Artist Impact Stories

Cultivating and Co-Creating in Community: A Mission District Resilience Story

Launched in October 2022,  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,  convened a coalition of San Francisco-based arts and culture organizations Black Freighter PressChinese Culture Center of San Francisco (CCCSF), Compton’s Transgender DistrictDance Mission TheaterGaleria de la Raza, and the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company (SFBATCO)  to implement a $1.3 million, 18-month guaranteed income program. Funded by #StartSmall, the Creative Communities Coalition (“the Coalition)” is a part of #StartSmall’s $3.5 million investment in YBCA to expand the organization’s guaranteed income work with and for artists.

Arts and culture spaces continue to be the bedrock for activating the civic imagination and galvanizing social movements—from the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program in West Oakland, to the San Diego Brown Beret’s occupation of land that would later become Chicano Park and the country’s largest collection of outdoor murals. History has shown us that communities coming together to share resources with one another has been powerful in subverting the dominant mechanisms of capitalism that hinder success for artists—especially BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and immigrant individuals—and allowing for new economic models rooted in self-sustainability, independence, and resilience to emerge. 

For artist Cecilia Peña-Govea, more widely known by her stage name “La Doña,” cultivating a strong network of designers, visual artists, musicians, and other creatives from her community provided her a sense of social and economic security not often found in musicians navigating traditional music industry revenue models

You may be familiar with Peña-Govea if you’ve ever taken a cruise down Mission Street and turned on the corner of 26th Street. There you’ll find a large mural bearing her face and the word “Resilient” written in San Francisco Giants’ black and orange, which was created by artist DJ Agana, as part of a campaign for the Giants 2021 season. It’s not everyday an artist has a mural of themselves in their own neighborhood, alongside the legendary Carlos Santana. Peña-Govea joins a small group of artists who have made a name for themselves while still remaining grounded in their community roots.

Peña-Govea’s journey in music began at the age of seven, playing trumpet alongside her family of musicians who instilled in her an appreciation of Latin folk traditions like corridos and rumba, which she fused with her love for reggaeton, dembow, and the Bay Area hyphy hip-hop movement. Throughout her youth, each member of the family had their own unique role within the band, with her sister singing, mother on guitar, and father playing accordion. These important musical foundations follow her to this day, as her father continues to play alongside her in the La Doña band—bringing a kaleidoscopic range of sonic influences into the cohesive and unique sound which has garnered both local and international attention.

Her rise to prominence is even more impressive considering the ongoing trend of gentrification, displacement, and cultural loss currently happening in many San Francisco neighborhoods like the Mission District and nearby Bernal Heights. These once important cultural enclaves are becoming less familiar and increasingly inhabitable by the very communities who made these places desirable locations in the first place. Still, even though Peña-Govea sees fewer familiar faces in her usual stomping grounds, she has continued to cement herself as a fixture in her neighborhood and beyond.

Despite her large following and local celebrity status, Peña-Govea has faced many of the same economic hurdles artists across the country were dealing with throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. With a lack of show opportunities and performance revenue, she was struggling to keep her head above water just trying to pay the rent. Peña-Govea’s experience is a reminder of how social capital does not always translate into the monetary, and financial stressors have equal impact on someone with a public profile of perceived success. 

“The biggest hurdle in applying to grants and other funding opportunities has been having perceived public support,” she said. “People assume because you’re on tour or have a certain number of people following you, that it translates into economic success.”

She began seeking alternative streams of income, so when Ani Rivera of Galería de la Raza approached her to join the Creative Communities Coalition (CCCGI), a guaranteed income initiative convened by YBCA, Peña-Govea was grateful for the opportunity. The CCCGI program provides monthly payments of $1,000 to artists in San Francisco over the span of 18 months. Artists were selected by partnering arts organizations from various communities around the city.

“It came out of the blue,” she said. “Ani has always been an ally in the Mission District and takes great care of her community. I felt honored to have been selected by her.”

