• Art Nomura

Chapter 16, segment 1 of 2, 'Survival'

By 1934, the Great Depression had obliterated any dreams that Mizuko and her family had had about the Cash and Carry enterprise. She and her youngest four children, Yoshiko (14), Kaworu (12), Ayako (8), and Yoshito (5), joined her stepdaughter Shigeko and husband Torataro Oshiba on their leased sixty-acre farm in the San Fernando Valley. Mizuko's two older sons, Takuma (21) and Jiro (17) split their time between the farm and bachelor lodging near the downtown produce markets.

The farm was located on Osborn Street in a community known as Roscoe, California (now known as Sun Valley, California). Shigeko worked on the farm alongside her husband in addition to raising their year-old daughter, Kimiye.

The San Fernando Valley where the farm was located was prime agricultural land. Large farms dominated the area, including a thousand acre alfalfa spread next door, and the Panorama Ranch, the largest dairy farm in Southern California. As had been the case in the Pacific Northwest where Mizuko once farmed, the Japanese in the Valley did not need huge tracts of land to succeed. Their attention to detail, relentless work ethic, and careful soil management resulted in much higher yields per acre than the typical American farm.

Torataro Oshiba had grown up tough and poor as a farm boy in rural Japan and was a veteran of the Japanese Army. He was a strict disciplinarian who expected hard work from himself and everybody he employed. He considered Mizuko’s hiring as strictly business, even though she was his mother-in-law. The idea of offering her preferential treatment over anyone else did not cross his mind.

After a brief meeting with Torataro, Mizuko was hired as a farmhand to plant, nurture, harvest, and pack a rotating crop of onions, cabbage, potatoes, bell pepper, carrots, spinach, and eggplant. Mizuko, a veteran farm worker experienced with intensive Japanese-style farming methods, joined a crew consisting of Torataro and a few seasonal workers.

Knowing that Mizuko had scant work options in the midst of the depression, Torataro opted to pay her a salary of five dollars a week, a rate that did not increase for the three plus years she worked for him. This meant that for six twelve-hour workdays a week, she earned less than seven cents ($0.07) an hour. It was her lowest salary ever, less than the seven dollars a week she had received shoveling sand on the railroad fourteen years earlier in Deer Lodge, Montana. But because Torataro’s offer included housing and foraging rights to the crops harvested, she gratefully accepted the job.

The housing allotment for Mizuko’s family was rudimentary. They moved into the storage section of the barrack-like farmhouse where the Oshibas resided. While the Oshiba’s side of the structure had heat, electricity, and running water, the section offered to Mizuko and her family did not. The Nomuras’ section had a single doorway and no windows along its bleak, tarpapered walls. The spaces between the floorboards were so wide that one could easily see the ground beneath.

Water for the household came from an outdoor faucet, cooking was done over an outdoor fire, and a single outhouse served both the Oshiba family of three, and the Nomura seven.

With no indoor heating, the Nomuras depended on multiple layers of clothing and blankets for warmth during chilly weather. No electricity meant life without a refrigerator or clothes washer. Instead the family relied on an old-fashioned icebox, which required regular, rarely affordable deliveries of ice blocks during the summer months, and washing their clothes by hand year-round.

The regression from successful storeowner to farm laborer, in certain ways, felt like Mizuko was mirroring her father’s fall from landed gentry to a lower middle class existence. She remembered how as a child, her responsibilities grew as her family’s resources shrank.

Moving to the Oshiba’s farm and earning a minuscule wage meant that once again there was little else that could be expected beyond mere survival. With the Great Depression upon them, Mizuko worked with that fundamental goal in mind.

When they weren’t at school, the Nomura children worked. For instance, after school and on weekends, twelve year-old Kaworu labored on the farm unpaid except for the occasional nickel he received from Oshiba-san for a day’s work. In addition to general farm work, his duties included picking up seeds for the farm’s plantings. This entailed riding a rickety bicycle to the seed store two miles away and carrying unwieldy, hundred-pound sacks of seed on the bike’s handlebars back to the farm.

The bulk of what the family ate was grown on the farm. When eggplant was being harvested, they ate eggplant. Likewise carrots, spinach, bell peppers, onions, or whatever else was in season. Although they never went hungry, the lack of culinary variety was challenging.

