A Right To Be Respected
For Susie Corbett, 62, growing up as one of the first Asians in Doraville in 1960 was a lonely experience — yet, uplifted by the grace she exhibited in the face of ignorance and racism.
“I was so shy. I didn’t want to ever be the center of attention or exposed. I always kind of just try to blend in,” Corbett remembers.
Corbett’s Japanese-American parents, who were born in California, had been interned, along with Corbett’s older brother, at the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona during World War II. After eighteen months living under guard in the compound which had no plumbing and only mosquito netting over the windows to keep the dirt out, they were released. Corbett’s father, Tom Shintaku, got a job working at carbon paper manufacturing company American Tara Corporation in Chicago, where Corbett and her sisters were born. Later, American Tara transferred him to Doraville. Now, Corbett reflects on the changes to the area since her arrival at age three and remembers what it was like being one of the only Asians.
“To get Chinese food, we had to go downtown to Atlanta,” she remembers. “There was not all the shops and everything that there are now and no diversity in the residents or the businesses.”
While locals might now consider Buford Highway to be a melting pot of diversity, Corbett’s experience was very different.
“I remember going in to restaurants and literally people would stop and turn and stare, and so I knew that I was different,” she says.
The ostracism and bullying she experienced remain etched in her memory. “It was third grade. I was in class, and the boy in front of me turned around and spit on me and called me a poor little Chinese girl.”
Corbett wishes there had been someone who could stand up for her when she was growing up. “I kind of carried this feeling of shame and like I wasn't as good as everyone else.”
In spite of these feelings of inferiority and difference, perhaps even because of them, Corbett grew up as many other Southerners born and bred. She remembers eating her mom’s fried chicken and how they didn't have air conditioning back then. She remembers her father’s love for gardening and how he would spend hours shaping and pruning the trees in their yard.
“My dad wanted us to try to blend in as much as possible,” she says. “My mother didn’t speak Japanese at home.”
Looking back on what her parents endured, she is proud and happy that they shared their experience with the Doraville Citizen which ran an article on them in the 90s. “It’s hard to realize that they were treated that way but they were very strong. It wasn’t like they carried a lot of resentment.”
The lesson, she says, is that we’re all the same inside. “We may look different, but don’t let anybody tell you that you're not the same. Everyone has a right to be respected.”
The diversity of Buford Highway is a beacon of hope. “People are finding out about it and what the area has to offer, and I think it will continue to get better and better. I hope that it continues to attract people from all over,” she says.
“We may look different, but don’t let anybody tell you that you're not the same. Everyone has a right to be respected.”
The Family that Works Together
When Oscar Barrera, 29, talks about his childhood on Buford Highway, what sticks out is his sense of gratitude and pride for what he has.
Barrera grew up hearing the stories of his parents’ lives in Mexico and their early days in the United States together. Barrera’s father, Graciano, first spent a few years in Anaheim, California by himself, trying to work enough to send money home. However the jobs were few and the money did not stretch. In 1989, his parents immigrated together to the United States with Barrera and his older sister when he was only nine months old. One story his father has told countless times is of spending his last $100 dollars on a trip to Disneyland, to show his family the magic of their new home. Perhaps it is these stories which have fostered his sense of gratitude and cheerfulness for what he has. His father, he says, loves to talk to them “to get us, as kids, to value what we had and why we didn’t have things.”
Within a few months the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia where they settled in the Cumberland Court Apartments off of Buford Highway. Barrera relates how the apartment stayed empty for awhile after they moved in, sleeping on comforters on the floor of the bedroom that the whole family shared. Looking back now he laughs about how they acquired their furniture by taking it from a secondhand store’s trailer, mistakenly believing it was free stuff. And yet, it is clear that what they lacked in money was more than made up for by the love in his close-knit family. Although they didn’t have much, his parents always found a way to make sure that they “experienced life.”
The second oldest of five siblings, he is full of stories of playing soccer outside with thirty other kids from the apartment complex, of trips with his family to Stone Mountain Park and Six Flags. “It was a really good childhood,” he says.
As he got older and went to school, Barrera became more aware of his immigrant status and the things they didn't have. Because they spoke primarily Spanish at home, he didn’t pick up English well at first and had to go through the ESOL program at Dresden Elementary. He remembers a funny story of learning that his favorite shirt — a Penn State shirt with a paw on it that his parents got from a donation center — was a girl’s cheer squad shirt. “Here I am a kid from Buford Highway. I didn’t know what a cheer squad was. It was the coolest shirt for me because of the paw.”
However it is the things he did have that seems to have stuck with him. Especially impactful was his parent’s hard work. Now he looks back with gratitude and awe on the treks by foot he made with his mom and four sisters to the Buford Highway flea market or supermarket, loaded down with bags of groceries. He especially recalls fondly the times of riding MARTA downtown with his mom, just the two of them. “We didn’t have a car, and it’s amazing to see what she did; what she went through to provide for us.”
Barrera’s father worked many different jobs — dishwasher, cook’s assistant, carpet installer — and sometimes worked three jobs at one time, coming home late at night to sleep for a few hours before getting back up to be at his restaurant job by five in the morning.
At that time, Barrera remembers, there weren't that many Hispanic families, so they didn’t have many friends to lean on. The closeness in his family has played a part both in their successful family business and in Barrera’s outlook on life.“Our parents always taught us to be so close. We went through good; we went through bad. We experienced success, failure, as a family,” he says.
The results speak for themselves. The family now owns and operates two businesses on Buford Highway in the Powers Plaza. They opened the first, Torta’s Bakery, in 2006, when Barrera was still in high school. He remembers that his parents approached him and his sisters with their idea for a bakery and the whole family went into the business together. “We were all on board,” Barrera says. “We all learned together.”
He remembers how they took flyers to all the apartments in the area and told their friends at school and church. And how in the beginning the bread would sometimes burn or come out flat. But through trial and error they have made a bread that has brought loyal customers for the past twelve years.
In 2017 they opened their sister restaurant, Torta’s Factory del D.F., in the same shopping plaza as the bakery. The restaurant employs some 25 employees and won Atlanta Magazine’s coveted Best of Atlanta in 2018 for their tortas, a typical Mexican sandwich made with a fluffy, crusty bun. Barrera works in customer service and at the cash register. One of his sisters works as a cook at the restaurant, and another sister does the shopping and errand running. His parents still work primarily at the bakery.
Barrera seems to have inherited his parents’ hard work ethic and family-centeredness, something he hopes to pass on to his own children. “They are the reason I work hard, so I can give them the same opportunities my parents gave to me. In a sense I feel like if my children go to college the many sacrifices my parents made will be truly worth it and everything will come full circle.”
After receiving her MFA in writing from SCAD, Rebecca Grace worked briefly in communications. For the last few years she has freelanced as a writer for The Westminster Schools and Ovia Health while staying home to raise her two kids. Her writing has also been published in Atlanta Magazine, SCAD’s graduate journal Document, and Atlanta INtown Paper. She can often be found in the kitchen or with her head in a book.