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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts

Martha Jordan (right), the first African-American teacher in Oregon, is seen with her kindergarten class at Vanport School. (Photo courtesy of the family of Norio Saito)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #10 (May 20, 2019), pages 6 & 16.


Every year the Vanport Mosaic Festival offers performances, films, talks, and exhibits about Portlandís history of displacement and gentrification and its little-known stories of communities of color. The multi-disciplinary festival, which runs May 21 through June 5, first began as a way to honor and preserve the history of Vanport, a city located between Vancouver and Portland built for Kaiser shipyard workers during World War II.

At its height, Vanport housed 40,000 residents, many of them African Americans, as well as Japanese Americans returning from incarceration as a result of Executive Order 9066 (EO 9066). In 1948, a devastating flood washed away nearly all traces of the city. Vanport Mosaic gives voice to the Vanport story but has also broadened the festival to include what organizers call "memory activism" about Portlandís "silenced histories."

In early June, Portland dancer and activist Chisao Hata will debut a performance piece called Gambatte: An American Legacy at the festival. Gambatte, a phrase that roughly translates as "hang in there," began as a shorter staged reading at the festival in collaboration with playwright Nikki Nojima Louis and has evolved into a 90-minute piece with movement that debuts June 1 and runs through June 5.

During the last couple of decades since I met Chisao, she has been one of the most creative and vocal champions for the remembrance of Japanese-American history, particularly about the forced incarceration of more than 120,000 people of Japanese descent in internment camps during World War II. Many Asian Americans, including Chisao, now use the word incarceration rather than interment, terminology that is recommended by Densho, an archival repository and history preservation organization in Seattle.

As a third-generation Japanese American, Chisao has created many performance pieces about Japanese-American history, including Barbed Blues. As an activist, she worked for passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted redress payments of $20,000 and a formal presidential apology to all people of Japanese ancestry who were incarcerated during World War II and lost their property and possessions. Chisao was part of a group, the Minoru Yasui Tribute Project, which fought for the Presidential Medal of Freedom to be awarded to the noted civil-rights hero and Hood River lawyer who was imprisoned for challenging a military curfew on Japanese Americans in Portland in 1942.

Chisaoís inspiration for Gambatte began with a black-and-white photo exhibited at the 2016 Vanport Mosaic Festival. Taken before the Vanport Flood, the picture features a kindergarten class with 14 black, Asian, and white kids with Martha Jordan, the first African-American teacher in Oregon. Chisao began interviewing seven elders from the photo who were survivors of the camp experience and the Vanport Flood, including Norio Saito, who donated the photo for the exhibit. Chisao spent time with Mr. Saito before he died in December 2018.

Through the interviews and further research, Chisao developed the full-length Gambatte. It explores the history of Portlandís Nihonmachi (Japantown) before President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed EO 9066, which triggered the forced removal of people from their communities and held them in the desolate internment camps. Chisao says she also wanted to bring Japanese-American history into more present time by highlighting the civil-rights era for Asian Americans in the í60s and í70s and the passage of the redress bill in 1988.

"Gambatte is about how we survived and how we were resilient," Chisao said. "We didnít know how our parents felt because they never talked about it. I want to bring the emotional connection and empathy of the Japanese-American story with this piece."

Chisao believes the trauma of forced removal and incarceration is repeating in communities of color. "When you see a little kid taken away from its parents. Thatís not just a moment. Thatís a lifetime. These kinds of experiences are deeply in ourselves."

Recently she found a trunk in which her father kept personal artifacts from the past. She included in Gambatte a poem she wrote about discovering more history from her family:

It appeared this fall. A travelling trunk packed away. Almost discarded.

A locked trunk without a key ready to open me. I went back to see. There was this key.

This key to the past. This key to lives lived before me. Insert, twist, open.

Revelations. Views from 1930. Views Before Poston, Arizona.

Photos Before WWII and the people they became.

I went back to remember who I had become. And found out who I was all along.

The Vanport Mosaic Festival, which begins May 21 and ends June 5, is held at various venues in Portland. Performances of Gambatte are scheduled June 1 through 5 as part of the festival at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, located at 5340 N. Interstate Avenue in Portland. To learn more, or to reserve seating (reservations are highly recommended), visit <>.

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