Kaworu made friends with Ernesto, a Mexican boy his own age who lived down the road. His family worked a modest farm where they grew corn and banana squash, and kept pigs.

“My mom was wondering if you’d like to trade some vegetables for what we are growing,” Ernesto said one afternoon after school.

“Oh. Well right now we’ve got a lot of bell peppers and onions.”

“Really? My dad loves peppers and we can always use onions. Does your family like pork?”

“Are you kidding? We haven’t had any meat for over a week,” exclaimed Kaworu, his mouth starting to water from the idea of eating pork chops for dinner.

“Let me talk to my mom, I’m sure she would go for the idea.”

Mizuko readily approved of the exchange, and a steady flow of produce and meat between the two families followed. On special occasions like Christmas, the Mendoza family would share traditional holidays foods, like homemade tamales or roasted pork carnitas with the Nomuras.

With Mizuko often working from sunrise to sunset, Yoshiko, the eldest daughter, became responsible for preparing most of the meals. In many other ways she served as a surrogate mother to her younger siblings, tending to them when they were ill, helping with their schoolwork, as well as washing and mending their clothes. Although the house had a kerosene stove, there was never enough money to buy fuel. Yoshiko and her siblings had to scavenge for scrap lumber and dead branches so she could cook over an outdoor fire. On most days, rain or shine, Yoshiko prepared their meals over an open flame.

Sometimes, instead of building a separate cooking fire, Yoshiko would use the fire used to heat the daily bath water to cook their meals. In a wooden shack located next to the outhouse, a metal horse-watering trough raised on concrete blocks served as an ofuro, or bathtub, for both the Oshiba and Nomura families.

Ayako, eight-years old in 1934, was responsible for preparing the bath every day, and continued with the chore for four years. After school she would fill the trough with water and build a fire in the space underneath. Yoshiko would put eggplant, peppers and onions directly into the hot ashes of the fire to cook. By the time the bath water was hot, the vegetables would be done.

While the Nomuras ate their simple dinner, a predetermined order of bathers would use the bathhouse. Torataro Oshiba, the man of the estate, always bathed first, followed by his wife Shigeko and their children. After they were finished, the Nomuras took their turns in no special order, but the later bathers often had to be content with a tub of lukewarm water.

In order to maintain the cleanliness of the bath water, the bathers washed themselves, as was the Japanese custom, before they stepped into the tub. Squatting on the rough wooden floor of the bathhouse, they each used a small pot to wet down, soap up, and rinse with water scooped from the steaming tub. By the time the last bather was finished less than half the original heated water remained. The following day, Ayako the designated bath preparer, would repeat the process: empty out the remaining water from the previous night, scrub the tub clean, then fill with water and heat over a wood fire.

Yoshiko and Ayako would join forces on Saturday to wash the family’s clothes. They built a fire to heat a large outdoor vat of water and beat the dirt out of the wet, dirty garments with wooden sticks much like Mizuko had done for her family back in Onorimura, Japan more than twenty-five years earlier.

When Yoshiko, Ayako, or Yoshito wanted to talk to, or even see their mother during daylight hours, they would head to the fields or vegetable packing shed to find her. Because of her long day, Mizuko would routinely leave for work before her youngest children got up and would return after they were asleep.

Working their own long hours in the downtown L.A. Wholesale Market loading and unloading produce, Takuma and Jiro were able to eventually accumulate enough cash for a used truck to haul farm produce. An established Japanese wholesale produce broker in the Market, Fujino-san, took a liking to Takuma and showed him how to start his own brokerage.

Torataro Oshiba became one of Takuma and Jiro's initial customers. The brothers hauled loads from his farm and other Japanese-run farms in the valley to the Wholesale market returning with empty wooden crates to be filled for future deliveries.

Unlike farming in Washington, the weather and climate in sunny Southern California supported crops year round. There was little downtime. Winter crops like cabbage, broccoli and celery kept the farm work going throughout the cooler parts of the year. Mizuko worked on the Oshiba farm more than three hundred days a year for nearly four years.

end of Chapter 16, segment 1 of 2, 'Survival'

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