Ethnic Effects: Ingenuity

This is post #2 of 4 in the series, Ethnic Effects.

This summer, Getty Marrow undergraduate interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles collaborated to create a collections-based project that explored the question: 

How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American? 

The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions suggested that the answer to this specific question would not fully encapsulate the experience of immigrants and their descendents in the United States. As a result, each intern expanded the parameters of the question to provide a different perspective and highlight an artifact that touched upon different facets of the American experience and identity. In this post, Rino Kodama and Araceli Ramos explore the ingenuity of immigrants to endure economic and social hardships in the United States by integrating aspects of their culture and values.  

Rino Kodama of the Japanese American National Museum and Araceli Ramos of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes selected items that demonstrate the ingenuity and adaptability of immigrant women in the United States. Araceli’s artifact tells the story of a Mexican immigrant who created a unique American identity for herself by combining her traditional sewing skills with her new life in the United States. Rino’s submission continues the theme of ingenuity in her analysis of an indigo kasuri jacket. For Rino, the jacket, which was repurposed from a kimono to plantation clothing, symbolizes how Japanese immigrant women drew upon cultural traditions out of necessity to survive in the United States. Rino and Araceli’s posts demonstrate the notion that in the face of immense hardship, immigrant women have integrated aspects of their own culture in order to reinvent themselves and establish a unique and blended American identity. 


Velvet Jacket

Contributed by: Araceli Ramos, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes

Lupe Lara, untitled, 1926, Calle Principal: Mi México en Los Ángeles Permanent Exhibit. 2011. LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes. Los Angeles, CA.

The rust colored velvet jacket on display in Calle Principal: Mi México en Los Ángeles, a permanent exhibition located inside LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, has a dynamic history filled with memories of family and tradition. This piece was donated to the museum during its first year of operation in 2011. Arlene Etheridge, a volunteer, wanted to help showcase Mexican migration stories during the 1920s. The piece dates back to 1926, when it was hand stitched by Lupe Lara, Arlene’s mother, who migrated to the United States in 1921 at the age of 9. The piece was made in the fashionable fitted style of the era using a rust colored velvet fabric. It is adorned with velvet covered buttons, and corresponding loops, along the middle closure of the main body. The fine sewing on the puffed sleeves and pointed collar add a decorative touch to the fitted silhouette. 

Lupe Lara was born on May 27, 1912, in Zamora, Michoacán, México, to Luciano Lara, a Zamora courthouse judge and Dolores Covarrubia, a homemaker. In 1915, when Lupe was just three years old, the Typhus epidemic erupted in Mexico City, taking the lives of thousands of people as it spread across the nation. Tragically, Lupe’s mother and younger sister passed away in 1917 after contracting the disease. Unable to care for his daughter, Luciano moved Lupe into a nearby convent to be cared for and raised by nuns. The state of Michoacán is known throughout Mexico and the world for its regional epicenters of artisan crafts. While in the northern convent, Lupe received an elementary school education and learned the regional skill of fine hand-sewing and embroidery. She lived there for five years until 1921 when her father returned with the news that they would be moving to the United States. After joining a large caravan of horse drawn carriages, they arrived in Los Angeles a year later in 1922. In 1924, Luciano was able to purchase a small grocery store at the cross section of Kearney St. and Myers St., just north of Mission Road in Los Angeles. Lupe attended elementary school in Boyle Heights and would work at her family’s store in the evening after school. 

In 1926, Lupe received a Singer sewing machine as a Christmas gift from her father. Two years later and at the age of 16, she began working as a seamstress in Downtown L.A.’s garment district. Due to her advanced knowledge of the craft, she was quickly promoted. The skills she learned during her time in the convent, and later honed while living in Los Angeles, became a source of security for herself and her family during the Great Depression. While millions were losing their jobs, Lupe was able to provide for her family by using her sewing skills to create beautiful dresses for the Hollywood elite of the era. Later in life, Lupe married and became a homemaker. She taught her children the skills she learned when she was a child. Lupe’s daughter, Arlene, inherited her mother’s affinity for craftsmanship. She became an artist incorporating her mother’s traditional sewing techniques into her art, embroidery, and jewelry designs. 

Lupe’s story reveals that the “American Identity” has always been a complex combination of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Instead of succumbing to societal pressures of complete assimilation into American culture, Lupe used her traditional sewing skills to create an identity for herself that beautifully blended her heritage with her life in the United States. Her velvet jacket represents the reconciliation of two cultures into a singular “American Identity” that lives and has evolved in Los Angeles and through her descendants.


Indigo Kasuri Jacket

Contributed by: Rino Kodama, Japanese American National Museum

Tazawa Haruno, Indigo Kasuri Jacket (Hawai‘i), early 1900s, Barbara Kawakami Collection (2004.1.27), Japanese American National Museum. Los Angeles, CA.

