Changing the Rules

Episode 67: No Matter the Odds, You Can Overcome, Lourdes Nicholls, guest

Episode Summary

In this episode of Changing the Rules, Lourdes Nicholls joins us to discuss some of her family's history. Lourdes highlights the struggles that her grandparents faced during their time at an incarceration camp during World War II, and how their lives drastically changed because of it. She tells us how she came to find out about this part of her family's history as a teenager and how it impacted not just her life but the lives of her family members. She is shedding light on historical events that weren't talked about. Lourdes's story truly showcases the power of overcoming adversity, even when the odds are against you.

Episode Notes

Guest Co-host:  Rebecca Hoffman:

Rebecca's Website:

Podcast Guest:  Lourdes Nicholls:



Kris Parsons 00:02

Welcome to changing the rules, a weekly podcast about people who are living their best life and how you can figure out how to do it too.  Join us with your lively host Ray Loewe, better known as the luckiest guy in the world.

Ray Loewe 00:16

The morning everybody and welcome to wildfire podcast studios in wonderful Woodbury, I got that wrong already Woodbury, New Jersey, and we are here with our engineer Taylor, who keeps us running smooth, and without him, we couldn't do these podcasts. So we have a couple of great guests today. And I think we need to make a comment before we get into our guests about the luckiest people in the world and remind everybody that they're the people who sit down and design their own lives, and who understand that things are going to change. And so they don't just design their own lives once, they constantly design their own lives, so that they can live their lives under their own terms, and live them being happy and content with where they're going. And we have two of the luckiest people in the world. Joining us in a minute. Let me bring on Rebecca Hoffman. Rebecca has been our guest host for the last month. And unfortunately Rebecca this is our last one, isn't it? Uh oh. So we're gonna have to do something about that. And Rebecca runs Good Egg Concepts. And every time I think about this, I get this image of Humpty Dumpty, but Humpty didn't fall off the wall. In this case, he's there. And he's intact. And, Rebecca designs, branding for people. And she is one of the best storytellers in the world. And best of all, one of the best people that help you craft stories. And we're going to craft another one today, aren't we, Rebecca?

Rebecca Hoffman01:53

Yes, we are. We have a great story to tell here today. And I'm excited for it.

Ray Loewe 01:58

Cool. Why don't you introduce our guest?

Rebecca Hoffman 02:00

Sure. Our guest today is Lourdes Nicholls, who I'm so proud to say is my friend, we met through some mutual work we were doing together. And as sometimes work will do when you're done with the work you get to talking about your life when you like somebody and we sat together one day and talked over coffee. And she told me a little bit of her life story, which really resonated with me because it was a story that's of personal interest to me privately. And I'm gonna let Lourdes tell the story. But I'm just gonna say that Lourdes is starting to devote and dedicate her life to greater understanding and education around the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. And I'm just delighted that Lourdes is going to take a little time with us to tell us about her family and kind of give us a sense of why this chapter in American history is profound and needs to be considered, especially in the moment we're in today. Lourdes, thanks for being here.

Lourdes Nicholls  02:57

Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored to be here. And I feel like the luckiest person to be part of a part of today and a part of you, and you've done so much to help me. So I appreciate you as much Rebecca.

Ray Loewe 03:12

Once you're on one of these podcasts, you're one of the luckiest people in the world whether you want to be or not, and you can't get out of it.

Lourdes Nicholls  03:20

Okay.  I'll take it.

Rebecca Hoffman 03:23

Maybe we should begin at the logical beginning. And maybe Lourdes tell us a little bit about your family. And if you don't mind, for the listeners who may not be as familiar Can you describe what the Japanese American incarceration was, it was previously referred to as internment. But that's not a term that's used anymore. And maybe you can sort of have a little background so we understand.

Lourdes Nicholls  03:43

Sure. So when I was growing up, I always knew that my mom was born in a Japanese what I called an internment camp at Manzanar during World War II. I know now that the word internment camp is really an outdated term, it's just not, not what it was. It was an incarceration camp. And it's, you know, taken time and understanding and really learning more and working on this, you know, researching my family that I've come to understand the terminology that was used at the time during World War II and the terminology that we know now. And what exactly was going on many of the words that were used during World War II were to shape this narrative about what was going on, I mean, two-thirds of the people that were incarcerated, the Japanese Americans were US citizens, you know, they were forcibly removed from their homes, and they were sent to places all over the country. They sold all of their belongings and, you know, basically had to rebuild their lives, you know, after the war. So Um, yeah, I mean, it's kind of depressing, actually. But, I mean, it's a sad piece that I was asked to do. I was in high school, I was required to do a family history project. And that's kind of how this ball got rolling. I was required to interview my grandparents. And that's really when this all started. So, you know, 1982.

