Your Kids Are So Berkeley: 3 tell how growing up here shaped their values

The children of the McDonalds, Santiagos, and de Leons each absorbed Berkeley values from their parents and expressed them in their own unique ways.

“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/next stop is Vietnam.” 

Ringing out from the stage of the Woodstock music festival in 1969, the “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” written by a Berkeley resident, was the rallying cry of a generation. Decades later, his community-minded son purchased Berkeley’s beloved Mr. Mopps toy store in 2010, saving it from going out of business.

Musician “Country Joe” McDonald and his son Devin are among three Berkeley families whose children distinguished themselves from their well-known parents in different ways but they still reflect quintessentially Berkeley values.

Another is the late Chiori Santiago, a Berkeley arts and culture writer, who is honored on her son Roberto’s “Your Mom Is So Berkeley” Facebook page, which became a very Berkeley thing. Instead of becoming a writer like his mother, he went on to become an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter.

“Berkeley is famous for being the home of the disability movement, with the Center for Independent Living (on Adeline), so anything to do with disability is very Berkeley,” noted Mark Kitchell, director of the Academy Award-nominated film “Berkeley in the Sixties,” which documented the development of many of Berkeley’s most treasured values.

Then there’s Anna de Leon, who is a former civil rights lawyer, and her daughter Aya, a nationally recognized author and poetry instructor at UC Berkeley who describes her books as social activism thrillers.

“People in creative fields, poets and writers the likes of (Berkeley resident) Susan Griffin — she wrote ‘A Chorus of Stones,’ a book about war — that’s very Berkeley,” Kitchell said.

The children of the McDonalds, Santiagos, and de Leons each absorbed Berkeley values from their parents and expressed them in their own unique ways.

“Country Joe” and Devin

“Country Joe” McDonald moved to Berkeley in 1965 and never left. McDonald is himself the son of two Berkeley luminaries. He inherited his activism from his father, Worden McDonald, and his mother, Florence “Flo” McDonald, who served on the Berkeley City Council and as city auditor. Flo bore the perhaps unenviable distinction of being described as “an avowed Marxist” by the New York Times. Flo and Worden moved to Berkeley shortly after their son did so.

While Flo and Worden have passed, “Country Joe” is still very much alive. He got good reviews for a solo album released in 2017, simply titled 50, and he continues to advocate for Vietnam veterans, the whales, and of course, peace and love.

“My parents and I brought our values with us to Berkeley in the early 1960s,” Joe said in an email. “My parents taught me progressive values by their behavior.”

When it came time for him to parent his children, Joe followed a similar path. “I tried to act in a way that was an example for my kids,” he said. “But I tried to not scare them by sharing too much at an early age.

“Berkeley was the first place I had ever been where being progressive was considered normal,” Joe said. “I enjoy the diversity of the city.”

Devin McDonald and his father Country Joe McDonald pose for a photo outside Mr. Mopps' Toys and Books on February 3, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Devin McDonald and his father Country Joe McDonald outside Mr. Mopps’ Toys and Books on Feb. 3, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Country Joe has five children, and while all five have distinguished themselves in their fields, Devin McDonald did so in what might be characterized as the most Berkeleyesque manner: He purchased Mr. Mopps, saving the store from an untimely demise and preserving its delights for generations of Berkeley children.

Devin said his parents’ and grandparents’ teachings influenced his eventual decision to purchase Mr. Mopps, as well as his approach to running the business.

When Flo was elected Berkeley City Auditor, Devin said she famously refused to accept her full salary because she didn’t want to make more than the next highest-earning worker in the auditor’s office.

“That has always stuck with me as a business owner. We take a very modest salary as owners of Mr. Mopps,” said Devin, who owns and runs the store with his partner, Jenny Stevenson.

“We prefer to invest in our employees and the business. We are doing it more for the kids,” Devin said. “We make the same amount our staff does.”

Devin says of his grandmother’s teachings, “She didn’t mince words, and she might have occasionally cursed. She would be like, ‘Those pigs are out of their minds.’”

While Flo didn’t pull her punches when speaking to her grandson, she didn’t preach to him either.

