerage where you wrote your poems on your computer, and pretended to work whenever your boss walked by? Sorry, Tony, but you've posted too many stories on this site extolling the virtues of revolutionary slackerdom for anyone to buy that load of bull.

Just the truth

...that Tony's full of bull.


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