Rebecca Hoffman 05:30

So you were living your family was living in Berkeley, California, you're a teenager in high school, going through all the things that teenagers go through, and you're asked to do a family history, like oral history type project, what did you uncover?

Lourdes Nicholls  05:44

You know, I, again, I knew kind of this term that my mom was born in the camp, but I didn't really know. I heard family members talking about camp, but I thought it was summer camp. Honestly. I didn't really get it. You know, I was 15 years old at the time. And just, you know, growing up, I guess. So what happened was, this project was a requirement. My mom and I flew to Los Angeles, where her parents were. And for the first time, I think, ever, my mom said, they talked about what they endured while living at Manzanar. And it just brought a lot of shame to my family. A lot of, you know, hard times for sure. Prior to World War II, my grandfather had quite a life, you know, and I think that really that whole experience, and even after the war, after World War II, he actually worked for the US government and was a translator for the war crimes trials, which by the way, is probably one of the most disturbing things you can probably do. I mean, really, I mean, it's just unbelievable the things that he did, and I think it really depressed him quite a bit.

Rebecca Hoffman07:07

So your grandfather, pre World War II, he had an interesting job. But then he ended up in California, could you tell us, I guess the part that really affected me was the work that he did before there was ever a war. And then your family had a garden center. I'm gonna kind of talk for a minute about what he was like, how he was an expert in something, and then how did that end up becoming something he was able to use to survive Manzanar.


Um, so long story short, my grandfather was not a US citizen. My grandmother was, he came to the United States in 1916. He came to Los Angeles. Long story short, in the early 1920s. He made his way to Chicago, and he went to school at the Art Institute of Chicago. And while he was there, he met a man named George Harding Jr., and George Harding, Jr. was probably one of the wealthiest people in Chicago at the time. I know he was the first person to own an automobile. He added his own airplane. He had a mansion in the Hyde Park area. And he collected Arms and Armor and art from all over the world. And he met my grandfather and was very interested in him and his background and hired him to be his curator of all of the medieval items that he had and paintings and my grandfather worked for George Harding Jr. From the mid-1920s until 1940. And during that time, my grandfather lived at the mansion. He met Presidents, Vice Presidents, he met Al Capone, he met lots of dignitaries who came to the museum, which by the way, was the house, you know, before the Field Museum and other places people had like Driehaus, you know, they had private collections in their own home, right. Yeah. So, yeah. So my grandfather worked there. And, you know, again, I have newspaper articles. I have all sorts of history about that. Um, the ironic thing is, you know, George Harding, Jr. died unexpectedly in 1939. And that's kind of when things started to fall apart with, you know, with what was going to happen with my grandfather's job. And my grandfather and grandmother ended up moving to Los Angeles. I will say there is a happy ending to the George Harding collection is currently visible at the Art Institute of Chicago for many people who know the Chicagoland area. It's Sir, it's a real gem. And my family, we feel very fortunate because my grandfather's albums of the photos were used to put the displays together. Many of the things they weren't, as you know, had they'd never seen photos from inside the mansion the way, my grandfather took them. So kind of a nice part of being a part of, you know, living in the Chicagoland area. It's kind of a nice piece of history for our family.

Rebecca Hoffman10:30

Well, and I can add, it's probably one of the most popular displays. That's where people go because art comes to life when you see the medieval armor and all the accessories. So your grandfather enjoyed this tremendous this rarefied life here and then he goes to Los Angeles with your grandmother, and they buy or form a garden center.Correct. 

Lourdes Nicholls  10:53

Right. So my grandfather could not find a job as a curator, you know, when he went to Los Angeles, I mean, it's kind of a unique job. Apparently, my grandfather was going to be a curator of a museum in Manchuria. But my grandmother's family who was from Los Angeles didn't think it was a good idea in 1940 to go. So the only thing that my grandfather could piece together was to become a gardener. And that's what a lot of Japanese Americans were doing at that time. So he opened a garden center in Culver City. And he, had that garden center until, you know, until he went to Manzanar on December 7, 1941, it was actually my grandparent's fifth wedding anniversary, because they were born out they were married on that date, in 1936. And I can only imagine that their five-year wedding anniversary was a complete nightmare. And it really wasn't what they were envisioning. And then within about two months, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which required all Japanese Americans whether or not they were American citizens or not living on the west coast, Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona to be sent to these incarceration centers.

