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The affectionate lens of a Puerto Rican documentarian

The affectionate lens of a Puerto Rican documentarian

Frank Espada, activist, photographer and teacher, passed away the evening of Feb. 16 from a heart condition at Seton Medical Center in Daly City. He was 83 years old.

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He was best known for his his masterpiece, “The Puerto Rican Diáspora.” It was the first photo documentary of the Puerto Rican migration in the United States. In 2009, the Library of Congress purchased a collection of 83 prints from the project.

Born in 1930 in Utuado, Puerto Rico, his family moved to New York City when he was nine years-old. The family struggled to make ends meet. Espada wrote of this period: “I was never going to be a Boy Scout, for the uniform cost $14.” As an adult he joined the airforce, and later attended the New York Institute of Photography on the GI Bill. In 1952 he married his wife Marilyn.

He worked for an electrical contractor for a decade to support his family. At the same time, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement, and in 1967 began working for the Puerto Rican Community Development Project.

Frank Espada_01web
Frank Espada en 2010. Frank Espada in 2010. Photo George Soler
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While he had been documenting his community and its struggles through his photographs for two decades, it wasn’t until 1979 that he received a grant that allowed him to travel to work on his lifelong dream: “The Puerto Rican Diaspora.”

Soon after, he moved to San Francisco. New to the local photography scene, Espada reached out to El Tecolote, and a committee was formed to help him organize exhibits in local venues, including a big solo exhibit show at the MCCLA.

“He was a master printer … I had never seen that kind of printing before, and I never have since, to tell you the truth,” said Linda Wilson, photo archivist with El Tecolote, who was part of the committee that assisted Espada. “He never called himself a photojournalist, he called himself a documentarian.”

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“The Puerto Rican Diáspora” was the culmination of all his years fighting for his community. It spanned three decades, from the 60’s through the 80’s. At the time, mainstream media focused heavily on portraying minorities through a lens of pity, but Espada saw much more than that. In 2009 he told the NY Times: “I was not preprogrammed by some know-nothing editor to bring back more proof as to the miserable lives we were living … it was to be as loving a document as I could produce.”

Espada’s photos were among the first to show not only the struggles, but the strengths, talents and joys of being Boricua.

He is survived by his wife Marilyn Espada, his sons Martín and Jason, his daughter Lisa, and his grandson Klemente.

A memorial service for friends and former students of Espada is planned for March 22 at 4 p.m. with a reception following at 5 pm. The service will be held in Pacifica at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 500 Ebken St. and the reception will be across the street at the American Legion Hall, 555 Buel Ave.Espada’s son Jason has requested that those planning to attend RSVP: jason.espada@gmail.com

Story by: Mabel Jiménez

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