We drove through downtown Oxnard for a look. It was no tourist destination like downtown Ventura or Santa Barbara; it was Mexicanized.
Was it always like that? Two old guys talked in the shade by the dumpster behind Asahi Market. The back door was open for ventilation. We went inside to check it out. It had bowls, sacks of rice, prepackaged mochi, a long meat case with one partial octopus in it, a Chicano guy slicing sukiyaki beef.
It turns out the market had been in the area for more than a century. Even through internment and relocation during World War 2. It was one of several local businesses to do so. Most Japantown businesses like these had been forcibly taken and the original owners dispersed. In Oxnard you could walk back in time and purchase historical ume from the cold case for $2.99. I also bought kim chi and a can of green tea.
I doubted somehow that the original owners still operated the place. But it was clear from the customers coming and going—not a lot, but several—that the Asian community, including young Asian women, were loyal customers.
We walked around the aisles smelling the smells of nostalgia and weird old feelings of the past, which has been so abruptly and totally swept aside everywhere else. The Asahi Market does sell Korean black rice.
I was curious so I drove around the plaza with its music bandstand and viejos sitting in the shade and people who seemed like alcoholics sleeping in the sun or discussing life on the grass, jabbing with cigarettes to emphasize points. Young people were walking around; older Mexicanos in Stetsons stood in the shade of buildings, talking on cell phones.
It said “Otani Fish Market” on the outside, but the meat cases were empty and plastered over with drawings by small children testifying to their love for Otani fried fish. At some point in the last couple decades the old fish market changed over into a fried fish restaurant. Chicanos from the neighborhood were eating shrimp “Mexican style” cocktails and fried fish plates with white “Japanese rice” and green salad.
The Otani establishment and family went back at least to the 1920s in this area, when Itzuko ‘Izzy’ Otani started this business. Like the Asahi Market, it too had survived somehow the decades of discrimination, forced relocation and racism. How had it?
Next to the door to the kitchen area, Otani’s had old photos framed on the wall, including one of Itzuko Otani on a jury in the 1920s. A couple of the other jurors seemed to be Chicano and the rest white. Itzuko Otani died in 1999.
We had ‘Mexican style’ cocktails, sitting next to a gravelly voiced leathery couple where the guy was talking loud (it sounded like he’d done a lot of jail time) and his woman was a tough bird too. They lowered their voices when we sat down at the old school formica tables with attached bench seats, bolted to the floor.
I enjoyed my cocktail (though it appeared like the fried fish items might be the main strength of the place, you could buy a to go platter of dozens of pieces of salmon or other fish for $20 to $30. We were just taking in the atmosphere of the place; it’s not every day you can walk in and out of 1965 or 1970. These old Nisei places are long gone, replaced by new style Nihonjin or Korean fancier sushi eateries.
It looked like an old fish market inside, that was trying to be a sort of sit down restaurant. Transition partially made into the 21sty century, partly not. You could park your vehicle under big dirty ficus trees breaking the sidewalk on the side street and walk in off the street into a moment of another time. What’s that worth to you?
It was at least 90 degrees outside, so we sat well away from the windows. The space was big inside, but no air conditioning, through the blowers or fans must have been on in the kitchen. A crew of four young Chicanas perhaps supervised by the older woman cooking ran the place. She might’ve been hapa.
California has a racist history partially acknowledged in memorial commemorations like the mural in China Alley on Ventura’s north side of town, which commemorates the Chinese community driven out many decades ago. Across the alley from the mural, a storefront Ventura firefighters museum includes a photograph of the Chinese firefighters company, which was formed of Chinese volunteers because white men refused to fight fires in Chinatown, although the plaque said that “the Chinese voluntarily fought fires throughout the town and were often the first ones to arrive.”
The farm fields where Japanese and Mexican farm workers toiled and sometimes jointly organized are now covered in ugly blocks of tract housing and condos. The railroad tracks on the south side of town still bisect downtown Oxnard from a neighborhood of small houses behind the big Sunkist packing plant, but I could not tell whether either the plant nor the railroad line functioned any more. It looked doubtful. Our time was up, we headed out to the beach.
I sped north on Oxnard Blvd (Pacific Coast Highway 1) feeling, as usual, semi-uncomfortable to feel like I had been looking at the past, walking around in the past. Maybe by driving fast to Ventura, I could get away.