Hugo Vargas wants me to know he is not a hero, but every day he fights. He refers to himself as a young adult even though at 16 he is technically still a child.
I first learned of him from the Mission SRO Collaborative, which is part of the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services. The Collaborative organizes with single room occupancy (SRO) tenants throughout San Francisco’s Mission District on issues such as evictions and fighting big development — basically all the drains on life that low-income folks are forced to contend with in neighborhoods dealing with hyper-gentrification.
The Collaborative’s Outreach and Campaign Engagement Coordinator Chirag Bhakta — himself a proud San Franciscan who was “born and raised in the Tenderloin, yo” — speaks ardently of his young client.
“This is why I’m working here. To help kids like him,” Bhakta says. “He’s the embodiment of a person who’s hustling in the Mission. I see so much of myself in him. He’s very passionate. He wears his emotion on his shoulders, on his face. Watch out, if he talks about his family he might tear up.”
Hugo and his parents, both Mexican immigrants, along with his two sisters, ages 15 and 7, live in a 9-by-11 room. They pay $900 a month in rent.
The Grand Southern, the SRO hotel they now call home, is situated in a not-so-salubrious neighborhood less than a block from 16th Street BART. The establishment is one of 50 or so SRO hotels found in the area; the city has approximately 530.
It wasn’t always this way. The family’s journey to an SRO hotel began when they were displaced from their Twin Peaks apartment in November 2013. The monthly rent, which they were just about able to afford on Hugo’s father’s income, suddenly rose by more than 25% to $1,900 from $1,500.
“We got priced out. We were evicted.”
The family’s only option was to move in with his aunt and grandparents 20 miles away on the other side of the Bay Bridge in Richmond. From there, he and his 15-year-old sister made the arduous trek to their school in San Francisco. This involved taking BART from Richmond to 16th Street Mission, transferring to the 22 MUNI bus and then boarding the K-train. The lengthy commute required them to wake up at 5 a.m. and they’d still get to school late. By the time they got home, it would be dark.
BART fares were adding up to more than $200 a week for the entire family. His father went through another period of unemployment, and Hugo tells me how his mother, knowing how short they were on money, would not eat some days so that her children could have breakfast.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking as a little kid growing up to witness how much your parents sacrifice for you,” he says.
Right on cue, Hugo tears up. (Right on cue, me too.)
“Some days we didn’t have the BART fare so we stayed home,” he continues. “I wasn’t going to graduate because I’d missed so many classes. So that was when I decided to speak up.”
He shared his living situation with his school principal and teachers and asked for their lenience. Exceptions were made for Hugo.
But after six months his parents, concerned by the toll the four to five hour daily commute was taking on their children, not to mention the cost of BART, decided the family had to move back to San Francisco. A family friend told his mother about a vacancy at the Grand Southern.
At first, Hugo was excited to return to the city but as soon as he saw the incommodious quarters, he raged against the move. How would all five of them and their belongings fit into the small space?
“Just be thankful we all have a roof over our heads,” his mother told him.
Her words quickly prompted him to reconfigure his thoughts. He told himself that they were indeed lucky to be in San Francisco again. The Mission was, after all, where he had been born. He told himself he was back home, that he could make it work.
“I’m going to school and working hard, so I can graduate from college and get out of here, get a good job then buy my mom a house. That’s my dream…,” he says to me.
Hugo continues to dream, despite the odds.
“Everything that’s going bad in the Mission, he’s facing all of it — living in an SRO with his family, being at the Mission Playground during the Dropbox incident,” Chirag tells me. “He goes to the marches, the rallies. He speaks to the supes. He’s a kid! And he’s not even doing it for himself. He has two little sisters.”
Hugo’s family has been residing at the SRO hotel for 1 ½ years. On top of going to school, he participates in activities — playing soccer and being part of a mountain biking team — typical of most kids his age. But in addition, the multilingual teenager — he speaks English, Spanish, Nahuatl, knows a Mayan language, and is also learning Italian for his “grandmother’s side” — engages relentlessly with his community through his activism.
Of course, the Mission SRO Collaborative is on his side too. Through the organization Hugo has acquired skills to perform outreach in his community and it has even reserved him a place at key hearings so he could speak. It’s the personal touch that has meant so much.
“When we first moved into the SRO, they checked in with us,” Hugo says. “They would let us know there were events we could go to like Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, that there was free stuff available. They helped my family so much. They checked in on me.”
This is how Mission SRO Collaborative is trying to save the Mission, Chirag says.
“This is what we’re trying to improve,” he continues. “[Hugo is] the homie we’re hustling for.”
“Living in an SRO is never ideal for anyone,” Bhakta continues. “But it is that much more catastrophic when it’s a family with children. An SRO is no place for kids to grow up.”
I ask Hugo what it is like to live where he does. He hesitates and then replies, “It’s terrible. It’s absolutely terrible.”
As our interview is nearing its end, I ask Hugo about his future plans. He tells me he wants to run for the board of supervisors some day and that he wants to help his community.
“I don’t like the fact that the Latino population and other people of color are suffering,” he tells me.
These recent ambitions have taken him by surprise.
“When I was 12 years old, I was really into books. I used to read about Che Guevara and Cesar Chavez. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries. All that really impacted me,” he says. “But still, I didn’t want to be an activist because you don’t get paid. It’s a struggle. It’s hard work and you’re really putting yourself out there.
“But now I’m like, ‘these people stepped up for something they loved’. Honestly, I didn’t expect myself to step up in my community.”
I ask Hugo what made him do so.
“Seeing how myself and my people were struggling,” he begins, “I’ve got to do something so that the generations to come don’t struggle as much. I want to help. I want to give a lending hand.”
Hugo once again asserts — he is not a hero, but a helper. I consider the irony of this statement coming from someone who needs so much help.