Nine miles north of that land of fantasy and make believe is a reality that is so horrible it must be fiction, but it isn’t. A guard tower stands, menacing and watchful, on the side of the busy highway that links Southern California to Canada. The road is a physical expression of freedom, and thousands of citizens could only watch the cars drive by. They were imprisoned and locked behind bars solely because of their ethnicity.
This is Manzanar War Relocation Center.
By the time we pulled into the Manzanar National Historic Site, the Visitor Center had been closed for an hour, but the grounds could be explored until dusk so we had a few minutes. As soon as I stood on the site I began to cry. I simply could not imagine the truth of what had happened here because of fear and hatred and a myopic sense of arrogance.
In the days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the United States took one of the most reprehensible actions a country can take against its people. Executive Order 9066, signed three months after the attack, authorized the forcible removal of anyone of Japanese descent to the euphemistically labeled “relocation centers.” More than 120,000 people were uprooted and shuttled like so much cattle: immigrants, citizens, both naturalized and natural-born, children, unborn babies - it didn’t matter as long as you or your ancestors had been born in Japan. Fairgrounds were sometimes used because the space and the buildings were there, which meant that people would live on planks placed over layers of animal excrement.
One of these centers was in Central California. The United States government leased 6,200 acres in the Eastern Sierras from the city of Los Angeles, which had been buying up farms and towns in the area to siphon off the water, for the sole purpose of storing a race of people. Japanese-Americans by the thousands were ripped from their homes and forced to live in tarpaper barracks, use communal latrines, and wait in lines for everything from laundry to meals.
Visitors to the Manzanar Historic Site can see inside the barracks and learn more about how the people there lived from day to day and did their best to create some sense of normalcy. There’s a 3.2-mile self-guided driving tour including excavated rock gardens and ponds, the chicken ranch, and orchards. The Visitor Center offers exhibits that focus on the internment, and you can also learn about the area before the camp, including the Paiutes, a Native American tribe that had been relocated from Manzanar in the 1800s.
The first prisoners of war, because that’s essentially what they were, to arrive at Manzanar in March of 1942 helped build their own prison, just like the inmates at Yuma (although the Japanese-Americans volunteered and they hadn’t actually done anything wrong). By September the same year there were 10,000 Japanese-Americans living on 500 acres, surrounded by barbed wire, and although only a replica of a guard tower remains, there had been a total of eight ensuring no one escaped. As if being held against their will for three years wasn’t enough of an indignity, when the camp was closed on November 21, 1945, each person was given just $25, one-way train or bus fare, and meals if they had less than $600. Many had nowhere to go after losing their homes and livelihoods, so some refused to leave and were then forcibly removed.
It was hard to reconcile. The same President whose administration created the United States Housing Authority, the Farm Security Administration, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, all designed to ensure people were treated fairly, signed an Executive Order that was later found to be based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership,” according to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
This was not my country. This was some unimaginable alternate universe. I know that is my white privilege speaking. A woman I met months later at an exhibit in Chicago about the Japanese internment camps said to me “I’m used to it. As an African American woman this is nothing new. It’s been happening forever and will continue to happen. What’s to stop it?”
That perspective, that fatalism, was alien to me, but it was a valuable lesson. I can believe in my heart all day long that it couldn’t happen again; that won’t make it so.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Keep doing what you’re doing,” she said. “Pay attention. Speak up. Vote. When you see something, say something. Write.
“Tell the stories.”
Visiting Manzanar was hard, but it was our responsibility to stop and pay attention and it’s my duty to ensure it is not forgotten. This was not the United States’ first forced relocation; we need to make sure it was the last.
We won’t forget, nor will we let it happen again. Not as long as there are people who pay attention and speak up.
This is me speaking up.
We were silent on our drive to Bishop as we reflected on what we’d seen. We were both glad we had no plans that night. How do you go from a place like Manzanar to another round of sightseeing? Not to seem flippant, but we slept on it. We can’t fix the past, but we can acknowledge its mistakes. And while we moved on and celebrated, and will continue to celebrate, what makes this country great, the knowledge of what can happen is a warning to be vigilant. It’s also a reminder to be kind and to grab the best out of life, and we try to do that, every day.