Yolo County exhibit sheds light on cross-cultural injustices

JAPANESE AMERICANS IN YOLO ­COUNTY — The Woodland Community College Ethnic Studies program is exhibiting photos depicting the Japanese American community in Yolo county from before World War II.  photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

JAPANESE AMERICANS IN YOLO ­COUNTY — The Woodland Community College Ethnic Studies program is exhibiting photos depicting the Japanese American community in Yolo county from before World War II. photo by Heather Ito/Nichi Bei Weekly

WOODLAND, Calif. — The Woodland Community College Ethnic Studies program, in collaboration with the Yolo County Archives and Records Center, the Art Appreciation Class, the Holland Doshi Kai of Clarksburg and several local community members, is hosting its first exhibit on Yolo County Japanese American history.

The “Yolo Japanese American Community Exhibit,” which will be on display at the college through February, contains historical photos, biographies and other artifacts contributed by Japanese American families from places like Winters, Woodland, Clarksburg, Davis and West Sacramento, Calif. It also focuses on themes of immigration, citizenship, liberty and justice. Artists Jesus Barela, Carlos Jackson and Luis R. Campos-Garcia contributed pieces to further emphasize these themes.

This collaboration between the college’s Ethnic Studies program and the Yolo County Archives began when former Yolo County archivist Meredith Sarmento contacted the WCC Ethnic Studies office about a small collection of photos given to them by the Vasey family from Winters, Calif. The six large, panoramic-like photos, taken sometime before World War II, show a community of Japanese families at events like weddings and funerals.

In their first meeting, Sarmento told lead exhibit organizers Elaine Yamaguchi and Melissa Moreno, who is also a WCC Ethnic Studies professor, about how the Vasey family, in a town heavy with prejudice against Nikkei in the wake of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, offered space in their Winters store for Japanese American families to stow their belongings while they were incarcerated.

Although the Japanese American family never returned to retrieve these photos, the Vasey family continued to hold onto them for the next 50 years before donating them to the Yolo County Archives.

Sarmento also shared how a descendent of one of the families shown in the photos recently connected with the lost photos after moving to California from the Mid-west. The Japanese American family sought out the Yolo County Archives for any history on their family and said that they had no old family photos prior to this discovery.
Moreno said that it was important that the Yolo County Archives contacted the Ethnic Studies office to start this collaboration.

“What that means to me is really being able to communicate to my students and the community that we have to look out for each other’s histories because they’re precious,” she said.

In addition, the group will host a Day of Remembrance event on Feb. 19 with a keynote speech by former state Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada and panelist discussions about Yolo County history and Japanese American stories; the Japantown preservation movement and efforts to preserve Yolo County Japanese American history; and the relationship between history and today. Panelists include Preserving California’s Japantowns Project Manager Jill Shiraki, lead exhibit organizers Rich Shintaku and Yamaguchi, planning committee member Isao Fujimoto and many others.

In addition to the scheduled panel discussions and music held in the lobby area, the exhibit will also be open in the Multicultural Enrichment Center for viewing.

Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Sylvia Mendez will close the event with her speech. Moreno said the Mendez family cared for and used a Japanese American farm while the family was incarcerated. The funds the Mendez family gained from the farming profits was used for the Mendez v. Westminster court case, which became the foundation for the Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that ‘separate but equal’ public schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.

“So this Mexican American family was able to play a major historical role in our society because of their relationship with this Japanese American family,” Moreno said.

The relationship through history between the Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans is also important, Moreno said, because the various policies passed regarding farming labor. For example, the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1908 restricted Japanese workers from immigrating to the United States, which caused an increased demand for Mexican workers. Later, Mexican workers became targets for deportation after the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed.

“I think it’s a push-pull pattern for both communities historically in terms of how the polices have impacted them,” Moreno said.

Exhibit planning committee member Griselda Castro said that Mexicans were put in cattle cars and were only allowed one trunk per family during the Mexican Repatriation, which deported people of Mexican descent between 1929 and 1936. Similarly, this method was seen again during the forced relocation of people of Japanese descent just a few years later.

“It’s so timely to have this (Day of Remembrance) given everything that’s going on in the political landscape,” Castro said. “You want to teach the next generation not to repeat(the bad events of history).”

Moreno said that she hopes people of different ages and ethnicities can find connections through their own histories and learn to value other community histories. For a college that is predominately Mexican American, Moreno said she hopes her students learn to think that it’s not “just them” in this community.

“(I want them to learn) that they can make connections to Japanese immigrant and Japanese American community members, who are also being involved and doing their best to belong in this society to create this sense of belonging.”

The “Yolo Japanese American Community Exhibit” is open through Feb. 29, Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. in the Multicultural Enrichment Center in Room 101 of the Woodland Community College (2300 East Gibson Road, Woodland, Calif.). It is free and open to the public, with $2 campus parking. The Day of Remembrance event will take place Friday, Feb. 19 from 5 to 8 p.m. The exhibit will be open in the Multicultural Enrichment Center. This event is also free and open to the public, with $2 campus parking.

For more information, or if you’re interested in helping to document the exhibit collections for future reference, contact Melissa Moreno at mmoreno@yccd.edu.

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