“I was a weird kid,” says Joe Ramos, laughing.
His words are not without reason. There weren’t many children his age — if any — photographing everyday life in a Salinas Valley labor camp.
Born in Salinas on June 21, 1949 and raised by a Filipino father and Mexican mother in the farmworker community of Soledad, Joe was about 10 years old when he was thumbing through his teenage neighbor’s yearbook. He couldn’t have known it then, but what he was about to see would spark a passion that still burns bright to this day.
“It was the first time I’d seen people of color in a book,” Joe remembers. “And that’s when I started becoming really interested in photography.”
Begging his mother for a camera, she got her hands on a $3 Brownie, a gift for her curious son. Since that day, Joe has gone on to photograph profound cultural and political icons — everyone from Mexican cinematic icon Cantinflas to the renowned Chicana artist Yolanda Lopez — and documented the Mission District’s cultural movements of the 70s and 80s, amassing a photographic archive and catalog unlike anyone else.
Those works will be featured in the upcoming exhibition, “Cultural Renaissance 1970 to Now: Photographs by Joe Ramos.” The exhibition, which opens on February. 23rd at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, will feature not only photos of the Mission District as it was decades ago, but also “then and now” portraits of the artists and cultural makers that not only came out of the Mission, but made the neighborhood what it is today.
“I met a lot of artists back then,” he says. “You name them, I knew them.”
With camera in hand, Joe rubbed shoulders with the likes of Rupert Garcia, Ralph Maradiaga, René Yañez, Juana Alicia, Yolanda Lopez, Ester Hernandez, Maria Pinedo, Martha Estrella, Michael Rios, Peter Rodriguez, among many, many others.
“I felt like I was the fly on the wall. And I had my camera, so I just took a lot of photographs … I should’ve taken more. Some of these people have gone on to have really great careers,” he says. “I wanted to start going back and taking photographs of them now. So I managed to convince a lot of people.”
But how a Filipino-Mexican kid from the Salinas Valley first came to the Mission and began documenting these cultural movements is a story of its own.
A photographic memory
It wasn’t long before Joe began photographing more than his childhood peers in the labor camp he called home. By the time he got to high school, he had upgraded to a Rolleiflex camera and was shooting for his high school yearbook.
He continued his studies at Hartnell College in Salinas, studying journalism. In his two years at that junior college, Joe photographed Robert Kennedy on the presidential campaign trail, a month before he was assassinated. He photographed comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory the night Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. And he photographed country music icon Johnny Cash.
Those images only exist in Joe’s memory, as his box of proofs and negatives were thrown out by his younger brother after he moved to San Francisco.
“And to this day, I haven’t forgiven him,” he laughed.
But for a 19-year-old who aspired to grow his hair out and be a hippie, San Francisco in the late 60s was hard to resist. He attended the San Francisco Art Institute for two years before attending San Francisco State in 1971 to do his masters program. It was there that he took a journalism class and met El Tecolote’s founder, Juan Gonzales.
But it was at the Art Institute where Richard Conrat — a photography professor who was the renowned documentary photographer Dorothea Lange’s last assistant — saw something in Joe.
“He took a liking to me. And he knew where I came from and he said, ‘You’re going to photograph your family,’” remembers Joe. So every weekend, Joe would diligently ride the Greyhound bus to Salinas.
Obliging Conrat’s instructions, Joe photographed everything. His siblings, his parents. On a trip to Mexicali, he photographed his Mexican grandfather a year before he died.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Joe says. “But at the same time, I felt like, this is important.”
While at the Art Institute, Joe also participated in a Work Study program, where he was urged to work in the community. He linked up with Casa Hispana de Bellas Artes — a Mission District organization dedicated to celebrating Latino art and culture — and began shooting at the request of their director, Amilcar Lobos.
“And that’s when I discovered the Mission. Which was quite amazing to me,” he says. “I remember photographing 24th Street, and I especially remember the young kids. They were different than the young kids in Salinas valley.”
Some of the photographs included in this latest exhibition were from those events that he photographed for Casa Hispana. He shot the first Day of the Dead poetry reading in San Francisco. He covered an international theater festival at the UC Berkeley Extension on Market Street, where he photographed Luis Valdez, the pioneering Chicano playwright who founded El Teatro Campesino and directed and wrote the classic film, La Bamba. He photographed a concert of Armando Manzanero, the premier Mexican Mayan musician and singer.
Through Carlos Perez’s Latino Youth Art Workshop, Joe taught neighborhood teens photography. One of his students was a girl named Micaela Gutierrez, who would go on to be a Mission icon and salsa DJ who everyone would come to know as “Chata” Gutierrez.
When Galería de la Raza took off, he befriended René Yañez, who took Joe to see legends the likes of Cantinflas and preeminent Mexican photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo.
As Joe was preparing for this show, which was originally scheduled for the fall of 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic, he dove into his archives of negatives. In doing so, he discovered images that had all but faded from his memory. Joe’s wife Barbara — a talented photographer herself — dug into her own photo archive, unearthing more gems. Barbara will have her own solo exhibition at the Sanchez Art Center in Pacifica, which opens on February 24th.
Barbara and Joe, who met and became friends at the Art Institute, still continue to shoot.
“Both my wife and I realized, this is what we love to do. Sometimes when you’re in the midst of doing it, like why am I photographing … it’s just one of those things. You just do it.”
Cultural Renaissance 1970 to Now: Photographs by Joe Ramos opens on February 23, 2023, 5-8pm inside Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery (2958 24th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110) and will remain on view until April 20, 2023.