Tulare students memorialize Japanese history

Mission Oak students spread awareness on local Japanese American history to respark a piece of the past, educate the public

TULARE – What began in a cultural history of the United States classroom evolved into a cultural history project where Tulare students have taken it upon themselves to bring a part of history back to life. All the while educating the community on Japanese internment in the process.

At the June 6 Tulare City Council meeting, Mission Oak High School teacher Michaelpaul Mendoza and a group of his students gave council an update on their memorial project for Japanese Americans at the Tulare County Fair Grounds. Mendoza and his students are in the process of raising funds for a memorial that will be at the K Street entrance to the grounds. The memorial will tell the story of Americans who were placed in assembly camps during World War II.

“When people are entering through the main entrance, the monument will be very prestigious and very visible for everyone to see,” Mendoza said. “So even those not from Tulare, and perhaps visitors who are passing through that have a direct connection to this history will be able to come by and visit this wonderful monument.”

Students in Mendoza’s class began this process several years ago, and he said he thinks it will take a few more years before the project is completed. In April 2022, students received approval to bring a memorial to the fairgrounds after noticing there was not even a plaque in remembrance.

The memorial is still early in the design process, but what they do know is what pieces will be a part of it. The centerpiece will be a five foot by eight foot bronze wall, then there will be various smaller walls with names of individuals who were interned at the camp and four to five “story boards”  giving the history. The total cost for the project will be in the range of $350,000, which will be fully fundraised by students in the cultural history project.

The project will be completed in phases. The wall will be the first to be completed and will cost around $100,000. They have currently raised $75,000 and Mendoza said their next goal is to create a public fundraising campaign. To date, they have only gone to speak to civic organizations like the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs in Tulare as well as the city council–who also allocated some funding to the project. For those who are interested in donating, he said they should be creating the public fundraising campaign soon, but in the meantime follow them on their social media for updates, @theculturalhistoryproject.

Students originally planned to have a statue of a father holding his daughter’s hand entering the camp as part of the memorial. However students discussed their ideas with individuals who were actually interned in the camp in the 1940s. Those individuals wanted there to be more of a familial aspect pictured in the memorial, so students went back to the drawing board.

The cultural history project had built a relationship with local artist Sam Peña, who is a “renowned bronze worker” not only in Tulare County but across the states according to the student’s presentation to council. Students worked with Peña and determined a bas relief wall would best capture the familial image. He took the critiques and created a rendering which pictures individuals of all ages entering the encampment with their belongings. Bas relief is a type of art in which figures or main features of the art are raised slightly from a flat background which gives the image more dimension.

“It’s supposed to have more of a familial aspect, we’re supposed to see the entire family as they enter the internment camp from K Street,” Megan Farrenkopf said to council. “So the actual memorial will be at the K Street entrance, and it will be like they were walking in, in 1942.”

Mendoza said Peña is working on completing a large project and once he is done with that he will begin working on the bas relief wall. He added it is wonderful to have Peña work on the project not only because he is a renowned artist, but because he is local. In the presentation to council, students said that Peña’s work can be found in the statue in front of Mooney Grove park as well as further down Mooney, the statue in front of the World War two mural.

“[Peña] is very local, when I sat and met with him for the first time and explained what the students were doing, he was very impressed and very inspired to take this on,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said they are working in conjunction with the fairgrounds because they are in the process of renovations. Fortunately, as the fairgrounds work on the details, they will have the memorial in mind. The memorial will not be completed until renovations of the fairgrounds have also been completed.

“What we appreciate [and] what we look forward to is that the monument is a big part of and is going to be kind of like the centerpiece of this renovation, because it’s going to be placed adjacent to the main entrance, where the remodeling is going to be happening,” Mendoza said.

Council member Steve Harrell brought to the attention of the students that there is some irony behind the placement of the memorial. He said that one of the buildings is named after AJ Elliot who was a congressman in office at the time of the assembly camps. Harrel explained that though the city council at the time was not in support of the camp, Elliot was a big supporter and was a part of the reason there was a camp in the area.

“I find it a very ironic location for this is going to be right next to the Elliot building,” Harrel said “He was 100 [percent] in support of the incarceration of Japanese Americans, very vocal about it. Tulare City Council, at that time, was never in favor of it, but Congressman Elliot was.”

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