A Love Letter to San Francisco: A Dancer’s Understanding of Home

By Jesse Escalante

Jesse stands in front of a red sequin curtain while wearing a checkered rainbow button up shirt.

Photo by Queering Beauty. [ID: Jesse stands in front of a red sequin curtain while wearing a checkered rainbow button up shirt. Jesse’s hands are inside his pockets as he looks into the camera with his head slightly tilted to the left with a half smile.]

Growing up in Orange County for the first 18 years of my life was an emotional and challenging experience. I grew up in Santa Ana, which is an impoverished small city mostly made up of Latine-Americans. At that time, most residents of the city were struggling to make ends meet, losing family members to gang violence, and hiding away from immigration services. I, like most of them, had much in common. My single father is undocumented which meant my sibling, father, and I struggled day to day. My sibling and I grew up moving from garage, to small bedrooms, to basement, so discussing the concept of home is a very emotional one for me. Mostly because, for the majority of my life, I felt like I did not have a home. Sometimes, I still question if I do.  

Santa Ana never felt like home to me. It was dysfunctional at best and abusive at worst. It definitely was not the ideal white picket fence home built for a nuclear family and I was not part of a privileged family that got everything handed to us. Santa Ana felt like a prison to me and I always knew I was meant for so much more than it. It in so many ways was holding me back from being able to be my authentic queer and artistic self. So, I ventured into a city I had visited once and instantly fell in love with: San Francisco.  

Over the past 7 years of being a San Francisco resident I have seen and experienced quite a bit. I have had my fair share of highs and lows in this city and felt I truly came of age here. Moving to San Francisco was my beacon of hope, my light at the end of the tunnel, and my escape. I moved to San Francisco at 18 to pursue my BA in Sociology and Dance at San Francisco State University. Coming here would not only challenge me but also answer a long awaited question: what is home? 

Finding home within San Francisco would not be a linear, easy journey, nothing ever really is. The next 7 years of my life would be filled with quintessential moments of joy and love, as well as some of the lowest moments I had yet to face. In this journey, I equally found and lost myself while also finding some pretty great people to get lost with along the way. San Francisco has been my greatest teacher, my best friend, my sanctuary, and my home.  

I remember the drive into the city so vividly. I remember the feeling of the wind blowing in the car as I peeked my head out the window as I looked at the various signs indicating I was in San Francisco. I remember my dad dropping me off in my dorm and helping me unpack. We explored campus and met my roommates. We grabbed lunch and set up my room. And when it was time, we said our goodbyes. It was a goodbye that felt equally painful and cathartic. I was let go and set free. Set to make my own decisions, to make my own mistakes, and to learn from it all.  

San Francisco State was a mixed experience. As a sociologist, it was a gift. The city was my classroom, especially during the years of 2014-2018. I saw the place I loved so much, fall apart emotionally as it grappled with political changes. The magic of adolescence felt stripped away and all that was left was arguments, riots, protests, and pain. Yet, San Francisco rose up and reminded me of resilience and strength. San Francisco is where I was taught to be an activist and to speak up, out, and against systemic oppression. It is where I attended my first protests, volunteered with my first organizations, and did my first grassroots organizing work. My home was confused as to how the world had come to this, but it was by coming together that we found hope for our future.  

As a dancer, San Francisco State was…I’ll be quite honest, it was hell. I had professors that deeply affected the self-esteem of many, including myself. This is where I lost myself as a dancer and lost my hope for San Francisco. I was verbally abused by a professor who shamed my body by calling me “too skinny”, “too weak”, and “needing to go to the gym.” She even forced me once to do push-ups in front of the class to try and prove that I could not do them. I remember going home and crying for hours in the shower that day. This would continue for 3 of the 4 years of my education. My self-esteem was the lowest it had ever been and my body felt foreign. San Francisco, a place of hopes and dreams, had lost its magic to me.  

Alienated from my community and from myself, I decided my journey in San Francisco was to come to an end. I applied to the Masters in Social Work Program at University of Toronto, my dream school at the time. After a rigorous application process, I was accepted. I was beyond ready to leave San Francisco behind. I was ready to start a new life and meet new people. Let’s just say, the universe had other things in mind for me.  

After I graduated from San Francisco State, much of my life changed. I found a queer community that celebrated my brown skin, my femininity, and my art. I found pockets of dancers and choreographers who believed in me and invested in me. I found the magic that was once stripped away from me. Every color felt vibrant, every scent was fresh, and every feeling was warm. I was home again. 

