Eileen Oya holds I/D tag like the one she and her family had to wear when they were transported to internment camp in Arizona in 1942
Okay, I was eavesdropping. I could hear this prominent realtor, Aileen Oya, complaining to a friend about State Senate Bill 329, which would stop landlords rejecting prospective tenants solely because they are Section 8 or other voucher holders.
This doesn’t hold water for Oya. And it turns out she has history on the subject. Personal history.
Children at internment camp
“The government is trying to tell us who we can rent to, on our property. I am sansei, third-generation Japanese-American. I am sensitive, because in 1942, when I was a child, the government kicked us off our own property and sent us to concentration camps in the desert, 120,000 of us. And we were not poor, not a drain on the state. My family had truck-farmed 42 acres in Mission Valley, exactly where Qualcomm Stadium is now. Three uncles and my dad cleared centuries of rocks so we could grow vegetables. It was beautiful. I still remember the smell of the sweet water of the San Diego River. I used to take friends on my raft for picnics. Dad would catch bluegill. When the war came, my uncle fought in the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment. He came back from Italy, paralyzed. We were loyal Americans.”
Oya and her family were taken to Gila Bend, Camp 3, Poston, Arizona. “We felt terrible, and ashamed, for no good reason. And yet we didn’t talk about it. ‘Be a good citizen,’ was what my mother always said. ‘Speak good English.’”
After the war, many residential areas were redlined to exclude Japanese-Americans, as they were for Jewish people in places like La Jolla. “But this Jewish man let us come to Chula Vista, around 2nd and Hilltop Drive, F Street to H Street. He hired every Japanese-American he could. And in return, we made for him a lush, beautiful farm. And then he lent us money to go out and get equipment, start our own places. When I was 16, I don’t know why, I knocked on his door. ‘I wanted to know if my parents paid you back.’ He looked at me and said, ‘At least 100 times.’
Plaque summarizes family’s experience
“But we were the Silent Americans. We did not fight back. It was so hard going to school after the war. Kids would taunt us, bully us, pull my hair. One day I said, ‘I’m not going to school.’ My mom said ‘Stop crying.’ My father came out from the tall tomato plants — he was a short man — and ordered me on the bus. And I shouted at him, ‘It’s easy for you! You just have to hide among your tomato plants!’ And he hit me so hard, it was a turning point. It made me realize the strength of the emotions they had been suppressing.”
Painting of Aileen Oya’s internment camp home for three years. Painting by Tom Tanaka
“Even in the 1980s, when we started speaking out about our experience, one woman came up and asked in a sort of condescending way, ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ And I said, ‘Because we are good citizens. We wouldn’t fight back against our government.’”
And yet she is fighting back against her government’s proposal to help vulnerable tenants?
“The government took our property, our lives away once. We had to earn our way back to where we are. It has been a long, hard fight. We’re not going to let them tell us what to do with our own property.”