Spanish-Language Tour of Little Tokyo Opens More Doors of Understanding

Monica Cruz and Sergio Holguin. Photo by Richard Watanabe.

The Little Tokyo Walking Tour is one of many public programs offered by the Japanese American National Museum. In conjunction with JANM’s latest exhibition, Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, visitors will soon be able to tour the Little Tokyo Historic District with an experienced Spanish-speaking docent. To gain more insight into this new offering, JANM Visitor Services Associate Sergio Holguin sat down with Monica Cruz, the docent who will lead the tour, for a brief discussion.

Author’s note: In this discussion, “Latino” is shorthand for a larger, mixed identity/ies. Both parties use the term to refer to persons of Mexican, Mexican-American, Latin American, and mixed Hispanic descent. The term is not used to describe those who significantly identify with specific indigenous identities or those who represent themselves as “Chicano.” “Latino” is used for the sake of brevity, and should not be misconstrued as a reductive gesture. If there are any questions or concerns, please feel free to comment below.

Sergio Holguin: Tell me about yourself and the work you do with JANM.

Monica Cruz: I’ve been a member of the museum for about five years, and a volunteer for three. I’ve worked in a variety of capacities: Visitor Services, when they need me; leading the Little Tokyo Walking Tour (I was trained as a docent); and now I’m a part of the group that helps out at the HNRC (Hirasaki National Resource Center).

SH: As a Mexican-American, I tend to get a lot of puzzled looks from folks coming in, even after seven years of working here. As a non-Japanese person like me, how did you get involved with the Japanese American community?

MC: To make the story short, my late husband was Japanese American, the first generation in his family to be born in the United States.

SH: So he was Shin-Nisei [a child of Japanese immigrants who arrived in the US after World War II]?

MC: Yes, we were both actually born in the US territory of Puerto Rico and moved to California for work. When he passed, I decided to stay close to the Japanese American community here, in celebration of his memory. I started volunteering with the different temples, and also got involved in Obon season, when they remember the dead—kind of like Día de los Muertos for us Latinos. I became a member of the museum because of all the programs they offer, and I saw the need for volunteers at that point, and I wanted to be a part of that as well.

SH: I like that you brought up Obon, because that’s actually how I was first drawn to visit Little Tokyo years ago. There’s a lot of overlap between cultures—not just Mexican, Latino, and Japanese culture, but other cultures as well. Remembering and honoring the dead, responsibility to family, and public service—those are very universal human traits. It’s important that we celebrate intersections of identity. What are some of your thoughts and hopes for the very first Little Tokyo Walking Tour en Español?

MC: I think that Transpacific Borderlands and this tour both provide opportunities to increase our knowledge and understanding overall, with a particular focus on the mix between cultures. We can each say that we have gone through similar changes—moving from a different country to here, learning new cultures, and learning new things as part of joining “the American Dream.” I think that opening doors of understanding for people who may not be comfortable with English, but are still an important part of the community, can help with that.

I would like others to discover and fall in love with Little Tokyo the way I did. I think if we offer the tours in Spanish and other languages as well, we can share our experience with others while growing as a group and bringing new stories and experiences into the museum.

SH: Absolutely, and that’s the museum’s mission: to share Japanese American stories to celebrate America’s cultural diversity and encourage others to share their own stories. If we’re able to talk with one another along those lines, the more rigid lines between communities start to melt away.

MC: I think that’s the part I enjoy the most: when people who begin the tour being quiet or shy actually open up and start sharing their life stories. Because even though this is the Japanese American National Museum, I think that the general idea of being an immigrant or coming from an immigrant background is something we share with others.

SH: It’s always fun to hear where people are from—whether it’s France, Osaka, or even El Sereno—and what brought them to Little Tokyo, because that in turn informs and becomes part of your experience.

MC: Yes. The stories that people tell me, I can sometimes include on my Little Tokyo tours. For example, someone once noted that the Brunswig Square building looks a lot like Los Angeles City Hall, so I did some research and found out they were designed by the same architect. Even if you have led the tour many times, the perspective of other people can still open new doors.

SH: Tell us more about what your tour en Español will be like.