“They always presented stuff for me socially and politically as, ‘Some people think this, other people think that, and what do you think?’” Devin said.

“In my conversations with my father, it was like, ‘Why are you so concerned about whales? What’s the deal?’” and he’d be, ‘Well, they’re being killed like crazy for perfume and lipstick.’

“I’d just go, ‘Well, that sucks.’ And he would say, ‘Yes, exactly,’” Devin said.

A Berkeley native, Devin was living in San Francisco and working as a nanny when he learned from a Berkeleyside article that Mr. Mopps was up for sale. He had no experience in retail.

He did, however, have considerable experience with Mr. Mopps. He grew up five blocks from the store, and some of his first toys were purchased there.

When he found out the store might close, he was compelled to act.

“I was like, ‘We should take over this random weird store in Berkeley because it means a lot to a lot of people.’ It was the craziest, dumbest idea ever,” Devin said, laughing. “Jenny thought I had lost my mind.”

When Stevenson saw the impact the closure would have on the community, she was won over. The couple managed to swing a loan and, after months of effort, closed the deal. Soon after, they moved to the East Bay to be closer to the store, ending up in El Cerrito.

Ten years later, the beloved Berkeley institution is holding its own, despite COVID-19 and the retail apocalypse. 

Flo McDonald was an activist and public servant; her son is a musician, whose son runs a beloved Berkeley institution. 

Chiori and Roberto

In her time, Chiori Santiago chronicled the world of East Bay 1980s and 1990s music and culture, and her son Roberto Santiago honors her work on his Facebook page and in his own work.

“It was one of those Berkeley things,” Roberto said of the creation of Your Mother Is So Berkeley, also known as YMISB, in 2009.

“I was talking with a fellow ASL interpreter, and it turned out that my mother had written a story about his mother. The story was framed and hanging in their house,” he said.

“So I said, ‘Yeah, your mom is so Berkeley she has my mom’s article hanging in your house,’ and he threw over, ‘Well, your mom is so Berkeley she only wears Birkenstocks to protest marches,’ and I threw one over and he threw one over, just getting ridiculous,” Roberto said.

He put the jokes on Facebook, and soon the group grew to 700 members. In 2010, The New York Times ran an article about YMISB and other municipalities picked up on the idea, he said.

Over the years, the group has become a community forum where its 8,200 members argue about the palatability of carob and reminisce about growing up in what many deem the ultimate counterculture community. 

Roberto Santiago poses with a photo of his mother Chiori Santiago holding him as a baby. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Roberto Santiago with a photo of his mother Chiori Santiago holding him as a baby, February 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Growing up, following in his mother’s footsteps, Roberto attended Willard Junior High and Berkeley High – she graduated high school in 1970, he in 1995. 

Chiori took him along on a wide variety of assignments, which exposed him to all kinds of people and gave him an appreciation for freelance life – both of which influenced his choice of profession as an ASL interpreter. In addition to freelance interpreting, he is also the coordinator of deaf services at San Francisco State University.

Roberto is not hearing-impaired, but in high school he was involved in a youth group that included deaf youngsters, leading to him learning sign language.

Similar to a freelance writer who might interview a judge, a zookeeper and an activist all in the same day, interpreters facilitate communication in a wide variety of situations. Roberto said that like journalists, interpreters’ task is to get their subjects’ points across.

While two of his three children were born in Maryland, Berkeley values drew him back to his hometown.

“The older two of my kids always knew they were assigned to the wrong gender, but they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it in Maryland,” he said. “It wasn’t until we moved back to Berkeley in 2016 that they felt comfortable coming out as trans. 

“I see myself as an ally to my kids,” said Roberto, following in his mother’s footsteps.

Chiori was the daughter of a Japanese-American mother and a Scottish-Welsh father. Until the age of 8, she lived in Karachi, Pakistan.

When the family moved to Berkeley from Pakistan, teachers and fellow students and the general public mistook her for Latino. This led to one of her landmark pieces, “How I Became Mexican.”

