Times Past

True story sheds light on effect of WWII-era internment camps in California

Volunteer John Knox reads “Sylvia & Aki” with (left to right) students Yoselin, Amy and Elbia in Laura Kirschner’s class at Hawthorne School in San Luis Obispo.
Volunteer John Knox reads “Sylvia & Aki” with (left to right) students Yoselin, Amy and Elbia in Laura Kirschner’s class at Hawthorne School in San Luis Obispo.

“My oldest son, he is at Camp San Luis Obispo, 40th Infantry Division,” Mr. Ortega told his boss after tuning a balky farm tractor in 1942.

Gonzalo Mendez replied, “Think about it. Your son is risking his life for his country, while his little brother can’t go to school with his white neighbors.”

Their conversation on an ugly contradiction of segregation appears in Winifred Conkling’s “Sylvia & Aki,” the true story of Sylvia Mendez and Aki Munemitsu Nakauchi, two third-grade girls from Orange County who were thrust into a shame-filled time in California history during World War II.

Aki’s family was forced to leave their farm in Westminster after the Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor. Her father, “a leader of the Japanese community,” was sent to a high-security camp and wouldn’t see his family for more than two years. Aki, her brother and mother were sent to a Japanese-American internment camp in Poston, Arizona.

Sylvia’s family leased the Munemitsu farm and moved into their home. At a local public swimming pool, Sylvia saw a sign reading, “No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed.”

Sylvia’s aunt took her to enroll at Westminster School, close to the farm. Her lighter-skinned cousins could go there, but Sylvia and her siblings were required to attend Hoover School near “the barrio,” much farther from the farm.

Hoover, a rundown, wall-boarded building filled with tattered textbooks and horseflies, was separated from the surrounding dairy pasture by an electric fence. Not like Westminster, where everything was bright and shiny.

Sylvia’s father, Gonzalo Mendez, a naturalized U.S. citizen, decided to appeal. He talked with school officials, but nothing happened.

Mr. Mendez started a petition drive urging other Mexican-Americans to sign on, but found that most, like Mr. Ortega, were fearful of repercussions. Ultimately, he hired David Marcus, a Los Angeles civil rights attorney, to sue the school district on behalf of these children. The Japanese-American Citizens League and the NAACP represented by attorney Thurgood Marshall joined Mendez as friends of the court.

The suit resulted in the groundbreaking Mendez v. Westminster desegregation lawsuit. Acting on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ unanimous decision, California Gov. Earl Warren signed a law in 1947 repealing school segregation.

Later, in 1954, Warren, then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered a unanimous Brown v. Board of Education decision making school integration federal law. Marshall, who made the argument before the court in the landmark case that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, was named a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1967.

During much of the book, Aki is concerned for her father, interned, like Los Osos Valley’s Tameji Eto, for most of the war, though no evidence of disloyalty was found against them.

In Westminster, Sylvia found Aki’s porcelain doll and some photos in the Munemitsu home her family leased and lit sparklers on the Fourth of July, wondering what Aki was doing.

Sylvia and Aki came together when Gonzalo Mendez drove more than 250 miles to Poston to pay rent to Aki’s mother. Sylvia went along so she could reassure Aki that the beloved porcelain doll she was forced to leave on a closet shelf was being well cared for. The two became lifelong friends.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation apologizing to each living internee and granting them $20,000.

In 1998, a new school in Orange County was named the Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez Elementary School. In 2007, a U.S. postage stamp was issued honoring Mendez v. Westminster.

“Sylvia & Aki” deals with the contradictions that emerge when we choose hate and fear. Aki could go to Westminster School, but Sylvia, living on the same farm, couldn’t because of her dark skin. Yet Aki’s father was imprisoned without due cause and the family faced more than three years of exile in the desert because of their ancestry.

“Sylvia & Aki” is essential reading for all Americans. Read it along with Duncan Tonatiuh’s magnificent picture book, “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation.”

A resolution recognizing the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 establishing internment camps in 1942 and its effect on the Japanese-American community of San Luis Obispo County will be presented at the Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday, April 4, at 9 a.m.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com. Liz Krieger is a retired children’s librarian for the San Luis Obispo County Library.