February 26, 1999

Ricardo O. Alvarado: Past Photographs, Ever-Present Visions

By Dr. David Matsuda

Editor's Note: Recently the California Council for the Humanities presented "Through My Father's Eyes: Pioneers of the San Francisco Filipino American Community," an exhibit of photographs taken by Ricardo Alvarado in the 1950s and 1960s portraying the Filipino American Community of San Francisco.

Our goal in presenting this information is to bring to the Hispanic community a different perspective, a Filipino perspective, on common issues: assimilation, pluralism, diversity. At the same time this provides us a unique opportunity to bring to our Filipino readers a story about their community, their culture.

The exhibit, held at the San Francisco Main Library, included a symposium; the following essay, by Dr. David Matsuda, Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the College of San Mateo, and consultant to the Alvarado Project, presented the opening paper.

To celebrate the photographs of Ricardo O. Alvarado is not merely to pay homage to a significant, "undiscovered' artist of color. It is rather to celebrate the work of a Filipino American who saw in the United States a diversity that others either did not see, or at least did not acknowledge.

Muicians, California, ca. 1950. This portrait was taken of one of Alvarado's favorite subjects: mixed ethnic gatherings in California (Photo by Ricardo Alvarado. Copyright Janet Alvarado.)

To fully appreciate Alvarado's life's work, we must try to understand him as someone who was simultaneously a product of his time, and, more importantly, as someone who transcended the limitations of his time. Because the diversity that Ricardo Alvarado was born into in his native Philippines influenced his perspective on the diversity he found in the United States, Alvarado's work challenges monolithic stereotypes while capturing the rich internal differences among Filipino-Americans, or Pinoy.


A Norm of Diversity

The Philippine archipelago that Ricardo Alvarado left in 1928 consisted then, as it does now, of 7,100 islands. In addition to eight major dialects, which include Cebuano, Tagalog, and Ilocano, there are seventy other languages - some as distinct from one another as Khmer is from Swedish -spoken among some 220 self-identifying groups.

Cultural diversity was the norm in the Philippines of Alvarado's day. This diversity spanned the spectrum from tribes like the Igorat and Ilongot, nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in isolated areas in small groups of 25; to the peoples mixed Malay, Negrito, South Sea Island, Chinese, Spanish, Moorish, Japanese, Australian, and American origins, living together, to the tune of 2,136 per square mile, in the mestizo barrios of 1920s Manila.

As the economy of these islands became increasingly centralized under a few foreign corporations and elite nationals, members of the same matriarchal extended families worked as rural planters and harvesters, and urban processors and shippers. As these family-based, rural-urban networks formalized, more people found their way to the cities, and eventually to points of embarkation.

It was there, in relatively metropolitan areas like Manila, Cebu, and Davao, that previously distinct peoples became multilingual, formed commercial alliances, pooled resources, intermarried, and established the networks that pushed and pulled the Manong Diaspora to all points between, and to the mainland United States.

Migrant Farm Children, California, ca 1950. The earlier Filipino migrant farm communities maintained strong connections with their urban counterparts; Alvarado took this portrait on one of his visits to local farm areas. (Photo by Ricardo Alvarado. Copyright Janet Alvarado.)

In sum, Ricardo Alvarado came from a place of acknowledged diversity. His recognition of this diversity, both at home and abroad, makes him "a product of his time."

The United States that he came to appears, in retrospect, to have had little knowledge or recognition of the diversity in its culturally and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods. In this setting, Alvarado's photographs of San Francisco's Western Addition both transcend and are necessary correctives to the unfounded beliefs that racial and ethnic groups of the time lived in enclaves and, with the possible exception of the shop floor, did not mix.


Between Assimilation and Pluralism

Assimilation the idea that we are a "melting pot," that we merge into a kind of cultural lockstep has gone out of fashion. It has been replaced by the metaphor of the "salad bowl," and the theory that we remain "culturally plural" and ethnically unique.

While cultural pluralism is an important theory in its own right, its real significance is as a corrective to an over-determined theory of assimilation. It is now common knowledge that we will never completely merge into one culture. However, we now extol excessively the virtues of pluralism. Neither assimilation nor pluralism in isolation captures the subtleties, complexities, and dynamics of cultural history or ethnic relations.

For example, if you are of Filipino heritage, as was Alvarado, but living in America, are you not an American? Are you not a product victim, beneficiary, or what have you of the best and worst that the United States has to offer? Are you not, to some contested degree, culturally assimilated?

Secondly, if you are of Filipino-American heritage, are you not aware of difference? Is not your identity, despite your best efforts, in fact identities, negotiated between so-called mainstream and tributary cultures? Are you not, to some contested degree, enmeshed in cultural pluralism?

Assimilation and pluralism are not polar opposites from which we must choose one or the other, that create internal differences within ethnic groups like the Pinoy.

Because Alvarado's photographic record shows an understanding of the tension between assimilation and pluralism he is able to transcend the monolithic stereotypes of Filipinos as submissive mail-order brides, an unsophisticated third-world ethnic group in a first-world country, and a culturally introverted people.

Instead, what we see are images of Pinoy from all walks of rural and urban life, participating, and integrating their own ways into, contemporary American traditions, and freely mixing in the extant ethnic diversity of the day. We see in these photos evidence of situational ethnicity, as individuals, are accepted as insiders by members of other ethnic groups.

In the photographic corpus of Ricardo O. Alvarado there is an inclusive worldview, and not one based on simplistic, politically correct notions of authenticity. It is in his photographs of the past that we find ever-present visions of diversity, the tension between assimilation and pluralism, and internal differences within ethnic groups like the Pinoy.

San Francisco Farmer's Market, ca 1950. Stall #46, with Bernal Heights in the background. (Photo by Ricardo Alvarado. Copyright Janet Alvarado.)

Alvarado recorded diversity in 1940s and 50s America that would otherwise have gone undocumented. Through his work, the history of urban and rural Filipino Americans unfolds before us, allowing us to revel in the interaction and cooperation within heretofore unacknowledged culturally and ethnically diverse American localities.

Reprinted by permission of the California Council for the Humanities from `Humanities Network,' vol. 21, no. 1."

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