Luis Echegoyen's old school Mission cool

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Back when he was a television star in El Salvador, Luis Echegoyen could have little guessed that fifty year later he’d be performing in his own poetry reading in San Francisco of classic Spanish authors (Sat/8, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts). But it's not the least probable feat that legendary Spanish language Bay area news anchor Echegoyen has accomplished -- after all, poetry is his retirement project.

Echegoyen was famous in El Salvador when he made his first trip to the United States. A television and stage star, he had joined a troupe of artists who were performing in high schools and colleges across the country in a sort of cultural education tour for North American students. But when he arrived in San Francisco in November of 1962, he stayed. His sister lived here, and he heard that San Francisco State had a top-shelf drama program, where he planned on continuing the five years of formal stage education he had received back home.

But “I didn’t have the English,” Echegoyen tells me. He’s now a stately older gent in a turned-out suit, reminiscent of his days as a storied San Franciscan Spanish language news anchor. He shares his memories with me in a room at the Mission Cultural Center, and they're fascinating, scenes set in the familiar streets of the Mission, but with reality set at a different angle from historical currencies.

With the education system unassailable, he turned to what he knew best; Spanish language show biz. His first major project was a radio show called Escala de Fama, which was being recorded in front of a live audience at the Victoria Theater. Echegoyen was a rookie at KOFY, which broadcasted Escala, but he could tell the hosts of the variety show needed help.

“The audience was very rowdy,” he recalls. “The announcers were afraid of the audience, they would hide behind the curtains!” He grabbed the mic, and drew on his years of experience during El Salvador‘s golden age of show business, cracking jokes and walking through the aisles of the Victoria. The spotlights followed him, and he hosted Escala for the next 13 years. Luis had arrived in San Francisco.

It’s fascinating to hear someone talk, as Luis does, about the way the Mission neighborhood was generations ago. It doesn’t sound so very different -- sure, less fixed gear bikes -- but the immigrant families packed into subdivided Victorians were already there, without many of the resources they needed to thrive. This was back before the advent of the social organizations that today call the Mission home. “Kids didn’t have anywhere to go; no parks, no gyms, no after school programs. I said, ‘okay, we need a park, we need a gym,’” says Luis.

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And if talking with the man taught me one thing, it was this; what Echegoyen decides to do, Echegoyen does. To fix the issues he saw, he got in deep with a whole laundry list of community organizations; Bay Area Neighborhood Development, Mission Coalition Organization, and the Economic Opportunity Council, to name a few. He started working on seniors’ issues, delinquency issues, economic issues. Most importantly, he parlayed his growing radio and television celebrity into making change.

At one point, the Parks & Recreation department responded to his entreaties to build a park almost sarcastically, saying that if he wanted a park for his adopted neighborhood, they’d build it -- if he could find an empty lot in the well-populated Mission neighborhood. On his way to shoot a news story with his camera crew, Echegoyen saw one, a dump site in the outer Mission/Bernal Hieghts.

He broadcasted from the site, sitting amidst the rubble. “I said ‘this is an empty lot, and we can use it to build a park. Let’s go to City Hall, and ask for a park to be built in this place.” Which of course, he did himself, only to find that Parks & Rec themselves were the property’s owners. Today, the park is there, testament to Echegoyen’s ability to use his broadcast skills and community position to effect change.

“You have to use the media to benefit the community. I went out on the streets, I found problems. Some of the problems were solved, some not,” he says, looking back at his activist career.

Today Echegoyen is retired, the first Latino inductee in the silver and gold circles of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, a winner of a Lifetime Achievement Special Emmy.

“Luis has always been a leader in the community,” says Cynthia Harris, anchor of Univision KDTV’s En la Bahia, a local Spanish language news show of which Echegoyen was producer and host for many years. During his tenure, Luis brought in neighborhood leaders, as well as  local and international Latino artists. Harris says it was projects like these that reflect Echegoyen’s startling impact on San Francisco. “It was an opportunity for the Latino community to have a say -- something that previously that hasn’t existed.”

Clearly, this is a man who’s earned his retirement. Although Echegoyen is active in senior education through AARP, two scholarship organizations for low income students, and is currently toying with the idea of organizing an artists’ flea market in the Mission, his pet project of the moment takes the stage at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts this weekend.

He’ll be reading poetry, the Spanish language masters. He’s a connoisseur of the art form, having recently recorded four volumes of poetic anthologies he‘s releasing one at a time on CD. “Poetry is so ample,” he tells me, proudly handing over a copy of volume one. “It’s really painful to be choosing which to include on the CDs.”

Sat/8 7 p.m., $15
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts
2868 Mission, SF
(415) 643-5001
www.missionculturalcenter.org