Ethnic Effects: Revealing the Impact of Immigrant Groups in Shaping the American Experience through Museum Objects

My name is Jose Quirarte and this summer I have had the opportunity to work at the Japanese American National Museum as the Getty Marrow Collections and Curatorial Intern. I recently graduated from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona with a bachelor’s degree in history. Throughout my undergraduate work I studied the 20th century ethnic American experience, focusing a majority of my research on the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As a result, I wanted to create a capstone project during my internship at JANM that reflected my research interests in the Japanese American experience as well as those of other ethnic communities by exploring the complexity of American identity.

In order to fulfill this capstone project, I invited Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Chinese American Museum, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles to collaborate and create a collections-based project that focused on the ethnic American experience. Specifically, the project invited each intern to highlight items in their museum’s respective collection that reveal lesser known stories and demonstrate how the American experience has been shaped and defined by its rich ethnic history.

Interns selected an artifact or artwork that related to the broad project question: 

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

Participants were encouraged to view and interpret this question from different perspectives and were provided a variety of sub-questions to further delve into different facets of the American experience. The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions made it clear that the answer to this specific question would not fully encompass the American experience of immigrants and their descendents. The interns, through the objects that they selected and wrote about, demonstrated the complexity of the immigrant experience in the United States. They underscored obstacles and triumphs, the ingenuity of immigrants, the unique cultural identity that formed, and the notion that “being American” has not historically conformed to one singular definition.

The following Getty Marrow Undergraduate Interns participated by shaping their own interpretations of the project question:

Japanese American National Museum: Jose Quirarte, Shelby Ottengheime, and Rino Kodama

Italian American Museum of Los Angeles: Mercedes Solaberrieta

La Plaza de Cultura y Artes: Araceli Ramos

The resulting capstone project has been crafted into a blog series titled Ethnic Effects. I have synthesized and framed the submissions into a series of posts that reveal a different facet of the American experience through an analysis of collection items.

I answered the broad project question, by selecting a drawing from JANM’s Miné Okubo Collection (2007.62). I argue that it reveals the complexity of “American identity” and the ways in which it is shaped by the cultural traditions and experiences of immigrants and their children.

Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum

Miné Okubo, untitled, 1942-1945, Miné Okubo collection. 2007.62.156, Japanese American National Museum. Los Angeles, CA.

In this untitled work, artist Miné Okubo depicts herself seated at a mess hall table while she observes several individuals in the process of pounding mochi at the Topaz concentration camp in Utah during World War II. Miné Okubo was just one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in America’s concentration camps without due process because of racism and war hysteria. Executive Order 9066 laid the foundation for exclusion of Japanese Americans on the West Coast and their subsequent forced removal. Miné Okubo’s drawings depict the World War II incarceration experience— from removal on the West Coast to daily life at Topaz.

This particular drawing depicts a scene of mochitsuki, a Japanese New Year’s tradition of pounding sweet rice into mochi (rice cakes). Mochi is an important ingredient in a New Year’s soup called ozoni, which is supposed to bring luck. The three men in the background take turns pounding the sweet rice with large wooden mallets while the man kneeling in front turns the mochi and moistens it with water. To the left of Okubo, there are several mochi cakes resting on the counter.

On the surface, this drawing seems to only speak about the mochi-making process in the Topaz concentration camp. However, the drawing, in conjunction with Okubo’s other drawings, helps to reveal the dynamic nature of “American identity” by depicting Japanese Americans actively participating in Japanese traditions. From behind barbed wire fences, Japanese Americans demonstrated that American identity was not homogenous; rather, American identity had always been inherently diverse and multifaceted due to the integration of a variety of immigrant groups and their respective traditions and values. Okubo’s drawing of mochi-making signified the reality that many Japanese Americans held on to traditional Japanese institutions and values. Furthermore, her drawings indicate that Japanese Americans placed an importance on maintaining Japanese traditions, despite attempts by the War Relocation Authority to “Americanize” and “assimilate” them. From within the confines of America’s concentration camps, Japanese traditions and cultures thrived and persisted among the Japanese American community. 

If the meaning of what it means to be an “American” is confined to the restrictive ideas of the “melting pot” and a European American standard, then it would allow no room for the preservation of outside cultures and traditions. Yet, Okubo and many other Japanese individuals, within the confines of concentration camps, maintained their cultural traditions and redefined the contemporary definition of American identity. Okubo’s drawings counter the restrictive narrative of the “melting pot” and highlight that Japanese immigrants and their children valued Japanese culture and were intent on keeping their traditions alive. More importantly, Okubo’s drawings reveal a bigger picture: “American identity” is inherently complex and diverse and it is shaped by the values and experiences of immigrant populations and their children.


This series, entitled: “Ethnic Effects,” will reveal commonalities and shared experiences in the American experience through material culture artifacts from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles. The title of this series underscores the overall goal of the project: to highlight personal effects residing at cultural and ethnic museums, and use their historical significance to demonstrate the effect immigrant populations have had on shaping the American experience. Each of the posts in this series analyzes the complexity of “American identity” and demonstrates that the American experience is multifaceted. Through the Getty interns’ analysis of their respective museum items, several throughlines are apparent within the American immigrant experience. In coming to America, immigrant groups and their children have often had to adapt and reinvent themselves, face immense systemic oppression based on racial prejudice, and persevere in any way they can in order to survive. Each of the following posts reveals stories of American immigrants that exemplify the notion that the immigrant experience is not just a minor chapter in America’s history, but is instead an integral part in understanding the complex story of the American experience:

Ingenuity – Araceli Ramos & Rino Kodama

Vulnerability & Discrimination – Mercedes Solaberrieta & Jose Quirarte

Perseverance & Resilience – Shelby Ottengheime & Jose Quirarte

Acknowledgements

This project has been a wonderful opportunity for several of us Getty MUI interns to meet and collaborate on a project outside of our immediate internships. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing museum personnel to work from home, a majority of the interns have only had a digital experience working with their institution. Regardless of the unfavorable transition, our supervisors have adapted and have provided the Getty interns with a valuable experience working in the museum field. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the supervisors for their support of this project and their ingenuity in adapting their Getty programs to accommodate work from home. 

Thank you to Kristen Hayashi, Clement Hanami, and Akira Boch of JANM; Marianna Gatto of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles; Gina Alicia Lopez Ramos, Erika Garcia, and Liz Gama of La Plaza de Cultura y Artes; Rachelle Shumard and Ashley Lee of the Chinese American Museum.

Without your support, this project would have not been possible.