By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Editor-in-Chief
“I’m not used to that. 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 Los Angeles City Council on August 16.
“Today I stand here before you, a very happy, very proud and very grateful man. I thank the members of the council for their participation in bringing this document to fruition for me and for Nisei Week of course,” said Reyes said.
Reyes, also honored as a Nisei Week Pioneer, has been recognized for his work documenting important and routine historical events across Los Angeles, particularly for the Japanese American community.
Council member Kevin DeLeon, who introduced the motion, said: “Through the power of his lens and the artistry of his photography, Mario has ensured that the history of the Japanese-American community is recognized. , appreciated and preserved.”
Reyes was born in Mexico City and immigrated with his family to Los Angeles 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 Rafou as a senior at Roosevelt High School.
DeLeon joked that Reyes was a wide receiver, while board member Gilbert Cedillo played quarterback for the Roosevelt Rough Riders. In fact, the two did not play football together, despite both being Roosevelt alumni.
Cedillo hailed Reyes’ story as an example of how Boyle Heights embodies the American dream, where people of all ethnicities grow up and live together. The council member said his immediate neighbors were Japanese Americans and he often hand-delivered their copy of The Rafou for them.
“Mario Reyes, let me thank you for embodying the Boyle Heights experience that you and I grew up with,” Cedillo said. “Where we lived with Japanese Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, we started calling each other Chicanos, Russians, Italians, Armenians. We all lived together. Chinese Americans. We all lived together like children, ignoring the differences, like 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 from Nagoya, Japan’s twin city of Los Angeles, who were in town for Nisei Week.
As a photo editor, Reyes developed a tradition of photojournalism that began with Toyo Miyatake, who often took pictures for The Rafou. Reyes built a darkroom in the old Rafu building on Los Angeles Street, where he printed photos and trained young photographers in composition, light, depth of field and other techniques.
Among the many events 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; Japanese American veterans; the Heart Mountain resisters; and Nisei Week.
His story is documented in Steve Nagano’s 2017 short “More Than a Thousand Words”. Nagano and his wife, Patty, both Nisei Week Inspiration Award winners, were among the guests at the council meeting.
Afterwards, Reyes shared the following message:
Thank you for your part in making this honor come true and thank you for your public service.
I would also like to thank 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 adviser of 14e District, Kevin DeLeon Thanks a lot for this honor.
I’ve lived in two cultures my whole life, crossing the Sixth Street Bridge between Boyle Heights and Little Tokyo, or as we elders called it, J-Town every day.
I learned quickly to take a liking to Japanese food or starve.
For the past 40 years I have worked for The Rafu Shimpo …The Los Angeles Japanese Daily News.= We’re 119 and we’re still going. I was his photo editor for those 40 years.
It has been an honor and a privilege to work 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 confidence in telling your stories.
Today, my editor, my colleague and my friend is here to report on me. Gwen Muranaka, thank you!
Finally, I would like to thank the board members of Koreisha Chushoku Kai and especially Darlene Kuba, my classmate from Roosevelt High School, for her kindness and friendship, and of course Bill Fujioka, Darlene’s husband. Even if he went to Montebello High, I won’t hold it against him. Thanks to you two.