I compliment Roberta Alvarado on her, titanium aura quartz, earrings. She tells me they are her own creation and aid in astral projection. The mention of an out of body experience evokes in me, the same childlike wonder as her photography, which is lining the walls behind her at Gallery 219 in Roseville, CA. We’re at the third Saturday show – August 18th.
Life and Death and Nocturnally Blooming Cacti…
Roberta’s photography captures the raw beauty of the simple things. Things that captivated us as children walking our neighborhoods or playing in backyards. Places where the savage, grimy deliciousness of life and death and everything in between was simultaneously immense and fragile. Roberta celebrates this in every one of her photos.
Let’s start from the start, or, I don’t know…. maybe the middle?
We’re now sitting at Old Soul Coffee Co. on Broadway in Sacramento. Throughout the entire interview Roberta and I keep throwing each other into fits of laughter. The more she talks the more I like her. I’m still laughing as she tells me how she and her sister saved a Peruvian Apple Cacti (from a gutter) and she’s been doing a five-year study on it. “You can’t just throw those in the gutter.” she says in disbelief.
The nocturnally blooming cacti now has a home in Roberta’s backyard. “They make me think of unique ways to approach the same subject. I get weirdly excited by it and It pushes me to get out of bed.”
While chatting and sipping coffee, Roberta’s aura is glowing the most vibrant yellow.
“You’re really vibing pink,” Roberta tells me.
The entire conversation was colored with free spirited, gypsy creativity and inspired me to keep my heart in the lead. So, I was indeed feeling a bit Rosy as we talked.
The – Don’t look. Just see – mentality has lead Roberta on quite the journey.
“See things with fresh eyes,” encourages Roberta, when discussing how easy it is to become immune to things that we see every day. “Everything has a life cycle. There’s something beautiful in everything, even if it’s ugly. I like that! I like the rawness.”
“I wasn’t much for school. I thought I was thirty years old at sixteen.” admits Roberta, telling me about how she would only do enough school work to earn hall passes from her teachers, so she could go take photos. “They would just give them to me!”
She wasn’t given an elective choice her freshmen year, so she took photography for both electives her 10thgrade year and made up for lost time. She helped her teacher set up labs every morning and shoot weddings on the weekends. Graduating six months early at seventeen, Roberta put together a portfolio with the help of her photography teacher and landed a job with Deborah Goldstein Photography and Designin Sacramento. “I came knocking at her door at seventeen with my little portfolio like – are you hiring? And she hired me. I would love to meet with her again but she’s hard to contact.”
“She knew what she was doing,” Roberta says of Goldstein. “My first assignment was to cover the Outstanding Women Awards. I was young and shy. But I had to network. I was scared but with my camera in hand – I knew I could do it.”
Roberta fondly remembers Goldstein complimenting her at a young age on her ability to be a fly on the wall. “Roberta knows how to get the shot and get out!”Deborah would say.
This is something that stuck with Roberta because it’s how you get the most candid, genuine images.
“At seventeen, I didn’t even realize who I was meeting, she says of photographing politicians, celebrities and activists. Later these people moved on to even bigger things and she realized, “Like whoa, I photographed them!”
Favorite Landscapes and Why She’s Never Been to Death Valley…
“Landscapes are symbolic of something to me. Touching rocks and water and elements gives you energy.” -Roberta Alvarado
I like the way Roberta can be in her backyard, or anywhere in the world, and make things come to life with a unique perspective. When I ask her what her favorite landscapes to photograph are, without hesitation, she responds: “The desert! I love the openness. The simplicity challenges you in a different way, and it doesn’t have the sensory overload of other places. You’re left alone with your imagination.”
But … she’s never been to Death Valley. Her Uncle, or Nino, as she likes to call him (because he baptized her, she says) lives on a Hopi Indian reservation near Flagstaff. Two hours east of the Grand Canyon. So, every time she finds herself that far south of Sacramento, she’s drawn to witness a Hopi tradition. The mysterious allure of this tradition has always had her curious enough to want to see it with her own eyes, which is really the only way to see it. Photographing or recording of any kind is not allowed.
These conditions seem equal parts frustrating and revered by Roberta. Out of respect for the ceremony, the occurrence of which is based on lunar cycles and the solstice, she is reluctant to share too much information. Her main concern is misrepresenting the tradition and the people. She says: “It should be one of the Hopi that explains their culture or tradition, not her.”
So, without pretending to have any concept of the complexity of the tradition, I did gather that much of the focus has to do with water and rain, and participants visually represent and embody the spirits of animals known as kachinas, each of which carries a different symbolic meaning.
