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Manuel Cavada: Photographer, Chicano, Veteran

Manuel Cadava Collection

Manuel Cavada met this mother and her son in Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua. When he came upon her, he asked in the most tender words he could find: “I feel the love you have for your son.” At that moment, she squeezed her son and Manuel was able to get two photographs. Manuel notes how the boy’s pants are very clean, the little cuffs around his wrists are perfect. He looks healthy. Then look at the mother: fingernails full of dirt, her clothing mostly in tatters. Her whole life is that son.

Eye On The Locals: When you think of the South Bay and the borderlands of Tijuana, do you think “the Latino artist corridor of the world”?

You should.

Between the galleries and artist studios starting from Barrio Logan and going south to the Pasajaes along Avenida Revolucion, you’ll find cutting edge, mostly Latino artists creating pieces that strike emotional and abstract chords.

Recently, I was able to interview photographer Manuel Cadava of National City who studied under Ansel Adams. In the last fifteen years, he has traveled through most of Mexico photographing and filming the cultures that, he explains, are rapidly disappearing. His book of images will be published within the next year.

Manuel Cavada

A local artist with international reach, Manuel Cavada was born in Paradise Hospital, National City in 1944. His father immigrated from Monterey, Mexico and his mother stemmed from New Mexico. Her descendants were also from Mexico, which is why Manuel identifies himself as either Chicano or Mexican-American. For the last twenty years, he has lived in the famed Heritage Park.

Manuel grew up in National City, attending Kimball Elementary, National City Junior High School and Sweetwater High School. Herman Baca was one year older and they both lived on the same block of McKinley Avenue on the West side of National City, before the I-5 was built. His neighborhood was considered predominantly Mexican-American at the time. Herman and Manuel hung around together as kids and they were also part of the same car club, the Bachelors, during high school.

Hit By Rocket Fire

Manuel graduated from high school in 1962 and, at first, worked at the father of his girlfriend’s auto body shop. In 1964, he joined the Air Force. He trained as a pilot, had his own plane and became a crew chief. He then was sent off to Vietnam in 1967. During his first deployment, rocket fire targeted his plane. As Manuel was running away, he and his buddy Frank were hit. Manuel was thrown into the air by the blast, his legs almost blown off, but luckily spared. He hit the ground head first, causing a concussion that continues to cause him physical problems today.

His buddy, Frank, was hit in his back. Manuel came to, ran to Frank and began patching him up. During those moments, enemy fire continued to rain down. The event was so traumatic, Manuel still tears up talking about the experience.

Manuel returned home to recover. He was in a cast, but as soon as it came off — a mere six months later — he was sent back to Vietnam. They needed him as a crew chief. It would have taken too long to train somebody else. While there, he was injured once more. Upon his return, in 1968, Manuel got out of the Air Force. To this day, the trauma of his Vietnam experiences still come back to him.

From Aeronautics To Photography

Manuel used the GI bill to go to college. He attended Sacramento City College and trained in aeronautics. His life changed forever on his way to National City, all packed up and ready to leave, right after his graduation ceremony. All of a sudden, he drove through Stockton and saw a sign that turned him around. It was an advertisement of a private school for photography. He returned to Sacramento to inquire about the sign and immediately enrolled in the school. Manuel stayed there for four more years.

His focus changed to photography. Although he already had a job promised him in San Diego in aeronautics, but he declined the offer and became an artist.

During his time in photography school, he had an opportunity to go to Monterey and learn from Ansel Adams. “I was with him in his home. We belonged to a club called ‘Friends of Photography,’ so I hung around with him in Monterey, California and learned more about photography.”

It was the year 1969 or 1970. It was close to the highlight of Ansel Adams’ life. Manuel explains, “It was beautiful to be in his dark room and it was quite an adventure with him.”

Ansel Adams, he says, was a very humble man. He never showed off his work. He shared a lot and would push Manuel to improve. Adams would give critiques.

“It’s gotta be simple, it’s gotta be meaningful and it’s gotta make you move. That’s what Ansel said.”

Artist and Bread-and-Butter Photographer

When Manuel finished his certification, he returned to National City. He then was hired to do a program for alcohol education. He became a teacher and taught kids in elementary school about the hazards of alcohol consumption. He did that for about 4 years. He invented the very first puppet show for health education through Hanna-Barbera puppets, which went nationwide. He became a puppeteer for elementary schools.

He also taught photography at the Cultura de la Raza in Balboa Park where he had his own dark room. He then opened a photography studio called Creative Images on Highland Avenue and 28th. Right now it’s a restaurant, but that was his first studio outside his home in 1978-9.

He was also part of the CCR with Herman Baca. His job was historian, documenting the events and the marches through photographs. Much of his work has been preserved within the Herman Baca papers archived in the Special Collections Library at UCSD.

His bread-and-butter came when he managed to get beat out a major firm and received a contract for school photography. He has had the same contract close to 30 years now as a yearbook photographer for the high school.

Working with the high school, he would go with the football team to Mexico where they would play. That was 1980, when Manuel realized the beauty of Mexico. He also saw that the old traditional culture was disappearing, so he began to travel throughout all the states of Mexico, filming and photographing the culture. He started off in Yucatan, backpacking down to Chiapas and clear across every pueblo from Oaxaca, ending in Chihuahua.

Manuel will spend about 3 weeks in Michoacan where he will film and photograph a man who specializes in finely crafted Mexican guitars. The next project after that will be to film a maestro piñata maker. Little by little those parts of Mexican culture are disappearing. Cadava wants to preserve these and more in an upcoming book.

Manuel Cadava Collection

These are the famous Tarahumara people who are known for their long distance running. Cavada was in Copper Canyon in the state of Chihuahua during Holy Week when an elder allowed him to photograph some of the tribe. If you look closely, the young boy holds a soda bottle. Cavada explains that it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of soda than to get water, so many of the Tarahumara are dying of diabetes.

To contact or visit Manuel Cavada: Creative Images Photography Studio, 939 “A” Avenue, National City, CA 91950, email:


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