It was 1942 when Salinas native Mae Sakasegawa, her family and many of their peers, upon orders of the U.S. government, assembled at the Armory (near Salinas City Hall) to be bussed to the Rodeo grounds where they were confined behind barbed-wire fencing.
The fence looks, in a photo from that time, much like a World War II concentration camp. In a sense, it was. It was also the start of a journey that would uproot hundreds of Japanese people – many U.S. citizens – from the Central Coast and Central Valley for internment in Poston, Ariz., following the attack at Pearl Harbor.
“We had to leave within a week,” Sakasegawa says. “We could take one suitcase. [Almost] everything else was stolen from our homes.”
Her family would spend the next 3 and a half years in that Arizona “camp.”
Fran Schwamm, who was born in 1939 in Salinas, also spent part of her childhood at that camp by virtue of the fact that her parents were Japanese. Her sixth birthday, she says, took place on a train that carried them away from the camp after they were released.
Both women are speaking at the private invite reception Friday at the Steinbeck Center to unveil a photo exhibit they guest-curated chronicling the Japanese experience in Salinas from 1890 to the 1940s, according to Steinbeck Center curator Deborah Silguero.
The exhibit, Japanese History: In Salinas Chinatown, is mainly comprised of photos Sakasegawa compiled, for more than a decade, of old family photos from the Japanese and Japanese-American communities that still remain for her book, The Issei of the Salinas Valley: Japanese Pioneer Families. (Available at the Steinbeck Center gift shop.)
The photos, assembled in dense but neat collage, show an assimilating immigrant community. There are the families posing earnestly at a wedding party at the Salinas Buddhist Temple; a photo of Spreckels sugar beets uprooted from the soil and waiting to be harvested by Japanese ag laborers; a young woman dressed in 1920s flapper fashion (that’s Sakasegawa’s mother). Nearly all the photos are set in Salinas and, as an exhibit, are augmented by artifacts and memorabilia, a film on loop called Return to the Valley, and piped-in period music.
Though the show previews privately April 29 (it runs through July), it’s paired powerfully the next day with the sprawling fourth annual Salinas Asian Festival, taking place in the four blocks of Chinatown. (When the Japanese community occupied the area in the era depicted by the Steinbeck Center photo show, they called it Nihonmachi, or Japantown.) The festival recalls the original Japanese, Chinese and Filipino inhabitants and their influence on Salinas culture, commerce and history.
Larry Hirahara is a past chair and current co-chair of the organizing body behind the festival, the Salinas Downtown Community Board. With money from the recently beleaguered Redevelopment Agency, and a big boost from CSUMB students and administration, they’ve taken up the cause of revitalizing the Chinatown area and resurrecting that thriving community again. The festival – along with the current Community Garden and renovation of the Old Republic Cafe – is part of that effort. And it’s a sight to see.
“There are [several] venues,” Hirahara says. “The Buddhist Temple, the Confucius Church and the Filipino Cultural Center.” Dorothy’s Place and the Community Garden will be open and staffed; and the lot adjacent to the Old Republic Cafe will host opening ceremonies of taiko drumming at 11am, sounding the start of a moveable feast of traditional Asian food, martial arts demonstrations, music and dancing, costumes, ikebana flower displays, art and pictures.
“You have to keep moving in order to experience this,” Hirahara says.
It’s a fun and culturally rich four-block neighborhood party in remembrance of a number of communities that once were and, with great effort, might be again – this time built around healthy cooperation in the fight against blight, instead of the blanket of racism that relegated people of color into corners of the region.
“It’s not that [Chinese, Japanese and Filipino people] liked each other that much,” Hirahara says. “It was the only place [we] could live.”
Schwann, over at the Steinbeck Center, says, “After the war, a little boy asked me ‘Are you a Jap?’ I told my parents and they said, ‘You tell him you’re an American.’”
It’s an appropriate sentiment for a Saturday in Salinas that celebrates the diversity, but also the unity, of America, on a local scale.
JAPANESE HISTORY: IN SALINAS CHINATOWN opens to regular hours 10am-5pm daily starting April 30, at Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St., Salinas. Free/members and kids 5 and under; $5.95-$10.95/all others. 775-4721, www.steinbeck.org.
THE FOURTH ANNUAL SALINAS ASIAN FESTIVAL takes place 11am-4pm Saturday, April 30, in Chinatown and surrounding venues near California Street between E. Lake and Market St., Salinas. Free. 408-968-9081, www.salinasasianfestival.com.