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Rumba and the radio

Leila Day

The Mission is one of San Francisco’s most rapidly-changing neighborhoods. Historically a Latino enclave, it's now an area where new businesses pop up regularly, where rents are skyrocketing, and where there are so many restaurants on one street that neighbors considered a ban. But within this swirling change are some anchors of the old Mission.

If you happen to walk by the Radio Habana Social Club on Valencia Street on a Sunday afternoon, you might hear Rumba, the music of Cuba. Radio Habana is a place where neighbors and old friends have been coming for over a decade to talk politics and music over plates of frijoles. It’s a piece of Cuba in San Francisco--and a place where some people recognize the Mission they used to know.

The inside of Radio Habana looks like a hoarder's paradise. There’s a trout hanging from the ceiling with the plastic legs of a brown baby doll. Next to the trout is a pig in a tutu, and next to that, abandoned Barbies. It’s chaotic in here, and that’s what the owners--both artists--wanted: for the space to feel quirky and lived-in.

On the day KALW visits Radio Habana, the room is filled with people and percussionists; constant laughter and a faint smell of sweat and booze fill the air. Standing in the front of the room, Gustavo Ramos explains that Radio Habana is the only place in San Francisco you can find the familiarity that one feels in Cuba.

“Those that come here call each other family. And that’s why I came here,” Ramos says.

That’s also why he brings his son, who’s sitting at the bar doing his homework. The music here reflects the African-influenced culture of the country he left in 2009. It’s one of the things Ramos misses most.

The word Rumba means party. But it comes from a serious place: Cuba’s slave barracks of the late 1800's. It was one of the ways that slaves would express their faith and their struggle. They made music  with anything that could make good sound: spoons, boxes, whatever was around.

There are plenty of spoons at Radio Habana, and plenty of boxes. After a while, even the blank stare of an upside down teddy bear feels a little bit comforting.

“It’s one of the rare places where parents and children bump into each other on a Friday night, and not know: you come here? You come here?” says Leila Mansur.

Mansur and her husband, artist Victor Navarette, opened Radio Habana in 1999 hoping it would be like a gathering in Habana --  where neighbors know each other and music brings people together. That intimate, familiar feeling is what makes Radio Habana an anchor in a neighborhood where not much else seems to last.

“Native San Franciscans say this is the San Francisco that they are afraid is disappearing, and that’s a very large compliment,” says Mansur.

Mansur is short, with a grayish blonde bob and a deep laugh. She seems to know everyone’s name. She's seen a lot of change in the Mission since the club opened nearly 15 years ago. With rents rising, many businesses have left. Right now, San Francisco has the second most expensive rental market in the country, behind Honolulu.


“It seems to be cursed, It depends on who your landlord is,” Mansur says.

Fortunately, Mansur’s landlord thinks that Radio Habana gives this corner some flavor, and that’s why he keeps the rent affordable.


If you look around Radio Habana, you'll see signs of the faraway country. The Cuban flag and pictures of national figures like Jose Marti hang on the walls. Even though no one here is talking politics, it’s a reminder that there’s a real Radio Habana too -- a state-run shortwave radio station, in Cuba.

For more than 50 years, the original Radio Habana has been broadcasting things like speeches by Fidel Castro, criticism of the American embargo, music, and interviews with artists.

Though the owners didn’t intend it that way, there’s a way in which the Radio Habana Social Club is a little like that shortwave broadcast radio that comes out of Cuba.  

The club's owners see themselves as broadcasting a message of community. It’s not just the music, though that helps evoke the feel of the country. It’s not the food and fellowship, though that helps too. It’s the fact that like the shortwave Radio Habana, this club is also on a kind of island, surrounded by a lot of rapid change. Broadcasting to the masses, hoping that people are listening.


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.