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Title: Ron Wakabayashi Interview
Narrator: Ron Wakabayashi
Interviewer: Tom Ikeda
Location: Los Angeles, California
Date: February 5, 2019
Densho ID: ddr-densho-1000-460-1

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TI: Today is February 5, 2019, we're in Los Angeles in a suite in the DoubleTree in Little Tokyo. My name is Tom Ikeda, I'm the interviewer. On camera is Dana Hoshide, and we have Ron Wakabayashi. So, Ron, just the first question to get it on the record, when and where were you born?

RW: I was born in Reno, Nevada, Washoe County, November 13, 1944.

TI: So this is during the war. Why Reno?

RW: Because the West Coast was still excluded, so my parents got out of camp, but they couldn't come back to the West Coast. So Reno was an available place.

TI: Okay, let's talk about your parents a little bit, first about your dad. Can you tell me his name and a little bit about his family?

RW: Part of it is that I can't fill in all that. My dad was Issei, and he was chonan, he's the number one son in the family. He migrated from Yamanashi prefecture. He told me the story because of his travel, what strikes me is that he's not the number two son, he's number one, he's an adventurer, and that showed up in a lot of ways. So he jumped ship in Peru, and doesn't like it, jumps back on ship. Jumps ship again in Baja, and then he told me the story of how he crossed in Baja to get to an area near El Centro, California. But the back story is Japan doesn't have deserts, and they have plenty of water. So he didn't have a concept of desert, and he's walking in the Sonoran Desert. And so he would have died except for Mexicans and Indians. And that always was a very strong, it had a strong effect on me, that story of how he crossed. And he crossed at El Centro near Mexicali, and historically, Mexicali, the Chinese railroad workers on that southern leg, they were abandoned there and the railroad wouldn't bring them back. So Mexicali, the capital of Baja, it's formed by two hundred Chinese, Toisan generation Chinese and six Mexicans. So it was just an interesting place where he intersected, and then he comes in, and one of his companions traveling is Takekuma Takei, George Takei's dad.

TI: And so how did George Takei's dad, same thing, he jumped the ship?

RW: Yeah, I don't know all the details of how they... but in that last leg of it at least, because they're both Yamanashi, they start same place.

TI: And do you know about when, what year this might be?

RW: This is during Gentlemen's Agreement.

TI: So it was before, so post-Gentleman's Agreement but pre-1924?

RW: Oh, yeah. I don't know exactly, but he crossed without documents, right? Came in the old school way. I found some documents of him in El Centro. So he worked as a migrant worker, got as far north as San Francisco that I could tell as a longshoreman, and then eventually kind of settled into doing kind of the laundryman and then dry cleaning.

TI: It's funny, because I know you work for the Department of Justice now, do you ever tell that story about your father kind of coming at a time when, as a Japanese laborer, he was kind of banned from coming in, and walked across the southern border, it just seems so, kind of, reminiscent of what's going on today.

RW: It is, and it's actually kind of one of the reasons why the border issues are really very important to me. It's a mixture of that and having grown up in East L.A., and we can touch on some of that, but I've got a strong affinity, and even sort of identity with Mexico and Chicanos. I think, like one of the things I do as a human relations professional, is do a little exercise with people and say, "Okay, everyone make a list of everything you can remember in your refrigerator," and then we exchange it and say, "Okay, find the person that that belongs to." And then really when you look at those kind of lists, you really can't always tell who it belongs to by the food in their refrigerator.

TI: And that's the point of that exercise, do actually do that? Because people have stereotypical kind of...

RW: Yeah, it's how you present is different than who you are and what your experience is. Like I'll have rice in my refrigerator, but I'll have tortillas always.

<End Segment 1> - Copyright © 2019 Densho. All Rights Reserved.