CELEBRATING CULTURE & COMMUNITY HISTORY PROJECT: Ernest and Chizu Iiyama
Celebrating Culture & Community is putting together interviews
of 25 El Cerrito residents, a project aimed at showing the diverse communities
that have contributed to the city's history.
The interviews have been made possible largely through support from
the California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National
Endowment for the Humanities.
For more information about Celebrating Culture & Community , contact
Eve Ma at 236-3255 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Following is one of the interviews:
Date: 11/17/99 Interviewer: Eve A. Ma (Dr. L. Eve Armentrout Ma,
NOTE: With one exception, the interviewer did not try to distinguish
which one answered which questions, since often, both would contribute
to the same answer. See the tape for more information. In general, the
Iiyamas talked about El Cerrito and the interviewer did her best to note
down what they said.
Q: How long have you lived in El Cerrito?
A: Since 1969. We moved here from the Richmond Annex. We lived on Orchard
St., which is across from El Cerrito Lumber, starting in the late 1950s.
Before that, it was Berkeley.
Chizu: I was in the camps during World War II, then in New York, then
Chicago. My sister lived in the East Bay, in Berkeley, and she reminded
me that the weather out here was great, so we moved back.
Chizu was born in San Francisco, Ernie was born in Oakland. They met
in the camps; in Topaz, Utah.
It was dificult to buy houses right after World War II. We lived in lower
Berkeley. It was hard. Even though restrictive covenants were illegal,
it was hard to buy.
Chizu’s family lived in the Bay Area, in Berkeley. Ernest' family was
Chizu's sister was a real estate agent, and found them a house in El
Cerrito [in 1969].
When they moved to West County, the Richmond annex was already built
up. El Cerrito was middle class in the late 1950s, early 1960s.
Neither one of them worked in El Cerrito. Chizu worked in Richmond and
San Pablo. She first worked for Richmond Adult Education, then for Contra
Costa College. Ernest worked in Berkeley, then Oakland. In Berkeley, he
worked for a machine shop. Then, he worked in Berkeley at the Co-op, then
he went into computers and worked at Safeway. At one point, he was worksing
for Safeway in Fremont.
El Cerrito has been a good place to live, and the schools were good (said
Chizu's sister), and discrimination was less when they first moved to
El Cerrito. But still, they were the first Asians on their block.
When they lived in the Richmond Annex, their area was comfortable to
live in and there were inter-racial and several Japanese families in the
As for the Richmond/El Cerrito area Japanese-American owned nurseries---the
principal families were the Adachis and the Oshimas. The Oshimas were
at San Pablo and Cutting. They grew flowers. They now live up in El Cerrito
and have been here since the early 1900’s. They used to own the land where
the old Food Bowl is, and may still own it.
Chizu at one point was on the Richmond Human Relations Commission, then
later she was on the El Cerrito Human Relations Commission and was its
chair in the late 1980s and/or early 1990s.
Q: How would you characterize El Cerrito?
A: It is a good place to live, there's a lot of neighborliness, and our
children were happy and comfortable. [Their children are now grown. ED]
Ernest was on the ad-hoc committee which helped create the El Cerrito
Human Relations Commission. (Others who were on it were Charles Lewis,
Don West, Harrison Rhynes.)
El Cerrito has a participatory city government which is sensitive to
its population. El Cerrito has a "small town" feel. People know each other
and its quiet (but there's not much of a tax base).
Q: How has El Cerrito changed in the time you've been in the area?
A: Chizu notes that they were the only Asians on the block when they
first moved in, but now, there are lots of Asians. They came because the
city is nice, quiet, and a residential community. The city has lots more
diversity now than when they first moved here.
Ernest notes that also, most residents now are elderly. When they came,
there were families here, people that had children at home--at least had
teenagers, if not younger children. But very recently, there have been
a few younger couples moving into the city.
Q: What is the relationship of El Cerrito to the surrounding area?
Ernest noted that there were not that many shops, not that much business.
Chizu used to shop in El Cerrito plaza, now has to go out to Hilltop,
and other places.
For groceries, they shop in El Cerrito. They go to a pharmacy in El Cerrito.
For relaxation and cultural things, they mostly go to Berkeley. Occasionally,
thety will go to the Contra Costa Civic Theater, or to something at Contra
Costa College or at Masquer's Playhouse.
As for restaurants, when they go out to eat, they mostly go to restaurants
in El Cerrito (mostly to Chinese or Japanese restaurants), and to restaurants
on Solano Ave., including to Walker's Pie Shop, and sometimes to an Italian
restaurant and French Resturant.
Their medical plan is with Kaiser, Richmond.
Q: Is there any place in this area where you don't feel comfortable
going? If so, why?
A: They like Solano Ave.. They don't like to go to 4th Street
in Berkeley because you can't park. They have gone all over every place
Q: Tell me something about the Japanese American community in El Cerrito
and this area.
A: It is fairly large, proportionally large. Many are members of the
Contra Costa County JACL [Japanese American Citizens' League]. Ernest
is a past president of the Contra Costa County JACL. Chizu is especially
active in the National Japanese American Historical Society, over in San
The local JACL chapter has about 500 members. The majority of them live
in El Cerrito.
There are a number of Japanese American churches in El Cerrito. All have
been established since the end of World War II. On Potrero, there's the
East Bay Methodist Church. (It's on the other side of the freeway.) Then,
there's the Sycamore Church. It used to be located on Sycamore Street
in Oakland, which is where it gets its name. It's near Portola Middle
School. And there's the Berkeley United church. It's been here since the
late 1930s, in the pre-World War II period. Lots of people stayed there
when they came out of the camps. The church provided them a place to stay.
[This church is located in Berkeley, but it serves many people in El Cerrito's
Japanese-American community. ED]
As for politics in El Cerrito, there are passionate politicans, and lots
of interaction, democratic elections.
El Cerrito's Japanese American community got established because Japanese
American real estate people led the way during the post-World War II period.
Before World War II, there was a small Japanese-American community. In
the east bay area, there were athletic leagues, church organizations and
a baseball team. The bsaeball team didn't have a formal name.
The most important community organizations for the local Japanese American
community are the JACL branch, and the churches.
Q: What do you think will happen to El Cerrito's Japanese American
community in the future?
A: It will stabilize (since the schools have problems, and the younger
people with children aren't coming into the area). But there will probably
be a continued growth in the city's Asian population, especially of Chinese,
and also of Southeast Asians.
Q: What changes would you make if you had a magic wand? What do you
especially like, or dislike, about El Cerrito?
Shopping and traffic, especially the traffic on the freeways (cut down
on it) and El Cerrito Plaza for shopping (something should be done to
Chizu was also surprised to learn that there are homeless in El Cerrito,
and is concerned about homeless people and wants more to be done for them.
Both of them like the farmers' market, and they like the fact that the
market has added the craft booths. They do not want a Walmart at El Cerrito
Both of them like the diversity you find in El Cerrito. They would to
go to Sizzler in El Cerrito for that reason--the clientele was diverse,
and they really liked that.
They like the July 4th celebration, they find the police and
fire departments very receptive, they like City Manager Gary Pokorny,
and they like the Earth Day celebration.
CELEBRATNG CULTURE & COMMUNITY
1900 International MarketPlace,
San Pablo, CA., 94806
(510) 236-3255; fax (510) 233-3068
Run dates: 2000-01-01 - 2000-02-01