Manuel Cavada was born in Paradise Hospital, National City in 1944. His father immigrated from Monterrey, Mexico and his mother stemmed from New Mexico. Her ancestors were also from Mexico, which is why Manuel identifies himself as either Chicano or Mexican-American. For more than twenty years, he has lived in the famed Heritage Park of National City.
Manuel grew up in National City, attending Kimball Elementary, National City Junior High School and Sweetwater High School. Herman Baca was one year older and they both lived on the same block of McKinley Avenue on the West side, also known as ‘Old Town National City.’ His neighborhood was considered predominantly Mexican-American at the time. Herman and Manuel hung around together as kids and they were also part of the same car club, the Bachelor’s, during high school.
Hit By Rocket Fire
Manuel graduated from high school in 1962 and, at first, worked at an auto body shop. Then in 1964 he joined the Air Force. He trained as a crew chief and he had his own plane. In 1967 he was sent off to Vietnam. During his first deployment, rocket fire targeted his plane. As Manuel was running away, he and his buddy Frank were hit. Manuel was thrown into the air by the blast, his legs almost blown off. He hit the ground head first, causing a concussion that continues to cause him physical problems to this day.
His buddy, Frank, was hit in his back. When Manuel regained consciousness, he ran to Frank and began patching him up. During those moments, enemy fire continued to rain down. The event was so traumatic, Manuel still tears up talking about the experience.
Manuel returned home to recover. He was in a cast, but as soon as it came off — a mere six months later — he was sent back to Vietnam. They needed him as a crew chief. It would have taken too long to train somebody else. While there, he was injured once again. Upon his return, in 1968, Manuel got out of the Air Force. To this day, his trauma experiences from Vietnam still come back to him.
From Aeronautics To Photography
After his service, Manuel used the GI bill to go to college. He attended Sacramento City College and trained in aeronautics. His life changed forever on his way back to National City, all packed up and ready to leave, right after his graduation ceremony. As he drove out of Sacramento, he saw a sign. The sign stayed in his memory for an hour and when he got to Stockton, the curiosity was overwhelming and he turned back. It had been an advertisement of a private school for photography. Instead of heading to National City, Manuel returned to Sacramento to inquire about the photography school and felt compelled to enroll. He remained in Sacramento for four more years.
During this time, he had an opportunity to go to Monterey and learn from Ansel Adams. “I was with him in his home. We belonged to a club called Friends of Photography.”
It was the year 1969 during the peak of Ansel Adams’ career. Manuel explains, “It was beautiful to be in his dark room and it was quite an adventure with him.”
Ansel Adams, he says, was a very humble man. He never showed off his work. He shared a lot and would push Manuel to improve. Ansel Adams gave Manuel a critique he’ll never forget: “It’s gotta be simple, it’s gotta be meaningful and it’s gotta make you move.”
When Manuel finished his certification, he returned to National City. He found a job teaching children in elementary school about the hazards of alcohol consumption and invented the very first puppet show for health education through Hanna-Barbera puppets, which went nationwide. Thereafter, he became a puppeteer for elementary schools. He also taught photography at the Cultura de la Raza in Balboa Park where he had his own dark room. He then opened a photography studio called Creative Images on Highland Avenue and 28th.
Manuel also became a part of the CCR with Herman Baca. His job was historian, documenting the events and the marches through photographs. Much of his work has been preserved within the Herman Baca papers archived in the Special Collections Library at UCSD.
He landed a bread-and-butter job when he managed to beat out a major firm and receive a contract for school photography. He has had the same contract close to 30 years now as a yearbook photographer for the high school. Working with the high school, he would go with the football team to Mexico where they would play. That was 1980, when Manuel realized the beauty of Mexico. He also saw that the old traditional culture was disappearing, so he began to travel throughout all the states of Mexico, filming and photographing the culture. He started off in Yucatan, backpacking down to Chiapas and clear across every pueblo from Oaxaca, ending in Chihuahua. His photographs continue to inspire an entire generation of San Diego artists.
(Interview: January 20, 2015)