There isn’t much in the backyard of Eva Royale’s house. Two white metal patio chairs, her grandsons’ toy cars. What stands out most is her beloved 44-year-old cactus collection.
“I have plants from my grandmother’s yard, and plants that I got when we were living in Santa Cruz when my husband was in graduate school,” Royale tells me.
She shows me her favorite. It’s a San Pedro cactus in a big clay pot, sticking out of the dirt like a bunch of spiky cucumbers.
“This original plant took 30 years before it bloomed. It bloomed these beautiful white flowers,” she says.
Her cacti are resilient. They’ve survived many moves: from her childhood backyard in the Central Valley to student housing at San Francisco State. Then to Santa Cruz and back to San Francisco again, to the Mission, when she got work organizing for the United Farm Workers of America. Now, Royale lives in Daly City with with her husband, her daughter, her son-in-law and two grandchildren. Her cacti are there, too. But her heart is still in the Mission.
The commuting life
Every morning Royale wakes up, makes breakfast for her family and then everyone leaves for San Francisco. Even the grandkids — Royale’s husband drives them to a school in the Presidio. I join Royale as she leaves for work one morning. As we make our way into the garage, she points to a pile of 30 or 40 boxes near the washing machine.
“My daughter's stuff is there, and all this other stuff is mine. All the books ... they've definitely not been emptied.”
These boxes are all from when they moved from the Mission, seven years ago. Her garage is so full of boxes her car doesn’t even fit. It’s parked across the street.
As we get into her car, I ask if she knows her neighbors.
“Nope,” she says.
Royale’s family pays about $2,900 a month for three bedrooms, a garage and a backyard. They’d be paying almost 80 percent more if they wanted to rent a three-bedroom apartment in the Mission. But Daly City’s rental market is also growing fast: according to online real estate database Zillow, Daly City rents are up 20 percent from last Spring. The proximity to San Francisco makes it desirable. If Royale leaves after rush hour, it only takes her 15 minutes to drive to work. We quickly merge onto 280, and drive past the big box stores at Serramonte Mall.
Before heading to Royale’s small office on 19th Street, we take a quick detour to Florida Street, to her first house in the neighborhood: a bright yellow, two-story Victorian.
From her kitchen window at this place in 1995, Royale watched as city workers switched the Army Street sign to Cesar Chavez Street. It was a triumphant moment for her, personally. She had campaigned to preserve Latino heritage in the Mission for many years, and founded the Cesar Chavez Holiday Parade. But that same year the street name changed, this house was put up for sale.
“The owners offered to sell it to us for $110,000,” Royale says.
She repeats the number, louder this time: “$110,000 — with $10,000 down!”
She and her husband were both grad students. They had four kids. They didn’t have $10,000. She thinks the house got sold to a single guy, a lawyer.
“So that started our moving,” she says.
For the next decade, Royale and her family bounced around from apartment to apartment in the Mission and the surrounding neighborhoods — Precita Park, the Excelsior. This was during the first tech boom, when Latinos were getting priced out of the Mission just like they are now. Royale thought she got lucky when her family moved into an aunt’s place in Bernal Heights. But when her aunt passed away, that house got sold for $1 million. We drive by that house, too, and I ask her if she still thinks about it.
“Well, yeah,” she says. “Because those are like the roots, family roots, and they no longer exist.”
We drive on to Royale’s office. It’s just down the street from her old house on Florida. Royale spends most of her time here planning and raising money for the Cesar Chavez Parade and Festival. The walls behind her desk are plastered with grape boycott posters and pictures of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. She also volunteers her time at other organizations like Calle 24, an organization that’s trying to preserve the heritage of 24th Street in the Mission.
“[We’re] fighting to keep the culture and the history here and the people, but it’s all getting so watered down and pushed out. Every corner, they’re building,” she says.
Royale isn’t involved in any Latino cultural organizations in Daly City, which actually has a growing Latino population. Getting involved with the community there, she says, would be giving up on the Mission.
“In fact, somebody wanted me to run for school board, and I said, ‘No way,’” she recalls. “I don’t want to be on the school board in Daly City, I don’t know Daly City schools. I’m not interested. I said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you!’”
Home is where the meetings are
Royale has volunteer meetings in the Mission at different organizations three or four nights a week. She’s here on the weekends, too.
“Everybody I know, all the issues I’m involved in, and the issues that I care about, are here. I’m here every day because this is my world. I sleep somewhere else, but this is where I live and work,” she says.
Royale hopes that will change soon. She keeps her eyes open for friends who may be moving. Word of mouth is her best bet, she says. And she’s 68 now, so she hopes that the city will begin construction on a spot designated for senior housing in the Mission, on 24th and Harrison.
“It’s still sitting there, nothing's happening yet. So it’s like, how long is that going to take now that I qualify? Where's the list? I want to get on the list!” she says.
For now, at the end of each day, she’ll return to her house in Daly City. But that house isn’t home for Royale. Her treasured cacti? They aren’t even planted in the ground. She’s says she’s been keeping them up and hoping that they get a home, too.
“Right now they’re living in pots. And I feel like I’m living in a pot, waiting to be planted somewhere, you know, permanent — other than a grave.”