Shogatsu, the Japanese New Year's festival, is alive and well on Blanchard Street in East L.A. Through an in-law's invitation I found myself in the Teramoto home in front of traditional Japanese food, a forest of whiskey bottles, and this family's century-long history in L.A.
In those five generations the Teramotos have savored prosperity and cried as their government unjustly jailed them in internment camps during World War II. That detention led them to this block on a hill overlooking Evergreen Cemetery. The family lived on Breed Street in Boyle Heights before internment. The patriarch of the family, Kumazo Teramoto, worked hard to support the family through his produce business. After the war, four related families moved next to each other on this block.
At the table, chunks of mackerel sashimi lay on a bed of sliced onions and a large nishime plate showcased meticulously arranged portions of bamboo shoots, lotus root, and tasty, grooved, red bean bites I affectionately called the timing belt.
Cousins, uncles, and family friends munched between talk about the old year and predictions for the new. 58 year-old Kei Teramoto, the youngest of five siblings that grew up in this house sat with his back to the drawn blinds in the dining room. How many Japanese families lived around here when you were growing up, I asked. He turned his body a quarter, as if to see through the shut blinds and into the 7:00 o'clock darkness of the past. One, two, three, four, he began to count on halfway raised fingers. Fifteen, he said. And now, I asked. About half still live on the block.
This is East L.A.
Stereotypically Latino East L.A.
Stereotypically Chicano East L.A.
Stereotypically immigrant East L.A.
Stereotypically Jewish East L.A.
Stereotypically Japanese American East L.A.
This was a neighborhood of pachucos, cholos, and working families. The family at the top of the hill, he said, was constantly in and out of jail.
His bachan - abuela, bubbe, nana to you and me - was the rock of the family. She lived next door. She was the family's glue for many years, shlepping the family to early morning mass in Little Tokyo then to see Japanese relatives in Tijuana and back to Los Angeles in the same day. Kei's father died five years ago, his mother passed away in 2009. Shogatsu's the same in this house at the same time that it's changes over the decades, he said. Many of his parents friends have passed away and others stopped coming on New Year's Day after his parents died.
It used to be a standing room only gathering. On this shogatsu on Blanchard Street conversations about the old neighborhood take turns with talk about Napa wines by the pallet, Portuguese profanities, and that East Los Mexican American pachuco vibe that becomes part of your DNA if you're from here.