Roberta tells me that a Navajo Indian once told her that wolves were her spirit animal and that bees held a significance for her as well, but Roberta has also recognized birds as guides at pivotal moments in her life.
On Politics, Dream Destinations and Life Paths
“I don’t want to just show the tragedy, I want to show the resiliency,
I feel like it’s obligatory actually.” -Roberta Alvarado
Roberta actually prefers to photograph people. Her true passion lies in photojournalism.
“I like to say; I’m a reactive photographer.” She explains how documenting reality evokes emotion that makes people want to know more about politics, history, and world events. Roberta examines political issues and social injustices from behind the lens while humanizing those involved by showing the compassion that coexists within these situations.
So, what if she could travel anywhere she wanted? This question sends Roberta into a long list of locations all over North and South America; Bolivia, Peru, Alaska, etc.
“We grow up thinking that the United States is ‘America’, rather than looking at the entire continent, the people and all the richness. When I think of the Americas, I think of the soil, the land and all the experiences that have been on the soil.” -Roberta Alvarado
Roberta grew up in L.A. and identifies as Chicana – Mexican, Yaqui, Shoshone and Indigenous American. Exploring her own indigenous roots has helped Roberta realize the importance of inspiring others to learn more about theirs.
This is where the wealth is,” Roberta chimes, “this is where our power is being taken away.” She goes on about the importance of preserving cultures, and homeopathic remedies and traditions that hold validity but are being lost and devalued as ‘old wives’ tales’, leaving us dependent on pharmaceuticals and hospitals.
“This is my life’s work. I started this path when I was just breaking into photography as a teenager. This is what I was meant to do from the get go,” she says of her continued efforts to travel and document the people and landscapes of the Americas.
Once upon a time in Mexico…
One photo set itself apart from the rest of the collection at the Gallery 219 show. At first it seems out of place but upon further examination is only expanding and playing on the concept of mortality while shifting into the realms of spirituality and metaphysics. It’s a journey within a journey within a journey, and Roberta travels light with just a backpack and her camera and a loosely based plan. “I know my first and last stops,” she says of her upcoming journey to Mexico.
Flashback to January earlier this year and Roberta is riding her bike on a narrow lane highway near the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula in Xcalakoop, Mexico with cars zooming about her. “We probably shouldn’t have been doing that,” she confesses with a sly smile, but on the way to explore some nearby cenotes, a brightly colored cemetery catches Roberta’s eye. “We gotta go!” she exclaims.
The coffins were so small they were initially thought to all be the burial grounds of children but as Roberta later discovered she had stumbled upon one of the few areas of Mexico still practicing the Mayan tradition of bone washing. Three to four years after burial, the bodies are excavated, and the bones are dry brushed by the family members of the deceased, and then returned to small boxes with the lids left slightly ajar. “I want to know if this is, so the spirits can travel about freely,” Roberta wonders, “as in the Hopi Indian tradition”.
Roberta’s interest in Hanal Pixan is catapulting her into a photojournalistic adventure to discover more and bring the vision back to United States. She flies into Merida the last week of October, in time for the Hanal Pixan street celebration.
Hanal Pixan, is “Food of Souls” a celebration which predates the more familiar Dia de los Muertos celebration. Hanal Pixan is three-day celebration in which the spirits are able to visit the living. Oct 27ththrough the 30thare spent in preparation for the celebration which Roberta says is a very joyous and happy time of welcoming and loving energy. The bones are washed and food and altars containing favorite items of the deceased are created as offerings to the spirit world. October 31stwelcomes back the spirits of children, November 1stcelebrates the return of adults, and November 2ndis set aside to remember deceased pets.
Before the festival, Roberta will also visit smaller Pueblos in the surrounding areas such as Izamal (40 miles East of Merida) and Hoctun where the practice of bone washing will be taking place in preparation for the Food of Soulscelebration, as well as Progresso, where she hopes to photograph pink colored salt flats and is flamingos that typically nest there starting in November. She may also make her way over to Pomuch in Campeche, which is falsely rumored to be the only area still celebrating Hanal Pixan.
November 5thmarks Roberta’s return date. After which she will be seeking out a home for her new photography collection. At the close of our meeting she is pondering potential homes such as The Natural History or Crocker Art Museum, or maybe somewhere in Los Angeles where she was born.
Keep your eyes peeled for more on Roberta Alvarado, although something tells me she will be hard to miss J. Smiles