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Reclaiming Identity
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Reclaiming Identity

A tribute to a lost Japanese American legacy


W hen April Gilbert compares her grandfather Herbert Hirota’s life as it’s captured in the 1940 and 1950 U.S. Census, a lot remains the same. Most of the family worked on a citrus ranch, and they lived in Azusa, California. But there’s one marked difference: Herbert and his siblings’ races shifted from “Japanese” in 1940, to “White” in 1950.

Gilbert’s great-grandfather, Wasuke Hirota, was a Japanese immigrant, and her great-grandmother, Rafaela Martinez, was an American of Native and Mexican descent. In 2015, Gilbert joined Ancestry to better understand her family’s history and lineage. The census data she found through the platform raised questions, and as Gilbert built her family tree she began to uncover surprising answers.

In 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which laid the foundation for the incarceration of over 125,000 Japanese Americans and immigrants during World War II. Gilbert’s great-grandfather, as well as his mixed race children and grandchildren, were all targets. During a political era where any association with Japanese culture or identity was deemed a threat, the family’s racial makeup was put on trial by the U.S. government.

“My grandpa Herbert was taken from his home with the rest of his siblings when he was 13 years old because he was half Japanese,” Gilbert recalls. She remembers hearing about the incident from her grandmother Lupe Hirota, but being told her grandfather didn’t like to talk about it. Gilbert grew interested in recovering the severed connection to her Japanese heritage.

Herbert Hirota and his family were sent to the Pomona Assembly Center, a detention facility erected on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds. There, the family was surveyed for signs of Japanese influence. The languages they spoke, food they ate, and racial makeup of their friends were all considered determinants of loyalty and recorded in a “Summary of Mixed Marriage Families.”

Excerpt from Summary of Mixed Marriage Families, report on 18 mixed-race families surveyed at the Pomona Assembly Center. National Archives and Records Administration

For mixed race detainees, proximity to whiteness meant a chance of release, while identification with their Japanese heritage was equated with disloyalty. Ultimately, the Hirota children and grandchildren were allowed to return home with Rafaela, while Wasuke, a Japanese immigrant, was moved to a concentration camp in distant Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

April’s great-grandfather Wasuke Hirota never got the opportunity to come home—he died while incarcerated at Heart Mountain Detention Center in 1944. Ultimately, 1,862 people died in incarceration before the last concentration camp closed in 1946. Today, April is reckoning with how her great-grandfather’s incarceration and loss has impacted her family across generations. Mapping out the details of their lives on Ancestry is helping her better understand herself.

“I don’t want people deciding for me who I am and what I am,” April says. “I’m very proud to say that I am part Japanese.”

Her family’s fractured story raises thorny questions about identity—what does it mean to be an American? Who gets to decide? And who is left behind?

Atlantic Re:think and Ancestry give special thanks to:

April Gilbert, David Izu, Densho, Diana Ortiz, Eric Ortiz, Japanese American Veterans Association, Jeffrey Cornejo, Louis Hirota, Nancy Ukai, Raymond Alvarez, Richard Cahan, Rosemarie Mondragon, National Archives and Records Administration, Library of Congress, 50 Objects

Ancestry® is the exclusive sponsor of The Atlantic’s archive launch. The sponsorship is providing unlimited access to all magazine issues from the 1950s for several months, in conjunction with Ancestry® indexing the 1950 U.S. Census this year to make the records fully searchable for everyone for free.


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