Magazine Feature

A Garden of Honor

Latino students in East L.A. plant a tribute to Japanese Americans.

The sprawling three-block campus of Roosevelt High in East Los Angeles offers abundant evidence of the school community's Mexican American roots. Bold murals depicting Aztec images are scattered through the buildings. Chicano heroes and pop idols peer out from posters tacked on doors. Spanish and English mingle in the swell of voices that rises in hallways between class periods. Mariachi music drifts up from the street through the classroom windows, three days early for the Cinco de Mayo celebration scheduled for the weekend.

Hidden away in a quiet corner of the campus -- a few yards beyond the fiery chilies ripening in the school's pepper patch -- stands a seemingly incongruous cultural marker: a traditional Japanese garden. At first glance, the garden appears as out of context as a sushi dish at one of the taquerías skirting the campus. But as principal Henry Ronquillo likes to point out, it is a fitting emblem of the school's cultural heritage. A group of students built the garden in 1996 as a memorial to Japanese Americans who attended Roosevelt more than 50 years ago but never got the chance to graduate because they were interned in prison camps during World War II.

Students stumbled upon this disturbing fact while studying Roosevelt's history for a school project. Some sleuthing through old yearbooks and interviews with alumni also revealed that the school once boasted a lovely Japanese garden.

Flipping through the 1941-42 Roosevelt yearbook offers glimpses of the original garden, with its magnificent cherry trees and graceful Japanese pines. "It was a beautiful spot," remembers Jun Yamamoto, a member of the class of 1941 and former internee. "It was a typical Japanese garden with a waterfall, a pond and a bridge. It was a place to sit and relax in the shade, to rest your mind for a little while."

But just one year later, both the garden and the faces of the 400 Japanese-American students then attending Roosevelt are eerily absent from the yearbook's pages. Shortly after the students and their families were interned, the garden was destroyed. "No one knows exactly how or when, but it happened, and it broke a lot of people's hearts," Ronquillo says.

When the younger generation of Roosevelt students made this discovery, they were shocked and angry. "Nobody should have gone through what the Japanese Americans did," says Gloria Antuñez, a 1997 graduate and former member of Youth Task Force-L.A., a Roosevelt community service organization that initiated the garden project in the spring of 1995. "Many of them were citizens. They belonged in this country. Then to be imprisoned like that … it was atrocious." Students decided to replant the garden as reparation for this past injustice.

Plans to rebuild the garden dovetailed with the 50th reunion celebrations of the classes of 1942-45, a coincidence that added momentum to the project. In May 1995, the school's alumni association held a special ceremony to honor Japanese American classmates who had been interned and to award the diplomas they were denied five decades earlier. A hundred Japanese American alumni attended the celebration, some traveling to Roosevelt from as far away as Japan.

Henry Ronquillo, who presented the diplomas at the ceremony, remembers the reunion as a deeply emotional event. The belated graduates shared memories of life in Manzanar, the relocation camp they were sent to during the war. Other alumni recalled the crushing task of saying goodbye to their classmates boarding buses bound for the camp in central California. While alumni spoke, a slide presentation juxtaposed images of life at the high school with life in Manzanar.

"It was such a moving ceremony that everybody in the place was sobbing. Not crying, but sobbing," Ronquillo remembers.

Bruce Kaji, a Japanese American member of the class of 1944, was one of the alumni honored that day. "It was really very touching," Kaji recalls of the ceremony. "We thought that everyone had forgotten us. It was nice to know that wasn't the case, that the people we were growing up with remembered us after all."

Following the reunion, Kaji learned of the students' plan to restore the garden and offered the support of L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum, where he serves as founding president. Kaji organized a fundraising effort that garnered the $30,000 needed to rebuild the garden. A large percentage of that sum was donated by Roosevelt's Japanese American alumni, who were surprised and grateful to learn that a group of Latino students had taken an interest in the earlier graduates' experiences and wanted to commemorate them.

"It floored me. I just couldn't believe it," says Jun Yamamoto, who helped raise the funds. "It was an honor to have them do it and to participate with them in the restoration."

Students pieced together what the garden looked like from the old yearbook photographs and graduates' recollections. Then, assisted by the Japanese American alumni, project organizers mobilized community support to implement their design. Local landscape architects, contractors and suppliers donated services and materials.


A Symbol Grows

The 600-square-foot garden offers an oasis of quiet on this urban campus that pulses with the activity of 5,200 students. Situated about 50 yards from the original garden's location -- a space now occupied by Roosevelt's auto shop -- the new retreat encompasses cherry trees, azaleas, a Japanese black pine and a gingko tree. Scattered palmetto palms add a California flavor to the otherwise traditional flora. A small bridge spans a dry pond of granite pebbles. Pathways meander through the space, punctuated by several benches that invite reflection.

