Members of Santa Maria’s Japanese-American community have entered into a partnership with the city to create a new community center honoring early Japanese immigrants’ contributions to the local agriculture industry.
Last week, the Santa Maria Japanese Community Center Inc. donated $300,000 to the Recreation and Parks Department to jump-start funding for the new space, which will be a key element of the ongoing Enos Ranch West project along Bradley Road.
A completion date has yet to be determined for the project that is expected to cost $2 million, with funds coming primarily from a park development fee.
Leaders of the SMJCC, formed in the early 1900s by the first generation of Japanese immigrants, said they are excited to partner with the city to honor the contributions and struggles of key families in agriculture with names such as Minami, Aratani and Utsunomiya.
“We look forward to the opportunity of memorializing the importance of the Issei, which was the first generation of Japanese immigrants. We must never forget their contributions to the growth, success and vitality of the Santa Maria Valley,” said SMJCC president Wesley Koyama.
The project also includes renovation of the historic Enos-Smith house, which will be used as a space for weddings and other events, and feature a community lawn, Japanese garden and other landscaping.
“It’s a great feeling to get everything started and get the ball rolling on it, and to partner with the city,” Koyama said.
For nearly a century, the SMJCC operated out of an old building at 150 Western Ave., offering naturalization classes for recently immigrated individuals and a variety of cultural events before selling the property in 2017.
The new cultural center at Enos Ranch West will feature a mix of traditional Japanese and ranch-inspired architecture and landscaping, serving as a space for both events and a historical gallery of local Japanese-American history.
“You have the Santa Maria-style barn, because you have to honor the Enos Ranch, plus you have to honor the Japanese-American history in the valley, so a little bit of Japanese landscaping will be perfect,” Koyama said.
Recreation and Parks Director Alex Posada said parks officials are eager to partner with a cultural group interested in preserving the area’s agricultural history on the project, which they found in the SMJCC.
“We had a very good discussion with them about their desire to preserve the first generation, the Issei generation, that came to the Santa Maria Valley and worked in the sugar beet industry,” Posada said.
“There was a lot of labor and obstacles for them when they moved here, [but] they overcame those obstacles and became leaders in the agriculture community and business community, and remain so today.”
Beyond the struggles of immigrating and laying roots in a new place, local Japanese-American families were subject to heavy discrimination, especially leading up to and following World War II.
Koyama described how his family, who came to the area in 1906 and went on to run Koyama Selected Vegetables, saw their work in the agriculture industry come to a screeching halt when they were sent to an internment camp in Denver.
Many elders, like his grandfather, were eased back into a normal way of life after their return from internment through naturalization classes at the community center. According to Santa Maria Times archives, the center’s classes are believed to be the first of their kind in the country.
“This was when a lot of the Issei came back after World War II and they were kind of like aliens; there was a lot of resentment, a lot of racism. What the schools did was tried to help these Issei obtain their citizenship,” Koyama said.