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Photos document Guadalupe history in "Spirit of a Community" exhibit

On Saturday April 29, 1989, all residents of Guadalupe, young and old were invited to gather for the "Big Picture." Photo by Rod Rolle
Rod Rolle
Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture
On Saturday April 29, 1989, all residents of Guadalupe, young and old were invited to gather for the "Big Picture." Photo by Rod Rolle

There is a photo exhibit in Santa Barbara called Spirit of a Community that documents life in the small town of Guadalupe from over 30 years ago.

In 1988, when Rod Rolle had just graduated from Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, he was hired by the County Arts Commission to take photographs of Guadalupe.

Rolle said his assignment was to photograph the community and the daily lives of residents, so Judy Baca, a renowned painter and muralist, could reference the photos while working on the Guadalupe Mural Project.

“I would shoot black and white, but I’d also shoot color transparencies, color slides, so she could get a sense of the color of Guadalupe under different light,” Rolle said.

For several months, he drove to the small agricultural town near Santa Maria. He said some days he visited the fields of farmworkers, and other times he simply parked downtown.

“I would just set up in a situation where I thought it might make for a great street photo and I’d just have to wait for somebody to come walking by and ask if they wouldn’t mind being in the photograph,” Rolle said.

He said once the community got to know him, they were receptive to having their pictures taken. The series of photos feature families at work in the fields as well as scenes from around town.

The exhibit is called Spirit of a Community, and there is one photo in particular that stands out.

“Judy came to me one Saturday and said, Rod, I want you to take a picture, one picture, that represents Guadalupe,” he said.

Rolle decided to invite the whole town for a portrait.

“We had a couple of high school students from Guadalupe who were working with Judy and they went out and handed out flyers all over town, and we put up posters in all the storefronts,” Rolle said.

To prepare for what he calls "the big picture," Rolle studied the weather, the light, and the technical aspects of photographing a large crowd.

Then, in 1989 in the town of Guadalupe, Rolle said they closed Highway 1 for an hour.

“At first there wasn’t that many people there, then all of a sudden people showed up from nowhere,” he said.

Mark Moses Alvarado missed the event, though many of his family members appear in the photo.

“My dad, both of my brothers, their wives, their children, my mom, my sister, all of my cousins, everybody was there that day,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado said his family came to the Central Coast in the 1880s, and he still gathers for holidays and celebrations at the house where his grandparents lived for many years in Guadalupe.

“I know that my dad, who’s no longer with us, always used to find a lot of pride in being in that picture and knowing that our family, who is part of Guadalupe history, is represented in the photo,” Alvarado said.

Alvarado grew up in Santa Barbara but considers Guadalupe his second home. He said Rolle’s photographs mean a lot to him personally, and to the community.

“When I think of Guadalupe and I think of what Rod’s work represents – it’s cultural, it’s spiritual, it’s social, it’s everything,” he said.

In Guadalupe, you can see some of Rolle’s photographs at the Cultural Arts and Education Center, and also at La Simpatia restaurant.

“Everyone that comes in, comes over here and they say, look there’s grandma, there’s so and so. Everybody, they come here to look,” La Simpatia owner Rosa Quiroga said.

The restaurant has been in her family since the 1940s. She said her customers enjoy searching for their relatives and friends in the group photo. They walk right up close to look for people they know. The picture is already poster-sized, but Rosa said it will be easier to find people when it’s enlarged to cover a whole wall.

At the time he took the town portrait, Rolle didn’t realize just how meaningful it would become to Guadalupe’s history.

“It’s one of those things, you plant a seed, and you have no idea how it grows 32 years later,” Rolle said.

The collection of photographs called Spirit of a Community is open to the public at the County Administration building in downtown Santa Barbara.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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