Rebecca Hoffman12:30

Your family then had to make quick plans because there was no choice the government was going to force them to move. What did they do?

Lourdes Nicholls  12:39

Correct. So my grandfather, you know, my grandparents, from what I learned, had to sell everything or get rid of everything. And so they had to sell the nursery and the only person that they were able to find that was remotely interested in the nursery was the milkman who came to their house every day. My grandfather said, Are you interested? And he said, I only have $75. And so that's all that my grandfather got for the whole bird nursery. And Rebecca, you know, you've seen photos of it. I mean, it wasn't a small little shop. It was it was big. There was a pond. It was it gorgeous.

Rebecca Hoffman 13:20

Gorgeous plantings. Yeah, a little bit of a dream world. Yeah. So they got $75 for their family business. And they moved to Manzanar. Yeah. And yet, and I don't want to tell this part of the story, I  want you to tell it but yet when your grandparents get to Manzanar, your grandfather's still, in spite of this terribly adverse circumstance does something spectacular. What did he do there?

Lourdes Nicholls  13:43

So my grandfather, um, you know, I'm sure that it was a very scary time to, you know, board up go somewhere you don't know. Live in a 20 by 25-foot barrack. You know, build your own mattress out of straw. I mean, the pictures of what they had to do just to get into their accommodations. There's just nothing that you want to do. It wasn't until maybe about maybe less than six months after they arrived. They arrived in Manzanar on April 8, 1942. The head of Manzanar Ralph Merritt found out that my grandfather had worked at a museum and had this experience and he asked my grandfather to start a museum at the camp for the incarcerated. To show them what the rest of the world looks like and how they can, you know, things that they could do either participate or see things that they weren't used to seeing. So my grandfather created the visual education Museum, which was really to help young children who, by the way, maybe they had never been in a grocery store before, or maybe they had, they didn't know, you know, my grandfather wrote to all these places and asked for books and photos of like insects, animals, all sorts of things, and created a place for people to see exhibits and participate.  Some of the participants really, I think, got a lot out of it. I mean, as you know, like working with art or creating art, some amazing things came out of that. So absolutely amazing.

Rebecca Hoffman15:40

So, here's your grandfather and your grandmother, they're living in, they're incarcerated. This is not by choice, and he still creates basically a museum or a gallery for understanding the world. Correct. And this incarceration has an unknown end at this time, right. So he's building something. And famous artists came to see this gallery and showed some of their art there. Am I correct? Maybe a famous, photographer?

Lourdes Nicholls  16:07

I mean, you know, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, were both hired by the government to take photos. So maybe you've seen some of these photos. And they are quite striking. The main thing to know about those photos is that those photographers were not allowed to take pictures of the barbed wire of the guard towers with guards inside with guns, you know, pointing towards the camp. So, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, both captured the people that were there, and all of their daily life experiences. And my grandfather put together, you know, the Ansel Adams exhibit at Manzanar, which, luckily, I have a photo of. And Ansel Adams came back to Manzanar four times, I mean. He was regularly there and really had a lot of sympathy for the people who were there. I, unfortunately, I didn't get to talk to my grandfather about Ansel Adams, because I assumed that they had conversations. But I still, you know, I think that Ansel Adams photos, and the book that he wrote, called born free and equal, which actually ended up becoming a banned book and Ansel Adams was really not well received because he wanted people to understand that, you know, the Japanese Americans were not a threat, and that no Japanese American was ever convicted of any kind of crime or helping in any way during the war. So it's tragic, it's sad, it's a sad piece, actually.

Ray Loewe17:54

You know, let me interrupt and I don't know if you've noticed, but I haven't interrupted for 12 minutes. I never not interrupt for 12 minutes. I mean, what an incredible story. And I want to put this story in perspective a little bit because I hear you are Lourdes, You grew up in Berkeley, you moved to Chicago in 1991. You're a normal person. You have three kids, right? You have a job, which you like, right? And you're out running marathons, and you met everybody in the city of Oak Park so that every two blocks, you would have somebody to save you if you stumbled in a marathon? Right?

Lourdes Nicholls  18:32

I think I do. Yes, I hope I do.

