My dear friend Serge Echeverria, who is now in his eighties, was injured recently in a serious fall. Since then, I have been unable to reach him, although I have learned that family members have come from Chile to San Francisco to be with him. Serge is often in my thoughts, now more than ever, simply because he is one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever known. I first met him around the time I began photographing the central city and ever since then he has been a friend and source of inspiration. In fact, Up From The Deep is dedicated to him. If you are interested in San Francisco history, you should know about Serge, thus I am republishing my tribute to him in slightly edited form, hoping that you will find him as inspiring as I do.
Temple of the Heart’s Imagination
My First Photograph of Serge (13 February 2003)
On the last Wednesday of August 2010, I met with my friend Serge at the same little coffee house on Geary Street where we have often met in the past. It had been far too long since our last visit, so there was much catching up to do. Our conversation went on for nearly three hours, though it hardly felt like it. I took many photographs while we talked, attempting to capture the range and flow of his expression, but my favorites are the ones that show his hands.
Serge and I like to give each other little gifts of pictures and writing. On this particular visit, I gave Serge a print titled “Empty Buildings” and he gave me a stanza from Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stages” and a copy of “Nothing Is Invisible” by Aaron Nudelman. The lines from Hesse follow the next photo.
The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making.
Serge’s journey through life has taken him to every corner of the world. His wealth of knowledge and experience far surpasses that of most mortals; yet he loves nothing more than sharing this wealth with others, embracing anyone who crosses his path as a fellow traveler. Here, briefly, is Serge’s story:
There is a tide in the affairs of man, that taken in the flood leads to fortune… I feel the urge to emigrate… Deposit my mother’s inheritance in a Swiss bank? I drop out of law school (with only one year left) but… yielding to domestic pressure, I content myself with traveling in my native land from the northern desert to the Antarctic peninsula and beyond it to Easter Island; and circumnavigating my native continent (by land through Patagonia) to “settle” as the traditional land owner, but after my first “agricultural” year I feel the urge to go in search of “psychology”. So I fly to New York where I find a mentor. I feel that I have been born in Manhattan, 1948.
From New York, Serge traveled in search of his ancestry and the ancient roots of civilization; to Rome, Greece, Egypt, the South Sea Islands, Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, Western Europe, and eventually back to his native Chile where the farm had been leased, to build a new house for the family and dwellings for the tenants, which he then left to his father and a farmer-administrator. Feeling the urge to express himself on the stage, he embarked to Hollywood, leaving behind a girl with whom he had contemplated marriage.
Possessed of the sacred fire, my debut on the Hollywood stage is a great success (without any previous experience), but I decline even a Studio Agent proposition; I just feel that I have become an actor in the spectacle of the world! In ’48 with my psychological achievement I feel that “I have it.” In 1957, enhanced by my stage manifestation, I realize that “I can do it.” Ready, willing and able to participate.
From Hollywood Serge continued to globe hop, producing and participating in various theater and cinematic projects in Europe and South America (Serge is fluent in all the Romance languages) and working as an activist in humanitarian causes from Cuba to China. Finally, in 1964, “San Francisco (became) my present!” Since then, he has taught at the Free University of Berkeley and New College of California, and worked with the San Francisco International Film Festival, the San Francisco Mime Troupe, and the theater department at San Francisco State University. Until the end of 1999, he worked as a certified court interpreter, and until more recently, as a bilingual proficiency test technician for the City and County of San Francisco.
Serge’s energy and dedication are boundless. He is an agent, a catalyst, an activist for the arts and philosopy; facilitating, encouraging, supporting and inspiring all who cross his path, helping them to realize their dreams according to the present and in terms of the future, revealing “the thinker and the poet in my fellow workers.”
I first met Serge in the Tenderloin at a campaign kickoff party for our district supervisor in 2002. Refreshments at the party included several enormous chocolate flat cakes, of which I took two large slices. Upon helping himself to some cake, a slender, well-disposed gentleman, perhaps in his seventies, with aristocratic features and bright, deep-set eyes, sat down next to me. I made some comment about my love of chocolate, to which he replied that the Toltec concept of friendship included sharing a hot cacao beverage while seated under a cacao tree. I remembered reading something about the Toltec (or was it the Olmec?) in one of my boyhood books, Indians of the Americas, but whatever I learned had been lost in time. Serge shared his extensive knowledge with me, revealing that he had even translated some Toltec poetry. The party receded into background noise as we conversed and thus our friendship was begun.
“Conversation With Serge” (2003)
One chill and foggy day in 2003, while waiting for Serge outside the little coffee house on Geary Street, enrapt with the unending pageant of motley souls on the sidewalks before me, my ruminations ineluctably centered on the transient nature of life, inspiring me to take the following photograph, titled “Just Passing Through.” The verse is from a small collection of Toltec poems translated through the Spanish by Serge, which a few days after our first meeting over chocolate cake, I had discovered in my mailbox, enclosed with a letter Serge had written to celebrate our new found friendship.
We have come to dream.
Suddenly we come out of the dream. . . .
And we have only come to dream.
It is not true; it is not true that we have come
to live upon this earth.
Our lives are as the grass in spring.
Our hearts give birth to flowers from our flesh
and make them germinate.
Some open their corollas, others fade.
You have lived your songs, opened your flowers,
lived your lives!