Building a Foundation for Diversity and Inclusion – Ballico Taiko

By Chris Kubo. Introduction by Wendy C. Horikoshi. Posted June 20, 2022.

East Wind ezine wishes to thank Wendy Horikoshi for allowing us to print this article from her April 2022 newsletter associated with her consultant practice, Transformative Leadership.

Dear Clients, Colleagues and Friends,

I’ve asked Chris Kubo, head the youth taiko group with Ballico School in California to be a guest writer. Ballico is a diverse town and having Chris write about the arts group during “Celebrate Diversity Month” seems appropriate. In reading Chris’ “thoughts,” I have learned more about the cultural history of Ballico School, where I attended the 5th through 8th grades. I hadn’t realized that Ballico School began as one which was primarily Japanese American. Chris believes that it was not a segregated school, however, I do remember my dad saying that they started Ballico for the Cortez community as Japanese Americans began to move to this community. Mr. Abiko, a newspaper owner in San Francisco, had purchased the land and encouraged Japanese laborers to move there. Throughout my childhood I had noticed strong Japanese American parent participation within the schools, as well as through the initiation and leadership of sports within the summer community programs. The secretary of the school was Japanese American as was the head cook. Interestingly enough, when my mother went to speak with the principal of the school to mention that the city of the school district where she worked was holding a “career fair,” all of the Ballico upper grades went on a field trip to visit it. My mom was surprised that something she had said was listened to and acted upon so very quickly. This was in a time when most parents were reluctant to speak with the administration. I know I have benefited from this mindset of “belonging” and it gave me confidence to strive to develop leadership skills.

First Class of Ballico School, 1924 . Photo courtesy of Chris Kubo.

Taiko is a part of the school curriculum at Ballico School. Arts education can enhance the development of different parts of the brain and also build community and respect for culture and the arts. Engaging in the arts can help us discover and share our own stories.

I first saw the Ballico Taiko while attending the Japanese American Cortez community’s celebration of “Obon,” where ancestors are remembered and the public joins in with the dancing. During the program, I was struck seeing Latinx, Asian and White students seriously, passionately and proudly playing Japanese drums. Art, at its best evokes an emotional response. I felt moved and especially touched by such diverse participation. The students also danced, as did many of their family members. The drummers and their families knew the dances better than I did! It was evident that this annual event, which was formerly observed by the Japanese American population has helped the larger community to grow and to become a more vibrant and inclusive community.

For this month’s “thoughts,” see below, or for current and previous entries go to my website: http://www.transformativeleadership.net/thoughts.html. I’d love to hear your comments and reactions.

Please note that the phone number to reach me is (510) 913-4434. The (510) 769 number is no longer active. – Wendy C. Horikoshi.

Ballico is a tiny rural community in the northern part of Merced County, almost in Stanislaus County. On a clear day, you can see Half Dome in Yosemite from parts of our area. In the neighboring community of Cortez, just three miles north of Ballico, is a Japanese American settlement that started in 1919 with 17 families. As the years and generations passed, there are fewer Japanese Americans living here, but our community remains intact.

At Ballico School, established in 1924, the photo of the students at Ballico that year were predominantly Japanese American with a few European American students. Now our students are about 50% European American, with about 40% + Latinx, and less than 10% African American, Asian American. The majority of the parents are in agriculture related occupations or living on farms.

My husband, Dan, attended Ballico School with his siblings and cousins, as well as his father and his father’s siblings. In the school photo from 1924, my father-in-law is the one in the front row with the scowled face when he was 10 years-old. Our children all attended Ballico School, and, now, we hope that our granddaughter will attend Ballico as well.

Dan and I met at San Jose State University and worked together in establishing an Asian American Studies program at the University and then moved onto implementing our studies to be in the community and work in the community. As we became acquainted with the Japantown community in San Jose, we developed a deep appreciation for the support from the church organizations and the elders in the community. Despite our appearance (long hair, jeans, etc.), they accepted us into their churches and homes to help develop programs that would benefit the community. We pounded mochi, served soup, and entertained at community gatherings. Then we decided to go “home,” return to our roots, and be a part of our historic community.

Current Ballico Elementary School Youth Taiko, 2021-22. Photo courtesy of Chris Kubo.

Within the Japanese American community in San Jose, a taiko group was starting around the same time Dan and I decided to return to Cortez. Although we wanted to become part of this group, learning taiko would be put on hold, as our return to the farm would involve all of our time and energy.

In 1990, Rev. Dave Matsumoto started a taiko program at the Buddhist Church of Stockton, of which Cortez is an affiliate. We were able to start playing in 1995. Our three younger children played taiko along with me and passed on the interest in taiko to their friends at Cortez as well as to Ballico School community. In 2003, four students, including our youngest son, played taiko at their eighth-grade graduation at Ballico School. Two years later, three students, Jesus, Esmeralda, and Evette, approached me and asked if they could learn to play taiko to perform at their graduation. They worked diligently with me and played their hearts out at their graduation.

Taiko is a way to have a voice: it is animated and spirited. More than anything else, it is a vehicle of expression. At Ballico School, all students are encouraged to write a speech to enter the county speech festival as well as write an essay or poem to enter into the county writing festival. All students are encouraged to participate in sports and other activities as long as their grades are reasonable. Taiko is our music program for Transitional Kindergarten through second grade. It is considered a music and motion class which incorporates music with physical education. Towards the end of the school year, we hold a recital. For the third through eighth grade students, taiko is offered as an afterschool club. We have three levels: beginning, intermediate, and performers. We meet for practice together on Wednesday afternoons; warm up and drill together, then split into level groups with the performers helping the beginners and intermediates. The beginning and intermediate classes end after an hour, then the performing group continues for another hour to develop new skills, as well as prepare lessons for the next week. Additionally, we hold a weekly 30-minute session with Special Needs students.

When taiko developed in North America, it soon became a voice for Japanese Americans; a way to express ourselves with movement, voice, and sound. It was powerful and liberating! I wanted that power and liberation for our students; a way to express themselves. Regardless of who we are, taiko gave us the power to move and be heard. At our school, taiko is a means of empowerment.

In 2022, our group in Ballico is predominantly Latinx, with a handful of European Americans, no Asians. There are students whose parents were my students “back in the day.” There are families who have multiple children going through the program. We have an Ensemble group consisting of high school and college students who played with us in the past and want to continue. Although we meet online the majority of the time, we get together in-person occasionally.

Taiko Performing Group, July, 2019. Photo courtesy of Chris Kubo.

Eleven members of our performing group attended and performed at the North American Taiko Conference held in Portland, Oregon in 2019. They were rather hesitant about performing, especially since half of them had attended a previous conference in San Diego and knew the magnitude of performing at such a venue. They worked diligently at designing heartfelt performance with the help of Kristy Oshiro, a professional taiko player and instructor. The Ballico Taiko played beautifully. Their song, Okagesamade (thanks to all who came before us), expressed gratitude to all who made our lives possible: the Native peoples, immigrants, and laborers. As their teacher, it is the okagesamade attitude that I would like our students to embody: appreciation of all of our forebearers while playing with exuberance and joy!

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Author’s Bio: Chris Kubo grew up in Japan, born to a Japanese American father and a Japanese mother. She attended DOD (Department of Defense) Schools through high school and came stateside to attend college. She met Dan Kubo at San Jose State University and worked as a student activist. In 1974, Chris moved with Dan to farm the family ranch. Chris raised five children, taught kindergarten through eighth grades as well as served as Resource Specialist at Ballico-Cressey School District for 30 years.

©Wendy C. Horikoshi and Chris Kubo,2022, wendy@transformativeleadership.net

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