MC: It depends on the needs of the group. Sometimes people are here for school, so certain kinds of information are more important for them. But I do want everyone to be familiar with the area so that even after the tour they are able to go and find their own adventure. We only have two hours to condense decades of living in Little Tokyo! As time moves forward, we get different types of people moving into the area. I don’t expect everyone to sit down and read up on all the history, but I do expect them to go and have an adventure!

Museum admission is included with the fee for the tour, so after lunch, I encourage people to come visit the museum. I feel that JANM is the spine of the whole Little Tokyo experience, not only because it’s the Japanese American National Museum, but because it tells you the story from the beginning, when the Japanese first began migrating to the United States.

Monica Cruz will be leading a tour of Little Tokyo in Spanish on February 10 at 10:15 a.m. You can purchase tickets for the tour here. Visitor Services staff at the front desk are always happy to answer questions about the tour or any of our other public programs.

Sergio Holguin is a Visitor Services Associate at JANM. Formerly a volunteer docent, Holguin strives to share his personal story as a means of encouraging discussions of contemporary identity within a shared American history. You can read about his journey on Discover Nikkei.

JANM Appreciates Its Volunteers

Past and current winners of the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award and others gather for a group photo. L to R, standing: Richard Murakami, Teri Tanimura (daughter of the award’s namesake), Bill Shishima, JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs, Irene Nakagawa, Nahan Gluck, Lee Hayashi, Babe Karasawa, Ken Hamamura, Carole Yamakoshi, Janet Maloney, Helen Yasuda, Roy Sakamoto, Hal Keimi, and Mike Okamura. L to R, seated: Bob Moriguchi, Marge Wada, Masako Koga Murakami, Bob Uragami, Ike Hatchimonji, and Julia Murakami. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers are at the heart of the Japanese American National Museum, an institution that was founded through a tireless grassroots volunteer campaign. Today, volunteers continue to play a crucial role in the museum’s operations: leading docent tours and representing the museum to our visitors, staffing the Hirasaki National Resource Center, helping to count and restock inventory for the JANM Store, helping to organize the annual Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, and leading activities for the School Visits program, among numerous other tasks. Some of our volunteers are camp survivors or descendants of camp survivors, providing a critical link to the past.

To recognize the outstanding commitment of our volunteer corps, JANM annually gives out awards to those volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty in helping the museum fulfill its mission. On May 13, 2017, awards for outstanding service in 2016 were announced during our special Volunteer Recognition Event.

JANM Vice President of Operations/Art Director Clement Hanami presents the 2016 Administration Award to photographer Ben Furuta. Photo by Nobuyuki Okada.

Ben Furuta, who photographs many of our public programs, won the Administration Award, which recognizes outstanding service and achievement in an administrative/operational capacity. Sharlene Takahashi, one of our docents, received the Community Award, which is given for outstanding service and achievement in working with visitors, with the public, and in the community on behalf of the museum. The Program Award was given to Patricia Ishida and Linda Fujioka to recognize their outstanding service and achievement in educating visitors through public and school programs. And finally, the Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, named after a passionate volunteer who passed away tragically in 1992, was given to Ken Hamamura, who assists JANM in many different areas, including photo archiving and preparations for the last two National Conferences.

Sharlene Takahashi holds up her 2016 Community Award. Photo by Richard Murakami.
JANM Director of Education Allyson Nakamoto presents the 2016 Program Award to Patricia Ishida. (Linda Fujioka was also a winner of this award, but could not be present for the event.) Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ken Hamamura, center, holds up his 2016 Miki Tanimura Outstanding Volunteer Award, surrounded by members of his family. On the far left is Teri Tanimura, daughter of Miki, and on the right is JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs. Photo by Ben Furuta.

Volunteers also receive pins to recognize the number of years of service they have given to JANM. This year, pins were given out as follows: One Year—Noreene Arase, Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Keiko Miya, Michael Okuda, Sandra Saeki, William Teragawa, and Tomi Yoshikawa; Five Years—Peter Fuster and Kyle Honma; Ten Years—Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita; Fifteen Years—Eiko Masuyama, Fred Murakami, Julia Murakami, Larry Oshima, and Mitsuyo Tanaka; Twenty Years—Marge Wada; Twenty-Five Years—Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda.