Gloria Antuñez sits on one of these benches and gazes upon the fruit of her labor. "I like being here because it's so pretty," she says, adding that the spot is popular with classmates. Students like to eat lunch and snap photos of friends there, she says. "It's appreciated and respected. No one harms any of the trees or anything. We're planning to make a little plaque that tells about the history." Some teachers use the garden to enhance lessons, as well, bringing students there for inspiration in writing haiku, such as the ones by 11th grade students included on these pages, or for a history class on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The garden is a small patch of green on this sizable inner-city campus, but it commands a large symbolic presence, according to Henry Ronquillo. "It's a symbol of how one minority group, a different minority group, identified with an injustice and wanted to do something about it," he says.

Ronquillo, himself a graduate of Roosevelt, believes that the creation of the garden teaches a positive lesson about owning up to, and learning from, the past. "Through this project, students are able to see the other side of man's inhumanity to man, where people come together to rectify. I think it's important for kids to know there's always a time for righting a wrong -- whether it's two weeks later or 50 years later."

It's a message that has particular resonance for Roosevelt's students, Ronquillo says. They know the history of discrimination against Mexican Americans in the U.S. and are well acquainted with the lingering prejudice they face today. "People run into unfair experiences, and they may give up because they get bitter or lose hope," Ronquillo says. "I think it's important for them to see that people care and that people don't forget."

History teacher Sue Anderson agrees that young people need to witness and participate in efforts to heal our nation's deepest wounds. In her classes, students investigate the parallels between the repatriation of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as well as recent anti-immigrant legislation in California.


Multicultural Inheritance

Anderson feels it's important to teach students about instances of intolerance in the U.S., but it's equally important, she says, to make sure they don't end up feeling resigned to victimization. "One of the things that helps, I think, is to understand that other cultures have faced this -- that they're not the only targets of discrimination. Sometimes we have to be so careful when we teach of oppression that we don't simply stoke the fires of anger, but we give kids an outlet, a way to do something with this knowledge. They don't need to be convinced they're victims; they need to feel they can do something about it."

Anderson and colleagues Will Adams and Jeff Avila got students started on the research that resulted in the garden project. But, she says, the information about the Japanese-American alumni wasn't the only aspect of Roosevelt's history that startled students. The discovery of the school's multicultural past was in itself a revelation. "They were surprised to learn that Roosevelt was ever anything but a Latino stronghold," Anderson says.

A number of decades ago, local ordinances in many L.A. neighborhoods stipulated that only Anglo-Saxon Protestants could own land. Such was not the case in the Boyle Heights section of East L.A., which quickly attracted a diverse group of immigrants with its open property codes. Later, most of these groups dispersed to L.A.'s expanding suburbs.

"This community has a rich tradition of being built by different ethnic groups working together -- Japanese, Armenian, Mexican, Russian, Jewish and others. We're proud of that tradition," says Henry Ronquillo. "When students did their research, they saw that Roosevelt High School was a pluralistic society. I've often said I wish we could freeze that time and just make it come alive again, because it was very natural -- people living side by side, keeping their cultural identities and making it work."

Ronquillo, himself Mexican American, wants his students to be proud of their heritage, but he also wants to prepare them to cope in a larger multicultural society.

"Our kids live in East L.A., which is really a monocultural community now. Many of our kids don't get out of our community until they leave high school, so they don't have an opportunity to interact in a realistic way with different ethnic groups," Ronquillo says. For him, the garden represents a toehold on the community's earlier diversity, a visual reminder that other cultures exist in the world beyond the neighborhood's parameters.

Kataline Barrera, a 1997 Roosevelt graduate who helped rebuild the garden, says the project led her to discover common ground between the Japanese American alumni and Roosevelt's current student body. "I met some people who went to the internment camps and they told us what they used to do when they were at Roosevelt, like go to dances and all that, just being regular teenagers like we are right now. That's how we bonded," she says.

Ronquillo hopes that students' minds aren't the only ones the project will help open. He points out that the media have long portrayed East L.A. as a neighborhood of gangs, drugs, drive-by shootings and little else. The principal recalls trying to get the press to cover positive events in the neighborhood, like a recent community awareness day at the high school.

"They always say, 'Well, we have limited crews on weekends,' and I say, 'I'll tell you what. On Saturday, we're going to have a gang fight out there and we're going to have three kids shot, and some innocent bystander killed. Now do you think you'll find the time to cover that?' But that's the reality of the thing. The media is not interested in good news in this community." The garden has attracted some local media attention, which Ronquillo hopes will help dispel some of the negative stereotypes of East L.A.

Roosevelt's new Japanese garden is a good deal smaller than the original one, and its trees and shrubbery have not had the benefit of time to grow lush. But the project has already sown seeds of understanding among students and enabled empathy to take root.

Gloria Antuñez says that working closely with the Japanese-American community has helped broaden her own limited perceptions of an unfamiliar culture. "Not that I think I was racist before, but you do hear people in your family or in the community say things about other cultures," she says, explaining the stereotyped thinking that defines the boundaries between East L.A.'s Latino community and the neighboring Asian-American communities in Monterey Park and Little Tokyo.

Where she once may have remained silent, Gloria says she now speaks up to challenge racist remarks. "I tell them, 'Don't say that about people. That's not nice, and it's not even true. I know their culture. I know that they're not like that. They're just like us.'"

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