Unfortunately, home was being stripped away from me once again. I was still slightly committed to the University of Toronto, but my heart was no longer in it, but I had given up everything to make this dream happen. I told everyone about it. How could I not go? My heart and head were being torn in two separate directions and I didn’t know what was the right choice anymore. I followed the road I thought was right for me and went to Toronto for an orientation. There and all alone,  I knew I made the wrong choice. So, I went back. With no money, no job, no place to live, and no planned future, as it was all used for my move to Toronto, I hit rock bottom. 

This began one of the darkest periods of my life. I was in the city of my dreams and I made the choice to come back, but I lost everything in the process. I was houseless for 5 months and oftentimes would not know where I would be sleeping that day. I couch surfed and stayed with friends. I picked up whatever jobs I could find. But my spirit was broken. Once again, the magic in San Francisco was gone.  

Committed to a better future, I invested all my energy into creating the life I wanted. I decided to apply to the University of California, Berkeley for their Social Work program and put myself out there as a dancer once more. I started working a job I enjoyed as a Behavioral Therapist for children with Autism and saved up money along the way. After 5 months of feeling hopeless, things changed for me. I found a new apartment to live in, I got accepted to UC Berkeley, I got numerous dance opportunities, and I found my spirit again.  

I thought to myself this was it, this was my chance, and I felt unstoppable. And then, a little thing called Coronavirus happened and not just my life, but everyone’s lives changed. San Francisco shut down and nothing would be the same. Once again, my home was thrown through the wringer. Yet, I didn’t lose hope. I never thought to myself that this was the end of the city I knew to grow and love. It was a hard battle and we are still fighting it, but if San Francisco can do anything, it can fight back.  

I started my two-year program at UC Berkeley and did minimum dancing due to few available opportunities. Continuing to build the life I had planned for me looked a little different than my original plan, but I think that was the case for everyone. We had to individually and collectively rebuild our future. My entire first year of grad school was online and the only dancing I did was in my living room or rooftop. The next year or so would be a constant back and forth between looking at a brighter future and regressing back to isolation depending on the severity of the pandemic. Yet, no matter what state we were in, San Francisco would continue pushing forward.  

Presently, we are in the state of looking at how to rebuild our city and our world. While there is so much we do not know and so much out of our control, there is so much resiliency in all of us and this city. There have been periods where I became disillusioned with this place and it felt so foreign to me and other periods where I recognized it more than I recognized myself. It has thrown me curveball after curveball, yet continuously gives me the resources to rebuild myself. Maybe that is home then? Not a perfect fixed state of being, but rather a place continuously working on itself to be better for others.  

San Francisco is far from perfect. I could write a whole article on all its imperfections, but I don’t think that’s what I’m trying to get across here. Rather, I think no one’s home is perfect and maybe that’s what makes it a home. It tries and there is hope in it, regardless of what happens. It instills hope in its residents and yes, it can be chaotic at times, but it gives us the pieces to build our lives back up into something that isn’t quite brand new, but maybe something better than what we had before. 

This city is nothing like it was 7 years ago and yet it is still the same. It will continuously change and I think by not allowing our home to change, we are not allowing ourselves to change. And what a disservice that is to us all. It may look different tomorrow or the day after that. It will definitely look different in the years to come, but no matter what, it is my home. My imperfect, expensive, exhausting, and emotional city that can still produce queer magic, art, BIPOC spirit, political activism, and hope for a better future. I may have been born and raised in Santa Ana for the first 18 years of my life, but San Francisco has raised me like no other. Emotionally, I was raised here. San Francisco, thank you. Thank you for constantly challenging me and accepting me. I cannot imagine myself anywhere but here. San Francisco has seen me grow up and I have seen it do the same. I am truly home.

This article appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of In Dance.

Jesse Escalante (he/him/his) is a 25-year-old queer Latine San Francisco resident. Jesse has earned a BA in Sociology and Dance from San Francisco State University. He currently attends the University of California, Berkeley in pursue of his master’s in social work, with this current semester being his last. Jesse specializes in mental health and substance use within adults and hopes to become a licensed clinician to work in substance use. Jesse is also a dancer and has been training since the age of 14. He has trained in Ballet, Modern, Jazz, Contemporary, Jazz-Funk, and Hip-Hop. He uses his dance platform to tell stories of the queer and BIPOC experience, as well as stories of mental health.