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Filipino-American Photographer Documents Post-WWII San Francisco - 2003-03-10

A collection of photographs of Filipino-American life in post-World War II San Francisco is currently on exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Through My Father's Eyes: The Filipino-American Photographs of Ricardo Ocreto Alvarado may be the most extensive documentation of the Filipino immigrant experience ever presented in a gallery setting.

Janet Alvarado was a teenager when, after her father's death in 1976, she came across nearly 3,000 negatives of professional photographs he had taken in the years before she was born. "Stunned. I was stunned to see them. Because it's a really mixed collection, it's an intimate look," she said.

The black and white photographs that make up the Ricardo Alvarado exhibition are of Filipino-Americans going about their daily lives: Working as laborers in a field or behind the counter in a store; musicians performing at a dance; or people marking the simple milestones of life attending a wedding, a funeral or birthday gathering.

"The basic story of Filipino-American history until well after the war, primarily is a story of bachelors," said Franklin Odo, the Smithsonian curator who collaborated with Janet Alvarado on the exhibition, Through My Father's Eyes.

Mr. Odo says the photos are remarkable, not only for their artistic merit, but for what they say about a people's resiliency.

"The first wave, the first period before World War II anyway is that of large numbers of men coming to work," he continued. "And they're basically migrant workers working up and down the West Coast in agricultural pursuits, picking apricots, cutting asparagus, going up to Canada and Alaska to can salmon, that type of thing. So one of the things that he does in these photographs is document community life families, children...You see family life that people don't normally associate with early Filipino-American history."

Despite the fact that Filipino-Americans make up the second largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, after Chinese, little about their history in this country has been recorded. At the time that photographer Ricardo Alvarado chronicled Filipino-immigrant life, in the 1940s and 1950s pre-civil-rights America, Filipino-Americans, as well as other Asian immigrant groups still struggled against racism and discriminatory immigration laws, making it all the more difficult for them to raise a family or own property. "My father was very fortunate to have married, as were any of the men of that generation that did have children here in the United States and raised them as Americans," Ms. Alvarado said. "A lot of newer, recently arrived Filipinos don't understand or know that history. I mean, my parents were immigrants. And they didn't have the same opportunities or education that these newer immigrants are coming in with. I think that's probably the reason I was so driven in the last five years to make this thing [gallery exhibition] happen."

Thus, there is an added poignancy to some photos like the one of couples dancing at a "house party," when people of color were still barred from many clubs and hotels; or the one of a baby staring out from its high chair in the middle of a field, flanked by her two slightly older brothers in matching jackets; or the Filipino-American and African-American men together in a general store demonstrating how the struggle against racism drew some parts of the community together. One visitor to the Alvarado exhibition at the Smithsonian says he was most interested in the section about Filipino migrant workers.

"Because I'm Mexican-American, it made me think about the untold history, the untold relationship between the Filipino-Americans and the Mexican-Americans in the labor movements of the 1950s and 1960s," he said. "[American labor leader] Cesar Chavez and many of the Filipino workers were involved and marched side by side with the Mexican-Americans to bring labor rights to the forefront. So I think it's real interesting this story is being told."

For Janet Alvarado, it has taken years of labor and fundraising efforts to get her father's story told. Realizing the historical significance of the photographs, she founded the Alvarado Project, and began by raising funds to exhibit the photos in galleries in San Francisco. Interest by the Smithsonian Institution Museum soon followed. When asked what she thinks her father would think of her success and his posthumous celebrity, Janet Alvarado says he'd be pleased.

"I'm trying to compare him with any man I've read about that had left behind accomplishments whether it was in the labor union those types of heroes, those unsung heroes," Ms. Alvarado said. "I'm sure he'd be very happy.

"And I think knowing the very special and deep bond I had with my father as a young girl, I think I see this as I get to live his dream and carry it out for him," she continued. "So if I'm feeling proud to be his daughter, I think he must be feeling very proud to know that I didn't overlook the collection or it didn't get lost."

At the end of March, the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service will take the exhibit on the road where it will be presented in other U.S. cities through the end of 2003.