Memories Of the Manong
By Susan Mandel
In the middle of a field, two little boys in matching plaid flannel jackets, the sons of migrant farmers, flank their baby sister, sitting in her high chair. All three stare into the camera lens with the same hardened look, one that seems incongruous in such small children, particularly the baby in a sweet little dress with a bow in her hair.
In another scene, about 30 adults enjoy a picnic together in the countryside as several small children play nearby. A glamorous-looking woman in the center, dressed in the latest 1950s fashion, leans on the end of the picnic table with an empty paper plate in her hand, waiting her turn for food.
These are two of the striking photographs taken by Ricardo Alvarado chronicling both the hardships Filipino immigrants faced in postwar America and the active community life they created. Their tale, seldom told, is the subject of the exhibition "Through My Father's Eyes: The Filipino American Photographs of Ricardo Ocreto Alvarado (1914-1976)," at the National Museum of American History. The show, which runs through March 31, features historic pictures from the San Francisco Bay area and is, according to Smithsonian officials, the first significant exhibition on Filipino Americans in any of the Smithsonian's 16 museums.
Filipino Americans are perhaps the least visible immigrant group in America, often mistaken for Chinese, Japanese or Latinos. This despite the fact that they are the United States' second-largest Asian group after Chinese (1.85 million compared with 2.43 million, according to the 2000 Census), and federal immigration data indicate that the Philippines sends more immigrants to the United States than any other Asian land. Very little of their history in this country has been recorded. That's partly what makes the Alvarado exhibition so compelling. The pictures of parties, weddings, baptisms, Communions, cockfights, pig roasts, beauty pageants, picnics and workplaces give a sense of what life must have been like for these people.
"I could actually imagine myself bending over and picking asparagus" like the migrant workers in the photos, says Jon Melegrito, a Filipino American who saw the exhibition.
But the story of how the work of a little-known immigrant artist ended up in one of the country's preeminent museums is nearly as compelling as the photos.
Alvarado came to California from the Philippines in 1928 at age 14. Like other early Filipino immigrants known as the Manong ("older brother") generation, he worked menial jobs: he was a houseboy, a dishwasher, a janitor and finally -- after serving with the U.S. Army in New Zealand and the Philippines in World War II -- a cook's assistant at Letterman Hospital at the Presidio Army base in San Francisco. It was right after the war, too, when he bought the Speed Graphic camera he used to take the photos in the exhibition. According to Janet Alvarado, his
daughter, he may have learned about photography from an older brother who had a photo studio in the Philippines.
His camera remained one of his few possessions until Alvarado married in 1959 and gave up picture taking to concentrate on his new family. It was only after his death in 1976 that Janet, then a teenager, discovered in the family basement his collection of more than 3,000 negatives, which had been carefully hidden to prevent any damage. She immediately recognized their historic value. The photos document "my experience as a Filipino American and my father's," a part of history that's
virtually unknown, says Alvarado, now 41.
She'd always felt that her father's work belonged in a museum. But she didn't learn how to go about creating a museum exhibition until she began volunteering at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 1991. Her first task was to find the people in the photos and interview them to document the background of each picture.
Her decade-long crusade paid off. She won two grants to put on a 1998 exhibition of her father's work at the San Francisco Main Library's Jewett Gallery as part of a citywide celebration commemorating the 100-year anniversary of Philippine independence from Spain. That summer
Alvarado wrote to the Smithsonian about the exhibition and sent along 50 slides. Within a week, a representative of the Institution contacted her to express the museum's interest.
Franklin Odo, director of the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Program, had been immediately impressed by what he saw. "I was really startled by how good Ricardo was with the camera," says Odo, who became one of the show's curators.
The exhibition, quite similar to the one mounted in San Francisco, shows the Filipino American community's transformation from a predominantly male bachelor society to one made up of families.
Most Manong, says Odo, were unmarried young men, recruited as laborers by farms and corporations to work temporarily in the United States. Further, until 1948, California law prevented legal marriage between Filipinos and whites -- and women from the Philippines didn't emigrate in any significant number until after World War II, when they came as the war brides of Manong who'd fought for the Americans.
In the photos, a veteran in uniform and his exuberant bride stand on the church steps after their wedding; children dressed up for a pageant at American Legion Post 798 pose for a group photo; three Filipina candidates for "queen" at a box social (an honor bestowed upon the young woman who sold the most tickets to the event) sit together in their formal gowns, looking demure as the numbers are tabulated on a chalkboard behind them. "It was a very vibrant community despite a great deal of hostility and racism directed against them," Odo says, adding that they "have a remarkable resilience and you can see it in the photos."
The images of people of different races and cultures mixing in social situations are somewhat of a surprise. The migrant farm children in the first photo are half Filipino, half Mexican. In another, a band of black, Latino and Filipino musicians performs. A number of white women are in the photos, dancing with Filipino men or serving as bridesmaids. But only one of the five white men in the pictures appears in a social situation. The others are a soldier at the Army hospital, a priest baptizing a child, and two musicians working at a Filipino event.
Some of the Filipino Americans who attended the show's opening night in late November wept, reminded of their own ancestors who came here in the early part of the 20th century. The current generation tends to view the early Filipino immigrants as simply having been victims who were exploited as cheap labor. But "my father's collection," Alvarado says, "tells a million other stories."
Janet Alvarado will be among the speakers on a Smithsonian panel, "Through Filipino American Eyes: 100 Years of History -- and the Future -- in America," on Saturday, March 22, at 2 p.m. in the National Museum of American History's Carmichael Auditorium.
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