L to R, standing: JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; One-Year Service Pin recipients Yoshiko Ehara, Teri Lim, Melinda Logan, Michael Okuda, and Tomi Yoshikawa; JANM Board of Governors member Nikki Kodama. L to R, kneeling: One-Year Service Pin recipients Noreene Arase, Keiko Miya, and William Teragawa. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with Ten-Year Service Pin recipients Terri Kishimoto, Carol Miyahira, Grace Yamamura, and Mas Yamashita. Ken Hamamura joins them on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, left, with 15-Year Service Pin recipients Julia Murakami and Larry Oshima. 2016 Tanimura Award winner Ken Hamamura is on the right. Photo by Ben Furuta.
Ann Burroughs, 20-Year Service Pin recipient Marge Wada, and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Hanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.
JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs; 25-Year Service Pin recipients Kimiko Oriba, Bill Shishima, and Helen Yasuda; and JANM Board of Governors member Gene Kanamori. Photo by Ben Furuta.

As always, the staff at JANM thanks our volunteers from the bottoms of our hearts. Without their efforts, the museum would not be able to organize nearly as many programs or serve nearly as many visitors in its ongoing quest to promote understanding and appreciation of America’s ethnic and cultural diversity by sharing the Japanese American experience.

For information about volunteering with JANM, please visit janm.org/volunteer or contact volunteer@janm.org or 213.830.5645.

JANM Volunteer’s Quilt Commemorates Executive Order 9066

JANM’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Gala Dinner and Silent Auction, happens this Saturday at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites. Among the many fantastic items that will be up for auction is the handmade quilt pictured here, a memorial to the World War II incarceration of persons of Japanese ancestry created by JANM volunteer June Aoki in collaboration with her mentor, Maria Reza.

The quilt is sizeable, measuring 58 x 54 inches, and includes many wonderful details. A reproduction of a Civilian Exclusion Order, posted to inform Japanese Americans of their impending forced removal and incarceration, sits at its center, surrounded by photographs of all ten of the American concentration camps where they were housed for the duration of the war. A barbed-wire border encloses them. Images of notable persons and moments, as well as the Japanese saying gaman (perseverance or “keep on”), line each side.

In addition to the wonders of photo-printable fabric, the quilt is helped along by a suitcase-patterned fabric that Aoki happened to stumble across in a downtown fabric store. Seeing that the pattern evoked the suitcases carried by those bound for camp, who were limited to “only what you can carry,” Aoki used the fabric to make the quilt’s backing.

A former LAUSD schoolteacher, June Aoki has been volunteering at JANM since her retirement 15 years ago. Although both of her Kibei-Nisei (second generation, educated in Japan) parents were incarcerated at Poston, she herself avoided that fate because she happened to be in Japan at the time, being cared for by her grandparents. Born in California, Aoki went on to finish grade school and junior high school in Japan before rejoining her parents in the States.

Aoki, who has been quilting for as long as she’s been volunteering at JANM, recently joined a quilting group called TELAS (The East Los Angeles Stitchers). The group was largely working on religious imagery inspired by the Catholic backgrounds of many of its members. Since Aoki isn’t Catholic, she wondered what she could work on. Fellow member Maria Reza, who also happened to be Aoki’s former supervisor at LAUSD, suggested that she focus on elements of her own Japanese American history, and offered to help develop an idea.

The two met several times at the museum, and finally settled on “Executive Order 9066” as a central theme. Over the next two months, they worked together on the design and construction of the piece, enlisting several helpers along the way. Fellow TELAS member Gloria Flores did much of the quilting, while Alhambra quilter Sandra Kurosaki did the embroidery. JANM volunteer Henry Yasuda did the calligraphy for the gaman panel, and JANM Collections Manager Maggie Wetherbee helped to find and sort through appropriate historical images.

Aoki initially offered to donate the quilt to JANM, but was told there was nowhere to hang it at the moment, and the quilt would wind up in storage. She decided instead to contribute it to the Silent Auction. If you are attending our sold-out dinner event this Saturday, be sure to bid early and often if you want a shot at this beautiful quilt!