From June 20th to June 23rd, about 200 former Japanese American incarcerees, their family members and friends gathered for the 11th Annual Minidoka Pilgrimage just outside Twin Falls, Idaho. More than 71 years have past since 13,000 Japanese Americans residing in the Pacific Northwest were removed from their homes and sent to a stark Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. Pilgrimage participants — many of whom had spent years at the camp as young children — dedicated much of their time touring and reflecting on incarceration grounds, now the Minidoka National Historic Site.
They connected their experiences to advocacy at a civil liberties symposium on the campus of the College of Southern Idaho, helping to ensure all the stories and history of the Minidoka experience are passed on and that no group of people is ever targeted and incarcerated without due process again.
One of its young attendees Johnny Valdez is a vessel of that history, and inheritor of those stories. A Seattle-based photographer, and the son of a Sansei mother and Latino-American father, Valdez is the grandson of two Nisei who were incarcerated at Minidoka with their families.
“In camp, my grandmother’s name was Porky Noritake,” he says. “She went to Hunt High School and was in a band called the Minidoka Matinee. She sang songs on the radio like ‘Shina No Yoru’ and ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ ”
Valdez incorporates his Japanese heritage and grandparents’ identities into his artist name, “Johnny Valdez y Uno.”
“My Grandfather’s name was Johnny Uno,” he says. “He was four years older than Porky and graduated from Hunt High School in 1943. He went into the Army, and after training at Camp Shelby was assigned to the 442nd. He served in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. After the war, he went to school on the GI Bill, and later became a podiatrist.”
Valdez’s photo essay honors his grandparents and all Nisei survivors.
“I photograph what I love and what draws me in,” he says. “My grandparents are no longer living, so it is with immense compassion and sensitivity that I go about photographing our surviving Nisei, because, essentially what it is that I am seeing as well as what I am taking a picture of, are my own grandparents. And that is what I love.”
Valdez captures the experience of his first Minidoka pilgrimage in 2012 in the exhibit, “My Minidoka,” which is on display at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington on 1414 South Weller Street in Seattle through Wednesday, July 17th. For more information about the exhibit, please contact [email protected].