By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu English Editor In Chief
Call it a muscle memory. As we watched, Councilmember Jose Huizar, took a copy of Rafu Shimpo and expertly folded it in three, then rolled it in a tight bundle, a look of satisfaction on his face.
“We’d put a green rubber band on it,” Huizar said, grinning, during an interview at his City Hall offices. “First stop would be the retirement home, I’d leave a whole batch there.”
Huizar, 44, has come a long way since the days when he was a paperboy for Rafu, yet the memories are still strong. He also spent time working for The Kashu Mainichi. Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Huizar grew up in Boyle Heights and in 2005 became the first Mexican immigrant elected to the Los Angeles City Council. He received his juris doctorate from the UCLA School of Law and a master’s degree in public affairs and urban planning from Princeton University.
Last year, redistricting placed Little Tokyo in the 14th Council District, under Huizar’s jurisdiction, but his J-Town ties go back to his youth.
“Back then I knew which stores to take The Rafu to, or which had the best fried rice. Now it’s a different perspective where I appreciate its history and looking at it from a planning perspective,” said Huizar. “Not only appreciating its history but looking at its future. How do we preserve its history, while at the same time acknowledging the new activity for downtown?”
Little Tokyo, along with the rest of downtown, is in the midst of a renaissance, with new trendy stores and restaurants opening every month. The challenge for its residents, businesses and local leaders is to preserve its cultural heritage amidst inexorable changes caused by new development.
Huizar said Little Tokyo requires careful, “delicate development” with an understanding of its unique history. He cited the $1.34 billion Metro Regional Connector, a 1.9-mile underground light rail route to run through Little Tokyo.
“The Regional Connector is one example. How do you build a station there that integrates itself to Little Tokyo and its history? We don’t want, for example, to put in a big modern building and swap it down on top of this station,” said Huizar, who is a member of the Metro Board of Directors.
Huizar succeeds Councilmember Jan Perry, now running for mayor, who became a beloved figure in Little Tokyo during her three terms in office.
“I’m not going to compare myself with Councilmember Perry, I’ve just got to go out there and do my job,” said Huizar. “The fact that I have a strong affinity and love for Little Tokyo and connection to it. That alone will motivate me to do a good job. I hope in two years I get re-elected and then I’ll have four more years. I hope when I finish my term that Little Tokyo is a better place because of the partnerships I created to make it a better place.”
So far, the councilmember and his staff have gotten off to a good start, according to Mike Okamoto, chairman of the Little Tokyo Community Council. LTCC is planning a welcome reception for the councilmember on Thursday, March 21, at the Far Bar on First Street in Little Tokyo.
He praised the work of Tanner Blackman, Huizar’s planning director and a former teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, who has been a regular participant in the many community planning meetings held monthly.
“We had a very good personal relationship with Jan, with Huizar’s office there is more of a group approach. We have the presence from his staff who will go back and come back and report and take action,” said Okamoto.
Ongoing issues in Little Tokyo include a crosswalk on Third Street for the seniors who walk to appointments at the Medical Building, and a validation program for local businesses for the Aiso Parking Lot. Okamoto said that Huizar and his staff have been engaged in the process, setting up meetings with key players to move the issues forward.
“Their involvement is really proactive— ‘Let us hear what you need us to do’ and they will take it back,” said Okamoto.
Huizar learned the value of hard work during his early years in Little Tokyo. He recalled working for the late publisher of The Rafu, Aki Komai.
“He always taught me something. He said, ‘I’ll know if you’re a good delivery boy if you answer this question: Can you find odd and even numbered addresses on the same side of the street? And I said, ‘Yes,’” Huizar recalled, laughing.
Former Rafu graphic designer Juan Ramos started at Rafu as a paperboy and remembered Huizar as serious and hardworking. Most of the paperboys were Latino and would ride their bikes, delivering the papers throughout Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and Little Tokyo. The young men would bundle the papers, under the supervision of foreman David Kubo, for the day’s delivery. Huizar worked at Rafu along with his brothers, Leo, Sal and Jimmy.
“He was a kid, he was younger than us. He was not a troublemaker, he wanted to hang out with the older crowd like us,” Ramos said.
But it was Masamichi Kiyomiya, owner of La Chicken on First Street, that set Huizar on the course to public office. Kiyomizu hired Huizar when he was 12 years old to work at his video store on Second and Los Angeles streets. He noticed Huizar when he was delivering the newspaper, and Kiyomizu hired him to hand out flyers to Japanese tourists.
“Oh, the bag was bigger than him,” Kiyomiya remembered. “He was not ashamed that he was working. He was a very outgoing person.”
“I went from making $27.50 every two weeks at Rafu, to a whopping $2 an hour,” Huizar said. “The person that encouraged me to get into politics was Masamichi. He was the one who always told me I should run for office when I got back from college. So when I went to college I got involved in student government.”
Kiyomiya gave Huizar money to go to school and encouraged him to study — even during work hours.
“Because it was not that busy desho? So after he comes at 3 o’clock, he starts doing his homework, after he finish by 6 o’clock he starts working and in between he does his job, so it’s no problem,” said Kiyomiya. “He was a good worker.”
Kiyomiya and Huizar remain close. Huizar’s children wore happi coats brought back from Japan by a business partner of Kiyomiya, and the La Chicken owner took Huizar on his first trip to Japan. Huizar said the Japanese and Mexican cultures share the value of hard work.
“Both cultures appreciate hard work, being that we’re both immigrants, we believe in the American dream, that if you work hard you can achieve your goals,” said Huizar. “There is a pride in culture, when you see the 16th of September parade in East L.A., you see that same pride at Nisei Week. And not losing your culture, for Japanese and Mexicans you really see that people make an effort to keep in touch with your culture.”
The councilmember said he is ready to roll up his sleeves to work to bring the many parts of downtown together.
“Representing all of downtown under one council office represents a very unique opportunity because we can plan collectively and comprehensively for the future. My goal is be a vehicle by which we can bring different stakeholders come together and form a common vision going forward,” said Huizar.
“How do you respect those neighborhoods in the process, but at the same time connect them more? For Little Tokyo, you have long-standing traditions that have been here. When you think about cohesive neighborhoods, Little Tokyo has been here a lot longer than these other new neighborhoods that are sprouting up.”
A welcome reception for Councilmember Jose Huizar will take place on Thursday, March 21, at the Far Bar, 347 E. First St., Little Tokyo, at 6:30 p.m. For information, contact Junko Goda at SECRETARY@LittleTokyoLA.org.