With the supporting funds coming from the CCCGI program, Peña-Govea was able to experience a little more freedom and flexibility in both her artistic practice and everyday life. Despite her ongoing success as an artist in the community, Peña-Govea still sees herself as an average person from the neighborhood looking to make ends meet off her art. She wants people to see her for who she truly is outside of the lens of celebrity and social media clout. 

“My being transparent is to topple iconography or obsession with singular individuals,” she said. “At the end of the day, I’ve been honest and clear about who I am. It’s not a brand, it’s not a persona, it’s who I am.”

Luckily for Peña-Govea, her ‘keep it real’ mentality and down to earth approach have helped her garner support for her Mission District/Bernal Heights community. Her artistic pursuits have allowed other young Latinx folks to see themselves in her work and feel a sense of cultural connection and neighborhood pride. As an artistic and community anchor, she is not alone in her journey for economic empowerment and independence for herself and the community at large. 

Close to her work is visual arts designer, collaborator and friend Alyssa Aviles—another participant in the CCCGI program and Mission District native. Aviles met Peña-Govea back when they were both high school students at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. While they weren’t necessarily close, Aviles always admired Peña-Govea’s musical talent. The pair reconnected about five years ago while Aviles was working to launch the first merchandise collection for her brand Suavecita Press. Aviles was coordinating a photoshoot and reached out to Peña-Govea to model. Since then, the two have worked in lockstep helping to bolster each other’s work in a deeply collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship.

“Our collaborations are always evolving with every project,” said Aviles. “While I mainly work on merch design, I’ve also been in music videos and supported as a crew member. It’s hard to put a name on all we do together, but it’s all based on trust and being honest with each other and having the capacity to support each other. Cecilia and I have a special relationship because we work together well, we understand each other, and we love each other.” 

The authenticity of their relationship comes though in the art and music, resonating across the greater community. With her newfound success and platform Peña-Govea strives to inspire a new generation of Latinx youth in The Bay to pursue their creative visions and uplift their cultures.

“I have a larger responsibility to represent my experience, but to also show different generations that art and culture isn’t alienating,” said Peña-Govea. “Arts should feel inspired and inviting to the audience. Part of that is being honest about how it is and who we are.”

The realness and transparency of Peña-Govea, both personally and artistically, has inspired like-minded individuals to see themselves in her work and seek out collaborative opportunities. 

Lorena Cortez of Ruby Rae Clothing, is a designer and seamstress, specializing in unique one of one pieces inspired by vintage and eclectic styles.

After becoming familiar with La Doña’s music, Cortez felt a kinship with Peña-Govea as a fellow Latina and artist and wanted to create something with her. After tracking down the official La Doña email, Cortez decided to reach out.

“I figured I would just shoot my shot,” said Cortez. “Fashion has the power to tell a story and you could feel in her lyrics there was a story that needed to be told.”

That one email resulted in a unique and collaborative piece La Doña would eventually wear for a stage performance: a testament to the collaborative nature of both artists and the power of art to bring creative forces together.

As production costs for live shows continue to rise, many artists have had to rethink the economic models they use to sustain their careers. As programs like guaranteed income and solidarity economy models gain local and national momentum, they invite alternative solutions to an economic infrastructure that is not meeting the needs of artists and other creatives navigating the impacts of inflation, closed venues, and increased production cost, among others.

“The integrity of your project relies on that of your collaborators,” said Peña-Govea. “This whole La Doña project is based on collaboration. Being able to hire my people allows me to stand firm in my convictions.” 

With an entire community of collaborators behind her and live performances becoming a more regular occurrence in The Bay and across the country, it seems Peña-Govea is poised to continue her ascension within the music industry. Even so, the reality is that the CCGI program will not last forever, and artists will continue to have to be creative in how they fund their projects and careers. Even within these major economic shifts, programs like guaranteed income and the cultivation of a strong social network of collaborators and co-conspirators, allows La Doña to sustain her work and show up for her community—a community that continues to uplift and support each new generation of artists and creatives.

“Community is everything, I don’t think I would be where I am without it,” said Aviles. “What’s beautiful about art is how it brings the community together. It’s restorative. I don’t think people understand how important it is to have creativity in your life just to tap in with. It’s a true revitalization of the spirit.”