Jan 6

The Heritage Series: Mouth of the Ocean

by Communications Specialist Bianca Sánchez (Hiroshima-ken ALT, 2016-2018). Bianca is an artist and writer whose creative works reflect mankind’s deep-rooted connection with the natural world. Visit her full portfolio here.

Mouth of the Ocean (2019)
Blue ink on paper, 9″ x 12″
Instagram: @artseabianca
Email: artseabianca@gmail.com

Mouth of the Ocean

by Bianca Berenice Sánchez on January 6, 2021

Over a century before my 15th birthday, a young Japanese boy had fled a leper colony that stood on the small island of Ōshima outside Kagawa, Japan. He was about my age when he escaped what would have been a terrible fate at the Ōshima Seishoen Sanatorium, an infirmary for leprosy patients established in 1909. Over the next four decades, Japan believed in ridding its society of “impurities”, sending officers to locate and exile anyone with the disease and their close relatives. Patients were treated like prisoners, disinfected with ice water, experimented on, and underwent unethical surgeries while isolated from society. Life on the small island was worse than death.

Knowing this, Casimiro sailed east into open waters without knowing if he would even survive, but that didn’t matter. Whatever was out there had to be better than Ōshima. The young man eventually found himself in México where he settled in the port town of Guaymas. This was his opportunity to reinvent himself, find work, and begin a new life. He first changed his name, erasing what he could of his Japanese identity and embracing México as his home. Over the years, he found work mining silver, constructing railroads, and growing little green chiles in his garden. He later married and started a family: three sons and a daughter named Blanca.

Blanca was my grandmother, and her father, my great-grandfather, was named Casimiro Ortiz. I was fifteen or so when my dad first told me this story. He only had bits and pieces of information, but I was astounded nonetheless. Up until then, I thought that I was nothing more than Mexican-American, my roots buried somewhere in the hot Sonoran Desert and prickly mountains of Chihuahua, México. I grew to appreciate my newfound roots and wanted to unravel them further.

Mouth of the Ocean (2019) is adapted from a photo I took in 2018 in Yamaguchi, Japan. I was with my colleague and friend, Nakamura-san, as we drove to the island of Suo-Oshima outside Yamaguchi, but not the one from my great-grandfather’s story. “Oshima” translates to “island”, and Japan has a lot of those. Nakamura-san knew about my family’s past, and before our trip, she revealed to me that many years ago, thousands of residents sailed east from Suo-Oshima to settle in Hawaii. There they prospered and built new lives for themselves – a story all too familiar. The small island now has a museum dedicated to those who left with an archive of family names and ages documented before leaving. There we hoped to discover Casimiro’s real name, but the trip proved unsuccessful.

In my drawing, I took creative license by adding the vines and flowers. I enjoy creating tiny details like these – they hypnotize me as I draw them. They also breathe some life and motion into the original image. You can see the breeze lifting some petals. You can almost taste the salty and sweet brine it carries.

Mouth of the Ocean represents an entry point to a strange yet familiar world. The firm stance of the Japanese torii gate reassures the viewer that whatever place sits beyond the sea, many have survived the journey there before just as many will survive it there after. Casimiro’s life remains shrouded in mystery, but the pieces of his story that I have push me to learn more about who he was and who I am. I may never find all the answers, but I will find myself.

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