En español | In the late 1960s, photographer George Rodraguez sensed a change. "Around the time that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy died, there was an awareness that took over in the Chicano community," recalls the 66-year-old.
He was running the photo lab at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood when the studio was producing some of the most popular television shows and most successful films. Later, as a photographer at NBC and for celebrity magazine publisher Laufer Publishing, he took portraits of Hollywood legends, teen idols, and rock stars for magazines, books, and album covers. But Hollywood's fantasy and glamour held little interest for Rodraguez compared to the real-life struggles of the Chicano rights movement.
Rodraguez's passion for the movement sprang from his own life. Born in South Central Los Angeles, he was the second son of a Mexican-born father, Alfonso, and a Texas-born mother, Elvira. The family lived behind its shoe repair shop in Los Angeles's Skid Row district. To earn money, George Rodraguez and his brothers would shine shoes and collect bottles. "We played in the alley behind our dad's storefront. There were often drunks there, and sometimes a dead body," he recalls.
Rodraguez's life changed in high school. "I needed an elective, and someone told me that photography was easy," Rodraguez says with a laugh. He signed up and loved it immediately. "My dad had to borrow money from my uncle to buy me a four-by-five camera for the class." He excelled at shooting portraits, landscapes, and scenes in Hispanic neighborhoods. One photo won second place in a national photography contest sponsored by Kodak. "The prize was $100, so my dad repaid my uncle for the camera loan," he says.
He soon took an after-school job at a photography color lab. "My supervisor didn't think it was realistic for me to aspire to become a professional photographer. He told me I couldn't make it," Rodraguez says. His supervisor was wrong. After graduation, Rodraguez became a photographer on a steamship traveling from the West Coast to Hawaii. When seasickness and homesickness got the best of him, he returned to a photo lab job in Los Angeles. A steady customer who was impressed with his work asked him to set up the in-house photo lab at Columbia Pictures.
The job at Columbia lasted 12 years and provided an income that enabled Rodraguez to pursue his own projects on the side. But the road was never easy. As one of the first Chicanos to work in the rigid Hollywood studio system, he encountered animosity, discrimination, and bigotry. It took years to get into the powerful still-photographer's union. "In Hollywood, jobs are handed down from father to son. You have to know somebody to get ahead and even to get into the unions. I didn't have that advantage," he notes.
Undeterred, he began to photograph the burgeoning Chicano rights movement. He would take off at lunch to attend protest marches, student demonstrations, and prayer vigils for fallen leaders. He sometimes would take a day off to travel to a United Farm Workers event led by Csar Chavez in Delano, California. "I felt I had the talent and the tools available to do it. And I didn't see anyone else out there capturing this on film. To this day, many things going on in our community don't get covered in the mainstream media,"Rodraguez explains.
Many of the events he photographed, such as the famous student walkouts protesting the inferior conditions of East Los Angeles schools, were met with a strong show of force by law enforcement authorities. Sheriffs were often outside taking their own photographs for the identification of troublesome protesters or taking down license plate numbers. "Everyone was putting something on the line. I considered myself a participant as much as an observer,"he says. "I used to go to organizational meetings. We didn't always agree on policy, but there was camaraderie there."
Any regrets? "Absolutely not,"Rodraguez says. "I wanted people to know how we were back then. A lot of people didn't know then, and still don't know now."
At an age when many look forward to retirement, Rodraguez remains in demand as a photographer for major publications. He can be more selective these days about the assignments he accepts. "I'm still happiest shooting Latino subjects. They appreciate me more," he says.
And nearly four decades after he began chronicling the struggles of his people, Rodraguez remains a"people's historian." I have my camera in my car every day as I drive around the neighborhoods. I photograph the murals, the gang life, the new immigrants, the people. It's all a part of the story."