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Concealed San Bernardino Mural Reveals Japanese-American Story

Like stones washed down from a mountain stream, a modest mural offers clues to regional history that is part of a larger story being told.

On February 19th, 1942, a little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 allowing the military to form "exclusion zones," clearing the way for the relocation of up to 120,000 Japanese-Americans living in the Western United States.

Earlier this month cities around the state marked the day with programming and services - the first year of an official Day of Remembrance.

While most of the tributes looked to the remote camps of Manzanar, a small mural in San Bernardino is a reminder that there were other camps that interned Japanese-Americans, of which up to 90 percent were from California.

The concealed mural is at the base of a towering retainer wall in the foothills of San Bernardino. It is located on a one-way road that wraps around a hill stabilized by walls made from stones delivered by local creeks. Standing a few feet high and extending for a few yards, on it are painted images of laborers placing rocks in the side of a hill. A wheel barrel sits nearby, ready to be filled again.

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During World War II, interned Japanese-Americans built the wall, said Carrie Lange to the San Bernardino Sun, when the piece was completed in 2009. At the time, she owned the home called "The Villa" that sits at the top of the bluff and wanted to give neighbors a nugget of regional history.

Lange sent along the concept to Cal State San Bernardino art studio students, and Emmanuel Torres was selected to paint the flat brick wall.

"It looks nice, and I've gotten a lot of feedback from neighbors," Lange said to The Sun. Torres felt the mural acts as a reminder so "history doesn't repeat itself. Not only for this group of people, but for any ethnic group."

A painted sign, also part of the mural, reads "Executive Order 9066 -1942; In memory of over 120,000 ethnic Japanese people held in interment camps."

The mural is at the base of the very wall Japanese-Americans builtThe sentiment is undoubtedly sincere. Yet, the image of Japanese laborers donning rice hats and sandals in peasant wear fails to remind viewers of an important reality: the interned were Japanese-Americans from a cross section of rural and urban citizenry, not agricultural field workers from the island of Japan.

While the article did not state where the workers came from - other than the testimonial that they were from interment camps - one can wonder if the labor force came from Poston Arizona, a camp near the Colorado River that held Japanese-Americans during the war's duration.

The official name, the Colorado River Relocation Center, was on an Indian Reservation, 17 miles south of Parker. The upper corner of the desert camp was just a few miles from the northern edge of the Riverside County line on the California border.

The War Relocation Authority operated the camp from May 8th, 1942 until it was shut down November 28th, 1945. The interned were mostly from California, including the counties of Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange. 2,750 were from Los Angeles, according to Central Washington University.

Unlike the other camps, Poston was overseen by what is now Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), despite misgivings by The Colorado River Indian Reservation Tribal Council who opposed the use of the last of their land for a relocation center on the grounds of "inflicting the same type of injustice as they had suffered," according to the National Park Service.

The peak population of the 71,000-acre Poston camp reached 17,814 on September 2nd, 1942. Manzanar, the most infamous of the US World War II interment camps, had a peak population of 10,046 on 6,000 acres.

The study also notes that because of the intense summer heat and the non-stop dust, made worse by the winds, the three camps that made up Poston were called "Roaston", "Toaston", and "Duston" by its inhabitants.

Japanese-Americans were detained in the desolate location to provide labor for American government infrastructure, reasons filmmakers Joe Fox and James Nubile in their 2008 documentary "Passing Poston: An American Story."

Detainees were used as laborers to build adobe bricks for their own schools, practice experimental farming, support rubber manufacturing operations, and construct an irrigation system that could later be used by the Native Americans - part of a settlement of the area as planned by the then-named Office of Indian Affairs, reports both the documentary and the study by Central Washington University.

While all interment camps had programs to grow food and allowed businesses to offer day-to day-services, Poston had a program that allowed Japanese-Americans to work outside the camp. According to archived newsletters from the Poston camp, there were scattered notices announcing seasonal agricultural work that could be found outside the camp for a standard, and very small, fee.

"The men incarcerated at Poston elected to work 'outside of the camp' because they were paid better wages compared to the monthly stipend of $12 working inside the camp," says Dianne Kiyomoto, Board member and archivist for the Poston Restoration Project. "Professionals such as the doctors, nurses, or lawyers, were paid the highest - $19 per month."

"The work outside was termed 'seasonal leave,'" she tells KCET. "They worked in agriculture - mainly topping and harvesting sugar beets, lettuce, and cotton, since there was a huge shortage of agriculture workers during the war."

Out of the ten camps, Manzanar was in the Owens Valley and Gila River Relocation Center was 50 miles from Phoenix. Poston was the closet camp to San Bernardino.

While the mural was made to be a reminder of local history, its value lies in bringing attention to local Southern California story which would otherwise be untold. The modest piece is a testament to public art aesthetics at a time of monumental remembrance.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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