Editor's Note: I met Alli Cuentos last summer when we were co-panelists at the Urban Lactation Project in the Mission. Her life is devoted to easing the transition to parenthood for mamas as the owner of Danza Clara Doula. She’s worked with families across San Francisco while raising her own kids in The City as well. Her work is an inspiration and I hope you enjoy her story! -Lesly
Name and Age
My full name is Allison but I go by Alli Cuentos and I am 37 years old.
Photo courtesy San Francisco Early Literacy Network
What neighborhood do you live in, and where is your hometown?
I was born right outside of Washington D.C., on the Virginia side. My dad is a third-generation Washingtonian. My mom is from Brooklyn, New York. And I have been living in San Francisco since 2001. I currently live in the Excelsior District.
Tell me about yourself.
My sister brought me to San Francisco. I’m very, very close with my sister. She moved here about nine months before I did. Before that I was living overseas in Italy for almost 7 years before to moving to San Francisco. My sister Jamie had been Bosnia. She was a social worker and moved there right after the war. I think both of us with our left leaning politics felt like it would be good fit. We wanted to find a community where we felt supported in our values and could really connect with the political struggles going on here. And so I followed her out. I lived in the Mission district for about 11 years.
I would say in terms of my career, I’ve had a very very winding road and I hope to continue winding my whole life. I feel like all the different branches of my path are very connected. And I feel very lucky have been able to kind of carve out my own road, against expectations of having an easily defined career.
I studied fine art and art education in Italy. I’ve always worked—I got my first job when I was 10. So I’ve always been working, really just finding creative ways to support myself financially, including agricultural work, housecleaning, you know everything! But I did start working children from a very young age. And that has been one of the common threads throughout all of my jobs. So, I worked in early education for a long time. I got certified as a somatic movement therapist and worked one-on-one with children with special needs. I currently am still consulting in the education field around connections between literacy, whole body movement and social and family learning. My business partner and I work with community-based organizations, public schools, libraries, family research centers—we mostly do family trainings and staff trainings and we are also involved in creating reading curriculum.
So that’s been a real blessing for me because both as a mom and a lifelong learner it really keeps me curious and constantly learning new things. And it’s also just the really really open flexible work schedule so a lot of that work I do at night after my kids are asleep.
I was really encouraged by my midwife to get into the birth work after my first son was born. I waited until my first daughter was able to be without me for at least two days, because that sometimes that’s how long births take! I am certified as both a birth and postpartum doula. And now half about half of my work is with clients both as a volunteer doula and a private paid doula.
Tell me about your family!
My son’s name is Manuel, he’s in the first grade. And my daughter Naida turned three in November. My husband’s name is Eric. He was born in Columbia and moved to the Bay Area when he was in kindergarten. He loved to the East Bay area and grew up in Walnut Creek as one of the only brown kids in Walnut Creek. Very interesting experience. And then went to school at UC Santa Cruz. He studied Latino studies and then moved up to San Francisco.
He is the director of the Parent Partner program within Mission Graduates. And his role is really providing leadership development opportunities for Spanish-speaking immigrant families in the Mission, helping them become more involved in their children's education and put them on a path towards college from a really early age. He’s been the director of that program for several years. His background is in community organizing and urban planning. But he's always just been very committed to supporting immigrant families and helping both parents and youth feel more active and feel more ownership over their own neighborhoods and their own communities.
My family of origin is White, Jewish, of Eastern European dissent. I grew up in a very blended household of lots of people. So my family always had other folks living with us. So I grew up bilingual and bicultural, speaking Spanish from birth, and always found myself with bridging different communities from a very early age. I always had one set of Spanish-speaking friends and one set of English-speaking friends.
When I moved to San Francisco I was recruited into a dance company that is a Colombian folklore dance company. I grew up with a lot of Colombian music and culture. And I have been dancing my whole life and that's when I met Eric so we met at a dance studio – dancing Cumbia. And our kids are very very involved in art and culture. They've been dancing from the womb. And Manuel now does drumming and dancing with Loco Bloco and loves studying Colombian dance.
We love living in San Francisco. We're very committed to staying in the city. We find the Excelsior more affordable and just a more family oriented neighborhood. And although we still both do a lot of work in the mission we’re really really happy living in Excelsior. Our son walks or rides his bike to school every day. It’s a couple of blocks from our house. He still totally bilingual even though he goes to an all-English school. And yeah we just have a ton of friends in our neighborhood that are a really close support system.
What tips do you have for parents raising kids in San Francisco?
You are your child's first teacher. You are your child’s spiritual guide. You are your child's cuddle bunny. You are really the most important person in your child's life. Spend time to kind of uncover your own unique family values. Your own unique lifestyle. Your own family culture. And just really ground yourself in that. And welcome your child to grow up with those values and with that culture and no matter what school they go to, no matter what neighborhood you live in, they’re going to feel so rooted because they know that their parents are creating that safety container for them.
And not being afraid to ask for help. You know there's a million amazing resources in the city. My husband and I, whenever we have been through hard times, we have just been so humbled and so grateful by even for free resources that we’ve received. Counseling centers, family resource centers, clinics. If we could be humble enough to accept that help I think we're really doing our children a service. And teaching them that it's always okay to ask for help and it always okay for people and provide help.
What’s your favorite stroller friendly restaurant in San Francisco, and your favorite family activity?
The Sunrise Restaurant on 24th and Shotwell. The owner of that restaurant that is one of my oldest friends. I’ve known her children they were very young and she has a son who is a sophomore in college at UC Santa Cruz right now on a full scholarship. My son learned how to crawl and walk in the hallway of that restaurant. I think that there so many places that are great for kids. But having highchairs and plastic cups doesn't always make a place kid friendly because the babies scream and toddlers knock glasses of milk and water over. The owner and the staff are just happy and joyful and you don’t feel like you’re imposing, or making a mess or being too loud. You just feel welcome in a different way. We just had my daughter's third birthday party there! We had like 22 families packed in there, with a piñata. It was great!
My non-food activity is going on hikes in Glen Canyon. My kids have just totally grown up hiking in the canyon, and I bring all my doula clients. Get the pregnant mommas hiking through the beautiful eucalyptus forest and connect with our bigger roots. I like being in a place where there is still wildlife. Anywhere there’s still enough space where you really feel rooted to the earth again. Rain or shine we’ll just put on our gear and go hike out in the Canyon. It’s beautiful.
In one word, how would you describe raising children in San Francisco?