Santana returns to alma mater, guitar blazing

By: Jill Tucker, Chronicle Staff Writer

Carlos Santana (center) speaks to students gathered 
in the auditorium before performing at his alma mater 
Mission High school in San Francisco, Calif. 
on Monday, October 24, 2011.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Legendary guitarist Carlos Santana walked through the entrance to San Francisco's Mission High School on Monday morning, ready to play his guitar and celebrate the school he attended decades ago for its recent successes.

It was the first time he'd been back since he was a student there in the mid-1960s.

"If you can remember only one thing today, remember this: You are significant. You are meaningful and you matter," Santana told the students at the event organized by his nonprofit organization, the Milagro Foundation.

The purpose of his visit was to encourage the school, whose student body has often struggled academically but has recently shown some promise. More of Mission High's students are going to college, there are fewer dropouts, and after several years of silence, the school's music program has been restored.

Dressed head to toe in white, Santana spoke of playing at Woodstock and with B.B. King, Miles Davis and John Lee Hooker. For kids born after 1990, those references likely were lost on many of them. What they were aware of, though, was that someone like them - an immigrant who lived in the same neighborhood and sat through the same algebra and history classes at Mission High - had made it and made it big.

Santana was joined by his drummer wife Cindy Blackman Santana, actor Edward James Olmos and film producer Peter Bratt, who offered students sage advice on how to live a similarly successful life, even if it's not one filled with fame.

Discipline born of love

"I'm not special. I'm not kidding you, man, I'm not special," Olmos said to a hushed auditorium filled with the school's 700 students. "I didn't come out of my mother's womb going, 'To be or not to be, man.' I found my love. And then I disciplined myself to do the thing I love to do when I didn't feel like doing it."

While not a Bay Area boy, Olmos' life and experiences resonated with the students.

Finally, Santana launched into a loud rendition of "Oye Como Va," accompanied by several giddy current and former members of the school's guitar club.

"It's probably the best moment in my life, well, so far," said recent graduate Gilberto Mejia, 18, who founded the guitar club in 2007, and whose own guitar now has a Santana autograph. "He's an inspiration. He's somebody in the world."

The starry-eyed students frequently raised their smart phones to capture images of the celebrities, but the advice and wisdom imparted had not been lost on them.

"If you have the opportunity to do what you want, you should take that opportunity," said junior Patty Calvez, 16.