By John Sammon
Sonia Prasad Quesada found a unique way to thank a departed ancestor for contributions to her life as well as the country and to pay tribute to the struggles her grandfather faced in the early 1900’s to overcome the prejudice of some who regarded him as unwelcome.
“I think it’s important to recognize what immigrants have contributed to American society, and what they have sacrificed,” Quesada said. “Because of immigrants we have a strong, diverse and flourishing country.”
Last spring Quesada was driving in her car when she heard about a program sponsored by KQED, the Bay Area television and radio Public Broadcast Service (PBS), calling on people to write letters to departed ancestors who had immigrated from their countries of origin to California.
Titled “Letter to My California Dreamer,” the PBS project continues to solicit letters asking people to share the stories of their family histories and the struggles that made for a better life among their descendants.
“I wrote my letter and sent it to KQED,” Quesada said. “It went through some edits and I had to check content accuracy with my relatives before it was posted on the internet at the PBS (KQED) website.”
Quesada’s letter is visible on the KQED news site at www.kqed.org/news/11692512/letter-to-my-california-dreamer-from-japan-to-california-via-mexico
In the letter she thanks her grandfather Naoki Nakamura and grandmother Toshiko for making her life possible.
“I miss you ojiichan (means grandpa in Japanese),” Quesada said in the letter. “Your hard work and commitment paved the way for your descendants to realize our dreams. Many of us are still here in California. We’ve forged careers in government and military service, business, technology, journalism, academia, and pastoral ministry to name a handful.”
Naoki Nakamura passed away in 1987 at the age of 77. Quesada’s grandmother, Toshiko Nakamura lived to be 101 years old and passed away in September.
Quesada said her grandfather’s odyssey started early in the last century when he journeyed from Japan to Mexico after purchasing 10 acres of land in that country at the age of 19.
“He was the second son in a Japanese family,” she said. “The first (oldest) son in his family got what inheritance there was. So my grandfather had to immigrate to make a living.”
In 1924 the U.S. Government passed an immigration ban called the Johnson-Reed Act setting quota limits on allowing immigrants. It was targeted at preventing Japanese immigration to the U.S.
“My grandfather was on his way to Mexico to start a new business, but when he got there he found he had been swindled, someone stole his legal business papers,” Quesada said. “He had paid $1,000 to get started and had been cheated.”
Later Naoki Nakamura found work as a fisherman in Mexico and a field laborer picking fruit in the San Joaquin Valley of California.
He was able to remain in California during the 1930’s and moved to San Francisco to live with a friend where he would meet his future wife Toshiko. She had been born in California and as a young girl was sent to Nagoya, Japan to be educated in that country.
She returned to the U.S. at the age of 18.
“My grandmother was a school girl who lived in a big house as hired help for a wealthy family in San Francisco,” Quesada said. “Part of her job was to bring them breakfast in bed. She could go to school when she wasn’t working for the family. She was 18 but her English was poor so they put her in a fourth grade class.”
Quesada’s grandparents met at a party in San Francisco for young people organized by an aunt. After the party her grandfather protectively escorted Toshiko through the night to catch a ride on a cable car so she could return to her residence.
They married and in 1939 their first child was born.
With their savings they bought a dry cleaning business located on Union Street in San Francisco, and lived in an apartment above the business.
In 1942 during World War II the U.S. Government decided to lock up 120,000 Japanese and Japanese American citizens living along the West Coast under suspicion of treachery. Quesada’s grandparents were sent to the Topaz War Relocation Center, a barbed-wire-enclosed prison in Utah.
“They lost their home and business,” Quesada said. “After the war they were released, but my grandparents felt uncomfortable returning to California, so they moved to Chicago and opened another drycleaners.”
In 1960 they returned to California moving to Palo Alto.
Their daughter, Quesada’s mother Mildred, would grow up to marry her father Nand Prasad, a native of India.
“I come from a multi-cultural background,” Quesada said. “My parents met in San Francisco and later moved to San Diego where I was born. My father worked in the semiconductor industry holding senior management positions. My mother was a home maker and worked in child care.”
Later the family moved to Sunnyvale.
Quesada attended UC Davis studying international relations and went on to San Jose State where she did graduate work in linguistics and language development.
“I speak a little Japanese,” she said. “After graduate school for a time I lived in Turkey where I taught English as a foreign language.”
She also taught English at a church in Macau, a region on the Chinese coast near Hong Kong. She returned to the U.S. and taught English as a second language (ESL) at Foothill College (Los Altos Hills) and Canada College (Redwood City).
In the early 2000’s Quesada took a job working for the Asia Foundation in San Francisco, an international development organization.
Currently she lives in Redwood City and is married to her husband Ramon, a Filipino American doctor of physical medicine, rehabilitation and neuroscience for Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City. The two have an eight-year-old son, Kenzo.
Quesada said her mother and many of her mother’s friends lived to reach the age of 100 or more and credited it partly to the traditional Japanese diet.
“Back in the old days they didn’t have a lot of money to eat out and they didn’t eat a lot of processed food,” she said. “They would drink green tea and eat fish and nori, that’s seaweed.”
Growing up half Japanese and half Indian Quesada said she had a bi-cultural diet at home with meals.
“One day we would have scrambled eggs for breakfast in the Japanese style with soy sauce and green onions, and the next day Indian style, an omelet with cumin (spice),” she said.
Quesada’s letter to her grandfather aired on the KQED website on September 14. Seven days later her grandmother passed away.
“It was really special for me,” Quesada said. “I was grateful she (grandmother) was still alive when the letter was featured.”
Quesada said she appreciates KQED for its program letting people thank their ancestors for their contributions and for the chance to record personal family history in the form of a letter.
“I think what KQED is doing is very important,” she said. “We need to realize the contributions immigrants have made to this country and what they went through. My grandmother was an American citizen yet she was sent to a desert prison camp during World War II. I’m grateful to get the message out to the broader public about what immigrants have meant to America.”
For information on the KQED Letters to My California Dreamer program go to www.kqed.org/news/tag/letters-to-my-california-dreamer
Caption: Sonia’s grandparents Toshiko Nakamura (L) and Naoki (R), in their San Francisco apartment on Union St, 1937. (Courtesy Sonia Prasad Quesada)
Correction about Sonia’s father work positions.