By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
“I’m not used to this. I’m usually behind the camera,” said Rafu photographer Mario Gershom Reyes, who has documented the Japanese American community for more than three decades, as he addressed the L.A. City Council on Aug. 16.
“Today I stand here before you a very happy, a very proud and a very grateful man. I thank the councilmembers for their participation in making this document for me and for Nisei Week of course,” said Reyes.
Reyes, also honored as a Nisei Week Pioneer, was recognized for his work documenting both significant and routine historical events throughout Los Angeles, especially for the Japanese American community.
Councilmember Kevin DeLeon, who brought the motion forward, said, “Through the power of his lens, and the art of his photography, Mario has ensured that the history of the Japanese American community has been recognized, appreciated, and preserved.”
Reyes was born in Mexico City and immigrated with his family to L.A. when he was four years old. Initially his family lived in the Maravilla Housing Project in East Los Angeles but eventually settled in Boyle Heights. He started working at The Rafu as a senior at Roosevelt High School.
DeLeon joked that Reyes was a wide receiver, while Councilmember Gilbert Cedillo played quarterback for the Roosevelt Rough Riders. In fact the two did not play football together, although both are Roosevelt alumni.
Cedillo praised Reyes’ story as an example of how Boyle Heights embodies the American dream, where people of all ethnicities grow up and live together. The councilmember said that his next-door neighbors were Japanese American and he would often hand-deliver their copy of The Rafu to them.
“Mario Reyes, let me thank you for embodying the experience of Boyle Heights that you and I grew up with,” Cedillo said. “Where we lived with Japanese Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, we began to call ourselves Chicanos, Russians, Italians, Armenians. We all lived together. Chinese Americans. We all lived together as kids, unaware of the differences, as friends, partners, we loved each other, we played with each other. We grew up together and supported each other.”
The City Council also recognized the Nisei Week Court: Queen Kristine Yada, First Princess Audrey Nakaoka, Miss Tomodachi Maile Yanguas and Princesses Amanda Hiraishi, Emily Kumagai, Lori Meza and Faith Nishimura; and representatives of Nagoya, L.A.’s Japanese sister city, who were in town for Nisei Week.
As photo editor, Reyes expanded a tradition of photojournalism that began with Toyo Miyatake, who often took photos for The Rafu. Reyes built a darkroom in the old Rafu building on Los Angeles Street, where he printed photos and trained young photographers on composition, light, depth of field and other techniques.
Among the many events that Reyes has documented over the decades are the evolution and progress of the Manzanar Pilgrimage; the biannual Tule Lake Pilgrimage; the beginning and ongoing activities at the Japanese American National Museum; the last visit of the emperor of Japan; the Japanese American veterans; the Heart Mountain resisters; and Nisei Week.
His story is documented in Steve Nagano’s 2017 short film “More Than a Thousand Words.” Nagano and his wife, Patty, both Nisei Week Inspiration Award honorees, were among the guests in attendance at the council meeting.
Afterwards, Reyes shared the following message:
I thank you for your participation in the making of this honor and thank you for your public service.
I would also like to acknowledge the men and women of the Los Angeles Police Department here today for keeping this (council) chamber safe and secure for us. To you, thank you.
To my councilman of the 14th District, Kevin DeLeon, muchas gracias for this honor.
I have lived in two cultures my entire life, I would cross over the Sixth Street Bridge every day between Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, or as we old-timers referred to it, J-Town.
I learned quickly to acquire a taste for Japanese food or starve.
For the past 40 years I have worked for The Rafu Shimpo … The Los Angeles Japanese Daily News.= We are 119 years old and still going. I have been its photo editor for those 40 years.
It has been an honor and privilege working alongside so many talented, dedicated, and caring people. Our mission was to make sure people’s stories were recorded, told and not forgotten.
To my adopted Japanese American community, domo arigato for your trust in telling your stories.
Today my editor, my colleague and my friend is here reporting on me. Gwen Muranaka, thank you!
Lastly, I would like to thank the Koreisha Chushoku Kai board members and especially Darlene Kuba, my Roosevelt High School classmate, for her kindness and friendship, and of course Bill Fujioka, Darlene’s husband. Even though he went to Montebello High, I won’t hold that against him. Thank you both.