THREE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: Sentimental Journey to Watsonville

Note: Today begins a monthly special feature, "Three Degrees of Separation," a column I wrote for the Pacific Citizen, a publication of the Japanese American Citizens League, five years ago. In honor of a family reunion that took place in this town of Watsonville earlier this summer, I begin with this one. Watsonville, located east of Monterey, California, is also the home of award-winning author Laurie King.

NAOMI HIRAHARA

Many city folks romanticize the country, and I’m no exception. Practically every summer my father would load us up in either our hard-top Chevy Impala, Oldsmobile Cutlas, or later Ford van, and drive up the coast of California to his hometown, Watsonville.

It was a home he knew very briefly. Watsonville, nestled in the Pajaro Valley, close to Monterey, was where he was born, but he had been taken to Japan as a mere toddler. He finally returned to Watsonville, living with relatives before coming to Los Angeles and making it on his own.

I don’t remember the drive, but I remember waking up, bleary-eyed, to a world of expansive lettuce fields. It smelled different; I could breathe in deep, and my chest didn’t ache like those days smog alerts were regularly issued during hot summers in L.A. This world even felt different. As I got out of the car, everything seemed to rest at a calm pitch. Nothing bad would happen today.

In the middle of one lettuce field stood a huge weathered Victorian house, the home of my father’s aunt. For me, it was a magical house. Wood bannisters and staircases, rooms with curved windows, doorknobs that were made out of glass. My father’s aunt, tender-faced and bespectacled, would usually be in the center room, her poodle at her side.

In suburban L.A., we hardly had any relatives, but here in Watsonville we were surrounded by kinfolk. Best of all were the girl second-cousins who shyly took me around, showing me a mountain of comic books purchased for all the grandchildren, and now also me. Later in the day, we went into a shack beside the house which was stocked with cans of strawberry preserves and a huge freezer. Inside the freezer were containers of frozen strawberries, as sweet and delicious as any dessert could be.

It was in Watsonville where one relative would show me grafted trees, bandaged in gauze, in his backyard, and I would wonder if the branches were healing from some injury. No, my father explained, it was to produce new fruit. A new combination. My father could explain a lot about the crops in the fields. For even with the few years my father had lived in Watsonville, he understood it.

I, on the other hand, could only absorb it as an outsider. The couple days a year in the country served as an escape, a promise that life could be simpler and kinder, filled with comic books and the sweet taste of strawberries. I was naive, not realizing the discipline, hard work, and innovations that go into the daily work of farming. I did not know the complexities of country life.

I recently returned to Watsonville. Not with my family, but on my own with a colleague for a research trip. This time I was very much awake for the ride, winding down Pajaro Pass, through hills, trees, and dry brush. And then, there it was–even more picturesque than ever.

As we conducted interviews and read documents, I met a very different Watsonville. The world’s center of strawberry production, it’s also the site of simmering tension between farmers and the United Farm Workers. The downtown area is still recovering from a devastating earthquake. Although the town is racially diverse, it is also socially segregated. There’s a lot underneath the stillness.

Yet, with its rolling hills and ocean breeze, Watsonville, I maintain, is one of the prettiest spots in California. Removed from the main highway, it is protected, at least for now, from the sanitized developments that characterize Silicon Valley. Like lines on the palm of a hand, Japanese Americans have criss-crossed over the landscape of Pajaro Valley. There is a rich legacy of those who had begun as sharecroppers and migrant farm workers in Watsonville. Some of them now operate their own farms, multi-million-dollar businesses.

I tell myself if I ever made enough money, I would love to buy a second home in Watsonville where I could write and rest. But then who knows. I’m just a romantic city slicker.

WEDNESDAY’S WORD: inaka (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 136)

Country. I guess in kabuki there’s often an inaka girl and a machi, or city, girl. So in your heart of hearts, are you inaka or machi?

9 thoughts on “THREE DEGREES OF SEPARATION: Sentimental Journey to Watsonville

  1. Laurie King

    Hey Naomi–Next time you come to my neighborhood, let me know and I’ll buy you a Gizdich Apple Smoothie or something.

    Laurie King

    Reply
  2. Pari

    Naomi,This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing it.

    I remember one of the things that astounded me when I went to the “country” for the first time was the noise — the animals screeching and squaking, the insects clicking and ticking.

    For a few years, my husband and I thought we’d like to live in such a place, but the distance to city conveniences proved too much of a disincentive.

    So, I guess, I’m an inaka girl at heart, but a machi girl in reality (especially if the machi is smallish).

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    What’s the word for a girl who wants the best of both worlds?Just beautiful, Naomi. I could smell the lettuce fields, taste the strawberry. So inspired me I’m off to make a strawberry smoothie. Thank you for sharing this lovely memory!

    Reply
  4. Elaine

    You’re making me homesick, Naomi! A lovely description, and you caught the mood of the area wonderfully.

    Laurie King made me homesick too. Gizdich Apple Smoothies are a delight-but it’s Gizdich’s Dutch Apple pie that has me drooling now.

    Reply
  5. Elaine Y

    Ohhh..I just came back from a few days in my family’s version of your Watsonville. Livingston. Our family farmed almonds mostly (no comments about Yamaguchis and nuts!) but Uncle Keiichi had these peaches that were amazing. Huge, ripe off the tree, warm from the Valley sun, and so sweet and juicy. We’ve never had peaches that good ever since.

    So if the inaka comes with hot showers and the internet, and perhaps a Trader Joe’s nearby, I’m up for it.

    But I can still spot a split pit a mile away.

    Reply
  6. Naomi

    Ha! Elaine Yamaguchi, I’m totally with you in terms of the Internet and hot showers, especially the latter. Trader Joe’s is a plus, but not a necessity. And Livingston–wasn’t that the home of the Yamato Colony? A lot of history there. Good ahh-mond country.

    Besides being the home of Driscoll’s (strawberries and raspberries), Watsonville used to be known for its apple orchards–thus Laurie King and Elaine Flinn’s references to Gizdich. It’s also where Martinelli’s sparking cider is headquartered.

    As you can tell, I love agricultural history. Anyone who enjoys stories about the family farm should read David Mas Masumoto’s EPITAPH FOR A PEACH.

    Reply
  7. Barbara Powell

    The Redman Foundation was organized locally in Watsonville in 1999 to save and restore the “weathered Victorian house” you described in this article. The Hirahara family holds a profound presence in its history and we are formally researching the Japanese American experiences for a permanent exhibit on the site. We would greatly appreciate your participation in our efforts.

    Reply

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