With a Japanese heritage and a Mexican upbringing, Henry “Hank” Oyama is all American.
Oyama, of Oro Valley, has crossed racial divides, challenged laws and changed the nature of bilingual education, but the humble 85-year-old gives the credit to his country and the three women who have influenced him most.
With both his parents coming from a Japanese heritage, Oyama may look like he’s from Japan, but his primary language is Spanish, and his secondary language is English.
“My father died when my mother was five months pregnant, so I never knew him. I never learned Japanese,” said Oyama. “My mother grew up in Mexico. After her mother died, her father, who was Japanese, decided that he wanted to move to Mexico. She grew up as a Mexican girl.”
Oyama’s story begins with his mother, a woman he credits for instilling in him the principle that has guided his life.
“She used to say in Spanish, ‘Don’t worry, my son, there’s nothing bad that happens but for some good reason.’ My life has been a series of experiences that came up. I don’t really know if there was a pattern that was predestined, but I think many things that happened turned out in the long run to be for the best.”
After his father died, Oyama and his older sister were raised by their mother in a Mexican barrio.
“I grew up learning Spanish first because that’s all I heard,” he said. “It became my first language. Because my mother felt more comfortable around Spanish speakers, I grew up like a Mexican-American boy.”
However, despite the Mexican-American upbringing, it was his Japanese heritage that caused the Oyama family to face stiff American judgment in the 1940s.
When Oyama was 15, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
Oyama, his mother and sister, and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans were sent to relocation camps, where they were ordered to stay until the end of the war or they found work in another part of the country.
After 16 months in the relocation camp in Poston, Ariz., Oyama’s mom found employment in Missouri. His older sister stayed at the camp with her fiancé, and Oyama and his mother moved on to Kansas City.
For two years, Oyama worked with his mother at the Aluminum Company of America, making aircraft parts, until he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
After being forced into relocation camps, and moving across the country, Oyama said he wasn’t angry about being drafted. Instead, he was excited to serve.
“I always wanted to be in uniform. When you’re a kid and all the movies show guys in uniform flying planes with all the beautiful ladies chasing after them, you want to join,” he said.
Oyama said he would have joined willingly before he was 18, but his mother would not sign off so he could wear a uniform to catch girls.
However, the romantic images of the war portrayed in the movies were far from the reality Oyama would face.
Because of his heritage, the military assumed he spoke Japanese. After basic training, he was transferred to the Military Intelligence Service-Language School. He was ordered to brush up on Japanese to become an interpreter in the South Pacific.
“I told them they didn’t understand. I don’t speak Japanese. I speak Spanish,” he said. “They thought I was just trying to get out of service. I told them they would have to assign an interpreter to me. They sent me anyway. After four months they said, ‘you’re right, you don’t speak Japanese, but you speak Spanish.’”
After admitting the error, the military recognized the benefit of Oyama’s Spanish skills, and he was sent to encounter intelligence training.
“Again, it’s like my mother said, everything happens for a good reason,” he said. “Speaking Spanish saved my behind. I learned we need people in the military who have good command of other languages.”
Oyama served 24 years in the U.S. military, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
In 1947, while remaining on active duty, Oyama and his mother returned to Tucson, where he enrolled for classes at the University of Arizona.
Oyama was able to earn a degree thanks to the GI Bill, which was established in 1944. As a reward for service, the GI Bill helps soldiers pay for college.
“One special lesson that we all should learn is that we are very fortunate that we are Americans,” he said. “Being sent to an interment camp in the long run turned out for the best. The government drafted me, but it turned out for the best. Especially for the GI Bill. It’s one of the most important civil rights that Americans have.”
Oyama earned a bachelor’s degree in education and studied Spanish. He started his 40-year teaching career at local schools teaching American history and Spanish.
In 1953, Oyama met his first wife Mary Ann, but getting married wasn’t easy since Arizona was one of 20 states with a law prohibiting interracial marriage.
Wanting to change the law, Oyama said he and his future wife became the first case taken by the American Civil Liberties Union.
With Mary Ann being a stewardess for American Airlines, and him being a captain in the military, a teacher of American History and Spanish, Oyama said the ACU knew they were the model couple to challenge such a law.
“I wasn’t looking for a cause or anything,” Oyama said. “I was just pushed into it. I just wanted to get married.”
The battle was taken to the Supreme Court, but before an official ruling could be made, the Arizona Legislature eliminated the law, allowing Oyama and Mary Ann to wed legally.
The couple had one daughter, who died of cancer at the age of 2. They then adopted four children.
Mary Ann died in 1987. Four years later, Oyama married Laura Oyama, who added five children of her own to his diverse family.
“My life was really guided by three women,” Oyama explained. “My mother, my late wife and my present wife. Women are really the survivors in this world. They sometimes do things that are maybe seen like no big deal, but actually, that’s what makes the difference in a person’s life. I think a lot of things in my life were the result of wise thinking.”
While Oyama may credit the women in his life for most of his accomplishments, many would say he is the one who is wise when it came to his impact on education in Tucson and the nation.
Again, taking what many would see as a problem, Oyama took on the need for more funding for bilingual education as an opportunity to make a difference.
Oyama, along with colleagues, conducted a survey in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico on the successes of bilingual-education programs.
The survey results turned into a report known as “The Invisible Minority” in 1966. Lawmakers took notice of the report, creating the federal Bilingual Education Act of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968.
After teaching at Pueblo High School until 1970, Oyama went on to serve as the Pima Community College director for bilingual and international studies, and later became associate dean of the program in 1978. In 1989, he was appointed a vice president at the college. He retired in 1991 and was named vice president emeritus.
Receiving the highest honor any educator can receive, Oyama also had a school named after him. In 2003, the Oyama Elementary School opened in his honor in Tucson.
Now retired, Oyama, the 2001 Tucson Man of the Year, spends his days at the Fairwinds-Desert Point Retirement Community in Oro Valley.