Times Past

‘Proof you can dance through the tears’: Remembering child of Central Coast Alice Eto Sumida

Allen Say’s drawing of Alice Eto and her father’s tractor on the Los Osos farm set in the mid 1920s in the book “Music for Alice.”
Allen Say’s drawing of Alice Eto and her father’s tractor on the Los Osos farm set in the mid 1920s in the book “Music for Alice.”

Her long life was proof that you can dance through the tears.

Alice Eto Sumida recently died in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 104.

She said: “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved dancing more than anything else. Often, I wished daddy’s tractor would turn into a coach and take me dancing, but it only made noise and dust.”

She was a child of the Central Coast. She grew up 11 miles west of San Luis Obispo on the ranch of her mother and father, Take and Tameji Eto.

She danced, both literally and figuratively, through one of the most shame-filled episodes in modern American history, the impact of Executive Order 9066.

President Roosevelt responded to the national hysteria that followed the attack on Pearl Harbor by authorizing the incarceration of nearly 70,000 people of Japanese ethnicity in the United States.

The President was encouraged by officials at the federal, state and community levels, including many of whom Japanese families regarded as their friends.

The betrayal was especially difficult for the Eto family in San Luis Obispo and for Alice and her husband, Mark Sumida. The recently married couple had moved to Seattle where they established a business selling seeds to farmers.

Alice’s father, Tameji Eto, was arrested by the FBI and Murray C. Hathway, the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff, on evening of December 7, 1941. They gave no reason for his arrest. They did not give the family any indication of where they were taking him and only established minimal contact after some months. Subsequent research has determined that the only justification for Tameji Eto’s arrest was his being identified as a leader of the local Japanese community.

Students at San Luis Obispo High School turned against Alice’s youngest sister, Grace, on Dec. 8, causing her to drop out of school.

The Etos moved to Ducor in the San Joaquin Valley and then were relocated to the Manzanar Camp in the Owens Valley. In March 1942, Alice and Mark were told to report to an “assembly center” located in the Portland, Oregon, stockyards. Their sleeping quarters smelled of cattle.

After several days, a group of white farmers came seeking volunteers to work in the strategically important sugar beet fields of eastern Oregon. Those who volunteered would not be sent to the internment camps. Alice and Mark offered to join. Alice was the only woman in the group.

The arduous work was in the desert. Mark and Alice lived in dust-filled tents. When the sugar beets were finally thinned, the job was over. A War Relocation Authority agent told the couple that they could go freely, so long as they remained in the county. A farmer offered to rent them a dilapidated two-story house.

The men in their sugar beet crew urged Mark and Alice to start a farm.

The WRA agents said that because of the importance of food to the war effort, the federal government would lend them money. They were able to lease 200 acres of rock-strewn desert land on the Snake River, 11 miles north of Ontario, Oregon.

They joked that their first crop was “a harvest of stones.” But Alice was able to recruit her brother, Masaji, an agricultural expert, and his family including her mother, younger sisters Nancy and Grace, from the Manzanar Camp. Their father Tameji joined them in November 1943.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Mark and Alice focused on flower bulbs, becoming the largest gladiola bulb growers in America.

After Mark’s death, Alice took up ballroom dancing. In 1990, she met Caldecott Medal award winning author Allen Say. Say’s “Music for Alice” is a true story that begins in the Los Osos Valley.

Four years ago, Liz and I were privileged to attend Alice’s 100th birthday party in Atherton. We watched with tears in our eyes as Alice danced. The extended Eto family has experienced both the best and the worst that our nation has to offer. That’s why we need to learn from the past.

Dan Krieger is professor of history emeritus at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.
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