Twenty years ago, on Cinco De Mayo, Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez’s mural was dedicated to Cesar Chavez at SF State. Click on the icons to hear the artist talk about specific the elements of the mural and how it came to be. (Produced by Sergio Portela and Photo by Drake Newkirk).
Jazz and Latin music streamed from a small black portable speaker connected to an iPhone as the artist in heavily paint-stained pants and boots floated the paint brush in his left hand to the rhythm of the oldies.
SF State alumnus Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez, a recently retired probation officer, sat on top of a black crate as he applied strokes to his latest mural “Education is Liberation” in the stairwell between the second and third floor of the Juvenile Justice Center.
“The music makes me flow with whatever I’m doing, and I kind of just go with the groove,” said 56-year-old Gonzalez.
He was adding the final touches to what will be the final creation he gives his former employer, the JJC, and he said it is an art form that means so much to him.
“It’s freedom, it’s something I love to do,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think there are any words for it. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, like I’ve left something behind.”
Cinco de Mayo marked the 20-year anniversary since Gonzalez’s mural of migrant worker leader Cesar Chavez was completed on the side of the Cesar Chavez Student Center and dedicated to the late revolutionary. Gonzalez, who graduated from SF State with a bachelor’s degree in Ethnic Studies, said he was honored when he was commissioned for the task to paint the mural for the legendary Chavez in 1994. He said it had all come full circle for him since he had marched with Chavez from Dolores Park to Civic Center in 1988. Gonzalez had even brought his son Carlos Jr. and pushed him the whole way in a stroller, he said.
Gonzalez attended SF State from 1983 to 1991, where he was a member of La Raza students. With the organization, he said he protested for multiple causes including solidarity in El Salvador and fighting for migrant farm workers. The La Raza students even initiated a sit-in inside former University President Chia-Wei Woo’s office, but Gonzalez said all of this would not have happened if it were not for a childhood friend steering him in the right direction.
Gonzalez said growing up, he would constantly get into trouble. He was a member of his neighborhood crew, the Leño Parque Locos. Gonzalez said that during his time with the gang, he was sent to Juvenile Hall, where he was sentenced to community service. As his punishment, he was required to work with muralists and he quickly fell in love with the craft, he said.
“I was ordered to do community service, and at that time murals were booming in the Mission,” Gonzalez said. “That was it man, like a fish to water – bam.”
Gonzalez fit right in with the muralist community, as he has been an artist since he was a child. He said his father was so impressed with his art when he was young he would throw away his homework and just make him draw.
While Gonzalez was still looking for a way out of his neighborhood, his friend Johnny Mayorga, a former Leño Parque Locos member and currently a deputy sheriff, was attending Sonoma State through the Educational Opportunity Program. When Mayorga noticed that the jobs Gonzalez was working were headed nowhere, he asked him to join him at Sonoma State, Gonzalez said. There, the aspiring artist earned a spot on the dean’s list and later transferred back home to finish off his degree at SF State.
“We’re an anomaly from the Mission, both him and I,” Mayorga said. “At least 85 percent of the people we grew up with are not around anymore. We look at ourselves as survivors and we use that to do good in the community.”
Two years after Gonzalez earned his degree, a job opened up at the Juvenile Justice Center. He said new Center director Nelba Chavez was looking for an intelligent, streetwise probation officer who could speak Spanish. Gonzalez, with his atypical ponytail and tattoos, was the perfect fit.
“You can’t be a good (probation officer) unless you are a gangster,” said Gonzalez, who retired May 1 after working there for 23 years.
Gonzalez has left a strong legacy at the Juvenile Justice Center, including five of his former interns who are now probation officers. Christina Balistreri, a deputy probation officer with the San Francisco probation department, credited Gonzalez with helping her get where she is today.
“Kookie played a really big role in realizing what I wanted to do in my life by helping people and my community,” Balistreri said. ‘If it weren’t for him I would never be doing what I’m doing right now.”
Now that Gonzalez is retired, he said he looks forward to being a full-time muralist and having time to do what he loves, like playing the congas and spending time with his baby girl Sofie. Even though he is no longer a probation officer, Gonzalez said he still looks to be active in his community, particularly with all the changes that are happening in the Mission District. He said he wants to instill in the kids of the city that education is an integral part of success.
“Access to education is key, free your mind, that’s the key to a better life,” Gonzalez said. “Even on my death bed I’m going to say go to college.”