This indigo kasuri jacket is one of many pieces in the Barbara Kawakami Collection at JANM. The jacket is a navy blue, denim color with a white dot pattern and mock collar. The fabric is worn out and many layers of stitches are made with a sewing machine in an attempt to keep the fabric together. This particular jacket was made by Haruno Tazawa. 

Kasuri” is a Japanese textile term to describe fabric that has been treated with a dye process involving a resist method, creating geometric shapes. These types of jackets were worn by Japanese women plantation laborers in Waipahu, Hawai‘i during the early 20th century. The design of the kasuri jackets drew inspiration from other immigrant working class communities. For example, the “mock” collar stems from the Mandarin collar, as many Chinese laborers wore this style of clothing and it protected their necks from the sun, as well as from dust. The cotton kasuri fabric was originally a kimono, and turned into a jacket by Haruno Tazawa, a picture bride from Fukushima, Japan. 

The majority of issei women were picture brides—women who immigrated to the United States through the process of an arranged marriage. Tazawa arrived in Hawai‘i on July 27, 1917 and married Chozo Tazawa, arranged by her sister who was already living and working on a Hawaiian plantation. Mr. Tazawa was a Luna, a plantation foreman considered a high status position back then for a Japanese man. Mr. Tazawa passed away early, and life became difficult for Mrs. Tazawa as she only had 35 cents to her name. She began to sew tabi, bento bags, and jackets for plantation bachelors at night to support herself and her four children.  

Men like Mr. Tazawa travelled to Hawai‘i and the continental United States seeking economic opportunity, but many ended up working in low paying jobs at sugarcane and pineapple plantations—women laborers made about 16 dollars a month. 

Many picture brides like Mrs. Tazawa who immigrated to the United States utilized their skills in textiles and sewing to repurpose their prized kimonos into “plantation clothing”—apparel that can withstand the long hours in the sun working in sugar cane and pineapple fields. At first when they began working on the plantations, they wore their kimonos as they were used to wearing them. Realizing that carrying out heavy labor was not easy with long kimono sleeves, they began to alter their kimonos into clothing better suited for the plantation. The design of plantation clothing drew from Chinese, Portugese, Puerto Rican, and Hawaiian apparel. An exchange of cultural wear allowed women to create clothing that would feel comfortable and supportive for their labor. For example, the Mandarin collar and gusset sleeve came from Chinese laborers. Gathered skirts were drawn from Portugese and Puerto Rican women. Along with the kasuri jacket, women would wear a straw bonnet, using scarves to cover their face, and momohiki (pantaloons). To view more artifacts in the Barbara Kawakami Collection, click here

This kasuri jacket, along with Haruno Tazawa’s story as a picture bride reveal that immigrants have shown resilience in an unknown land while facing economic insecurity, and adapted cultural traditions to survive in America. Using their precious kimonos and repurposing them into plantation clothing came out of necessity. Although separated by language and ethnicity, immigrant women laborers drew textile techniques from one another to create plantation clothing, crossing cultures to support one another as working class women. The United States of America is known as the “Land of Opportunity,” but the experiences of Japanese women laborers in Hawai‘i reflect that their realities were extremely difficult, working endlessly to sustain themselves and their families.


Both Lupe Lara and Haruno Tazawa faced economic uncertainty, but through their ingenuity and resolve they were able to survive and support their families. Tazawa and Lara’s experiences also demonstrate the complexity of the “American identity” and American experience. Tazawa and Lara combined their backgrounds and experiences to help themselves adapt to life in their adopted country. In the case of Tazawa, she blended her culture and skills into her new life by repurposing her kimono in order to adapt to the harsh plantation labor. For Lara, her American identity was an amalgamation of her life in Mexico and her need to support her family and herself in the United States. The design of Lara’s velvet jacket exemplifies her “American identity” as it mixed Lara’s Mexican culture and fashion with her new found life in America. After her success in the Los Angeles’s fashion district, Lara passed on her skills and craftsmanship to her own children, and subsequently also handed-down her blended Mexican-American traditions and values. 

Rino and Araceli demonstrated through their highlighted artifacts that immigrant populations have often shaped the definition of what it means to be an American, by necessity. Lara and Tazawa had to adapt in order to survive the economic insecurity they faced when they immigrated to America, and consequently, their experience in their adopted country was defined by their perseverance. Together, Rino and Araceli reveal that the American experience and “American identity” are complex and are greatly influenced by the experiences of immigrant populations.


If you are interested in viewing Lupe Lara’s jacket or learning more about Los Angeles during the 1920s, you can visit La Plaza de Cultura y Artes and view one of their permanent exhibitions: Calle Principal: Mi México en Los Ángeles. If you would like to learn more about the Barbara Kawakami Collection or see other artifacts and textiles pertaining to late 19th and early 20th century Japanese immigrants, you can view JANM’s online collection.

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