With these experiences in mind, Chiori made sure that Roberto, whose father is Puerto Rican, got support from his family and the larger multiracial community.

“I was in a multiracial affinity group for kids that was called ‘I Pride.’ The parents and kids would get together and have a potluck and talk about what we experienced and our feelings,” Roberto said. “Mom brought us (Roberto and his brother Ignacio Palmieri) together with other people like us celebrating being multiracial.”

Anna and Aya

Like Roberto, Aya de Leon followed in the footsteps of her Berkeley mom, Anna de Leon, in many ways, just not professionally. While Anna was an attorney and nightclub owner, Aya chose her own path – always reflecting Berkeley values.

Aya first came to national attention as a spoken-word and hip-hop theater artist, adding her own brand of political activism to the mix. In the early 2000s, she held a workshop where attendees wore wedding dresses and participated in a self-loving “marriage ceremony.” The feminist concept resurfaced in Lizzo’s 2017 video “Truth Hurts,” which shows her marrying herself at the end. 

“As a quirky feminist, it has been so great to be in Berkeley and say, “Let’s do this crazy thing,’ and the community is like ‘Yeah, let’s do it!” Aya said.

Aya and Anna de León pose for a photo on Anna's front deck, on January 27, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Aya and Anna de León on Anna’s front deck, on Jan. 27, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Now, as a UC Berkeley lecturer, author and mother, she’s focusing on writing, authoring children’s books and novels she describes as thrillers with a radical bent.

“My big thing was watching my mom put two things in the center of her life: Creativity and social justice,” said Aya, who was born in Los Angeles but moved with her mother shortly afterward to Berkeley, where they both live.

“When I think about the Black Lives Matter movement, I remember watching my mom. In the 1980s, she worked on a lawsuit against the Richmond Police Department for police brutality,” Aya said.

In June 1983, a federal court jury found the Richmond Police Department, the police chief and two officers guilty of brutality and awarded $3 million to the families of two slain black men. The case was the first one Anna worked on after graduating from law school, serving as a clerk for the ACLU attorneys.

“In my teens, she sang with Higher Ground, a gospel group,” Aya said.

While Aya wasn’t interested in pursuing a legal career or singing for that matter, she loved the mystery novels her mother had around the house.

“She was always reading crime fiction – the mysteries, the spy novels, the thrillers. I credit her with my literary taste in terms of genre. It’s not surprising that I am now decades later writing these books that are social justice activism thrillers,” Aya said.

Aya’s next young adult novel about a teenage spy fighting a white nationalist terrorist is scheduled to be published in October. The book is titled “Undercover Latina.”

“That book is inspired by my mom, who often is mistaken for white — but she is Latina,” Aya said. “My mom would talk about how, being mistaken for white, she would sometimes hear what white people said about people of color and that made her a spy.” 

In a separate interview, Anna de Leon was quick to connect many of her successes to her daughter.

“She inspired me to open my jazz clubs,” Anna said.

As a child, Aya shared a quote from Billie Holliday with her mother: “All I ever wanted was a little place where I could serve good food and sing whenever I felt like it.”

The idea appealed because while Anna had long enjoyed performing as a jazz singer, she had no interest in going on the road.

“I was once married to a musician (Aya’s father, Afro-Caribbean blues musician Taj Mahal). I knew what that life was like – a lot of drugs and cheap motels,” Anna said.

She ran three clubs: Anna’s on Shattuck, Anna’s Bistro on University Avenue, and finally, Anna’s Jazz Island on Allston Way. All three clubs are now closed with Jazz Island shutting its doors in January 2010.

Continuing to jump, jive and wail, Anna now performs all over the Bay Area with the Jazz Therapists, a seven-member band with piano, bass drums, guitar, sax and trombone that plays at senior facilities. The group includes Grammy winners and performs only music written before 1942, “and sometimes Taj joins us,” Anna said.

Reflecting on her mother’s upbringing, Aya said, “My mom was poor; she was raised in the projects in Los Angeles. She was always of the people, for the people. But there’s this sense of ‘Let’s make this as excellent as we can in terms of arts and creativity – and also, let’s make the world a better place.’”