Fieldnotes on the Death of Alejandro Nieto

Manissa McCleave Maharawal

As an anthropologist, my research lies at the intersection of gentrification, displacement, evictions and resistance to these processes in New York City and San Francisco. As I carry out my ethnographic fieldwork I feel myself drawn to poetry as a different way of documenting and engaging in what I am observing and experiencing. In particular I find that poetry is a medium to get to the emotion of these issues in ways that ethnography does not always offer. My poems draw on quotes, descriptions and phrases from my interviews and field notes, as well as from real estate websites, police reports, and media accounts of what is happening as a way to place poetic observations next to popularly and easily available accounts of urban change. In doing so I aim to deconstruct these processes while also creating an assemblage of ethnography and poetry.

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Fieldnotes on the Death of Alejandro Nieto

Geographies of belonging:

Valencia Street. Is not on fire but it should be.
Instead wet hair, damp paper, a thousand bodies, cops lining the sidewalk, caged in. Roberto Hernandez says: “the problem is they like our culture but they don’t like us” it rains harder. Line of drummers, we start to move, we are a mass.

Infrastructures of loss:

24th Street. Still, shuttered, shameless.
The dancers, crimson headdresses, bells clasped around ankles, step slowly, space, pace, passage. One holds a baby, shouts: “we are on Ohlone land, we are on Ohlone land, this land is not ours.” The air is tattered, terminal.

Productions of grief:

Bernal Hill. The police report reads: “March 21st at around 7:18 and 49 seconds shots were fired. A Latin male adult in a red jacket. Two hundred pounds. Alejandro Nieto went to the ground, he assumed a prone position, the officers went to him, rendered aid, he did not survive his injuries. The shots that were fired were fired by the police department. His back was to the west. He was eating chips or sunflowers.”

Alejandro Nieto:

These are the things I learn about you: son, brother, cousin, student, security guard. Your father is wearing wrap-around sunglasses, blue jeans, cowboy boots, a matching hat, his face is wet.
Yes, Alejandro, we are watching out for you,
for the dead, we are expansive, we are a threshold.

Together, we pray, facing the east, the west, the north, the south. Someone speaks: “they see us as brown people, they think we have no manners, we aren’t civilized, show them that we are different, leave here in peace.”

Another voice: “we live together but apart, they don’t know us, they are scared, they call the cops on us, we need to let them know about this neighborhood,
our neighborhood, about La Mission.”

Below us the Bay is elusive, silent.
Above us a woman in hot pink jogging clothes,
a golden retriever by her side, takes pictures.


Manissa McCleave Maharawal is a doctoral candidate in socio-cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. She was a co-founding member of the Free University of New York City, and is an oral historian and poet. Her dissertation research looks at activism in response to evictions, displacement and gentrification in New York City and San Francisco.