Building bridges, breaking barriers

Henry Oyama oversees historical milestones

By Steve Choice

Henry “Hank” Oyama shares scrapbook memories at his Tucson home.

Most people never make history once in their lives. Then there’s Henry “Hank” Oyama, who oversaw two watershed events and much more during his remarkable life.

Thanks in large part to Oyama, people of different races may now legally marry in Arizona.

He also had a major hand in establishing bilingual education programs in the United States, both in the public school system and at the college level.

Far from resting on his laurels, the wise and gregarious elder statesman continues his lifelong commitment to the betterment of the Hispanic community.

Oyama is president-elect and a co-founder of Amigos de Pima Community College, an organization of community leaders and educators that awards scholarships to Spanish-speaking students through the PCC Foundation.

The group will hold its annual luncheon on Thursday, May 27, at 11:30 a.m. in the cafeteria at Desert Vista Campus to honor this year’s 14 scholarship recipients and their families.

Oyama, born in Tucson in 1926, is of Japanese descent. He grew up in a Mexican-American barrio on the south side of town, speaking only his mother’s native Spanish until he attended grade school.

Though she was born in Hawaii, Oyama’s mother grew up in Mexico, and the future scholar’s self-identification as part of the Latino community was born.

Even as a young boy, Oyama displayed personal drive.

He manned a street corner during the Depression, hawking newspapers to passersby to help his family make ends meet. When he was 10, his mother bought him a bike and Oyama secured a full-fledged paper route.

“Oh, yes,” Oyama said with a laugh. “That bicycle was really a big thing for me. I was able to help my family even more with the route.”

Oyama’s surroundings changed drastically in 1942, as he and his family were sent to a Japanese-American internment camp at Poston, Ariz., for 16 months.

Far from being embittered at his country’s treatment, Oyama responded by joining the U.S. Army in 1945, as World War II entered its final stages.

The 19-year-old private’s linguistic skills were put to effective use as a counter-intelligence agent in Panama.

“We were keeping our eyes on Germans trying to sabotage the Panama Canal, but mainly we were tracking communists there,” Oyama said of his time in Central America. “That was at the dawn of the Cold War.”

Following WWII’s conclusion, Oyama attended the University of Arizona as an Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadet.

He earned his Master of Arts in education in 1953. From there, he began his career as an educator at Pueblo High School, where he taught Spanish and history.

In 1959, Oyama did something no one had ever done before in Arizona: he attempted to marry outside his race.

He and Mary Ann Jordan, a white woman, became the Arizona American Civil Liberties Union’s first clients.

Their legal challenge to a state statute banning interracial marriage eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. The country’s highest court declared the law unconstitutional, and Oyama and his young bride blazed a trail that many would follow.

“We had very well-prepared attorneys working for us,” Oyama said. “They all went on to great things in their lives.”

But Oyama wasn’t done helping shape America, as the ‘60s brought strident calls for civil rights.

In 1966, Oyama teamed with local colleagues Adalberto “Beto” Guerrero, María Urquides, Rosita Cota, Martina García de Durán-Cerda and Paul Streiff to publish a landmark study, “The Invisible Minority.”

The groundbreaking work, commissioned by the National Education Association, called for country-wide bilingual education programs.

It also shed light on the psychological and educational realities of Spanish-speaking schoolchildren in the Southwest.

“We said ‘invisible’ because most people in the country thought of Latinos as almost a regional group,” Oyama said. “Unlike today, many Americans thought of Hispanics as part of a far-off group of people that had nothing to do with them.”

The study’s research focused on young Hispanics’ educational experiences in five southwestern states, and quickly caught the attention of Texas Sen. Ralph Yarborough. Yarborough spearheaded a congressional effort to enact federal legislation establishing and funding bilingual education programs.

Yarborough’s work came to fruition in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act into law.

Oyama became director of the fledgling bilingual and international studies program at PCC in 1970. He rose through the PCC ranks as an administrator, attaining the position of associate vice president before retiring in 1992.

Even in retirement, Oyama furthers his vision of greater self-awareness in the Latino community.

He has received numerous awards honoring his contributions, including Pima County Man of the Year in 1993. A new Tucson elementary school was named for him in 2003.

PCC Chancellor Roy Flores called Oyama a “guiding force” who has helped more than 150 students receive scholarships through the Hispanic Student Endowment Fund.

“Amigos de Pima has raised more than $315,000 for the Hispanic Student Endowment Fund, ensuring that the College will be giving scholarships for many years to come,” Flores said.

Oyama’s life experiences have been as varied as they’ve been historical, but the educator’s goal isn’t to bring attention to himself.

“Well…things happen,” Oyama said of the events he’s been a part of. “I’ve just always wanted to do my part to build bridges in whatever I’ve done.”

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