Ray Loewe18:34

Yeah. So here you are. And then you get hit somewhere along the way with this incredible story as a 15-year-old, that probably no 15-year-old should have to face and yet you faced it. And it's become a project that you're running. Not In addition, not in addition to your life. You haven't dropped her life. You're running it like you normally did. And you're, spending time with this. So you've got this incredible story. Where's it going? What are you going to do with it?

Lourdes Nicholls  19:07

Good question. I mean, honestly, I love family history. I love anyone's family history. But my family history has become just a part-time job for me. I mean, it's always in the for, you know, it's always on my mind. I'm always trying to uncover new things. I would say that there was an exhibit in 2017. Then they came for me in Chicago, and then it went to New York City. I was asked to if I could come up with some documents or pieces for that exhibit. And that kind of got me reinvigorated in this whole piece of history. My mom was very reluctant. She really was not into talking about it. It brought a lot of shame to her family. But I will say that I'm bringing her to Manzanar, we went several times. And then going to the then they came for me exhibit in Chicago and New York. You know, she really started to understand more and accept it. I mean, she has said, she said for a long time it was intergenerational trauma, even though she didn't remember ever being at Manzanar as a baby. You know, it was part of her and her family. You know, so that has been kind of my, I don't know, I just something inside of me. I just keep moving forward, even though it's hard. My mom passed away about a year and a half ago. And, you know, she was my best friend and biggest cheerleader. I mean, that's, you know, so doing this by myself. I mean, I'm choked up just talking about it. It's really hard.

Ray Loewe20:56

But you have a movie coming out of this right. Or some film? 

Lourdes Nicholls  21:01

Well, I have.  I'm so lucky to have Rebecca who introduced me to Arielle Nobiles, who is working on a documentary called, well, the series is belonging in the USA. And she has picked amazing people and I'm lucky to be one of them to focus on and so that should be coming out. I think I'm hoping December 7, 2021, which is the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor day, and it's also the 30th anniversary of the day, my grandmother died. Because everything happens on December 7, and my family, my grandparents were married, Pearl Harbor day happened and my grandmother died on that day. So it's kind of bittersweet. But yeah.

Rebecca Hoffman21:52

I hope, spectacular history. And, you know, as I hear you speaking, I think, okay, if I'm just listening to this, and I don't know much, what can I see? What can I look at? I know the movie is coming out? It's not a movie. It's a documentary film that's coming out later this year. When I first met you, you said you need to watch the orange story, which is a short film, maybe 12-15 minutes. Right. 

Lourdes Nicholls  22:16

So orange story, yes. Which is I recommend to classrooms when I speak to them. It's at the orange it's only 15 minutes. And so that you can get it in class. It was filmed here in Chicago by my friend Jason Matsumoto. And it really shows how Japanese Americans went from living everyday life like the three of us. And then suddenly, something happens and one particular person has to sell their business, pack things up. You know, it's heart-wrenching. Um, but I think that that's a really great intro. It's pretty much required viewing because then you can kind of be more up to speed, and especially, it's for all ages. I mean, kids, young kids can watch it and understand, you know, older adults, anybody. So

Ray Loewe23:16

Well, unfortunately, time is at its end. So Rebecca, do you have any final comments, Rebecca, and then we'll get some out of Lourdes?

Rebecca Hoffman23:25

Well, I you know, I just want to say thank you to Lourdes for sharing the story. And I hope that people who are listening to this will take their knowledge effort a little further, there's never been a better time to have a look at this chapter in American history. And consider, you know, what happened and how we can go one better we can do better?

Ray Loewe23:44

Yeah. And Lourdes, any final comments? 

Lourdes Nicholls  23:48

Just, I mean, I'm, I don't feel I mean, I feel like everyone has a story to tell me about their family. They just have to unlock it. And I've been, I keep trying to unlock more. But, um, yeah, it's been a bittersweet experience. But I'm still learning new things all the time. So it's, great. It's great. I love it.

Ray Loewe24:11

And thanks, everybody, for being here. Rebecca, thank you so much for being our co-host.  Time has flown by in four weeks. And everybody Join us next week, we're going to have a brand new co-host, I'm not telling in advance. And we've got some great guests. And hopefully, we'll see Lourdes at one of our cocktail events soon where you can actually sit down and ask her some questions about this whole process. So thank you guys, for being with us. Thank our listeners for being with us. And we'll see you again next week.

Kris Parsons24:46

Thank you for listening to changing the rules, a weekly podcast about people who are living their best life and how you can figure out how to do that too. Join us with your lively host Ray Loewe, better known as the luckiest guy in the world.