2012 Participant Reflections
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Created by Michelle Nitahara, Bruce Takagi, Kristen Yang
Created by Emily Harada, Chris Ishida, Kelly Uchima
Created by Warren Hidaka, Rebecca Ozaki, Lauren Uchima
Reflections from Manzanar
The exhibit at the Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center opens by saying “every person whose life was affected by Manzanar has their own story, in their own words” and it asks its audience “What does Manzanar mean to history? What does Manzanar mean to me?”
I do not really have answers. I do not think I ever will. But for now, I have some thoughts.
One of the problems with history is that nothing really happens in a discrete, chronological progression the way I learned in school. Events happen in the context of those before them and have effects long after the specific incident is over. The internment did not begin with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It happened because there was an entrenched system of discrimination and oppression that was built against Asians and Asian Americans living on the west coast. The internment did not end in 1944 when the Supreme Court ruled on the Endo case or with the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.
Really, it is not over.
It is not over because the internment changed my grandparents’ lives forever. Undoubtedly, it made them reconsider themselves, reconstruct their identities, and rebuild their lives. This history constructed my mother. This history constructed me. This history is the reason why 10 college students flew half way across the country and walked through a barren desert to try and make meaning of what was left behind.
What was left behind in this expansive valley that confined so many souls? Nothing really. Stones that marked where doorways once stood. Concrete slabs that served as foundations. Spigots that pumped water into this city of 11,000. And a white obelisk to mourn the lost.
But, what if more was left behind? What if, in addition to the physical bits of memory, something greater lurked in that desert? What if, I found at Manzanar a renewed commitment to preserve the values, tenants, and beliefs of my country—things that were so terribly lost during the internment?
Also in the Manzanar Interpretive Center is this quote by Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1930-1941. He said, “you may think the constitution is your security—it is nothing but a piece of paper…it is nothing at all, unless you have sound and uncorrupted public opinion.”
You need people, lots of them, who are willing to stand up for the constitution. But that is a difficult thing because, in my world, the constitution is a living document that needs questioning and refreshing. What I like most about the constitution is that it calls to “form a more perfect union.” One of the few things I believe completely, in spite of setbacks establishing justice, promoting the general welfare, and ensuring the blessings of liberty, we, America, will achieve more.
That is a powerful idea.
But one of the other things I believe completely is that what happened to my family during World War II could happen, again, today. This is a country that has been, but is increasingly becoming, divided. More us versus them. Whether it’s the left versus right, the 99% versus the 1%, America versus Russia or Mexico or China, too much is built from fear.
That is a powerful idea, too.
But, that is not the way to build a strong nation. That is not the way to see yourself in others. That is not what develops empathy or understanding. That is not the way to move forward.
The last thought I took away from Manzanar was a note written in the guestbook. “Hermanos y hermanas de otras razas, de otro color, pero con el mismo corazon.” “Brothers and sisters of different races, of different colors, but with the same heart.”
What was lost during World War II was the ability to see Japanese American’s as people, as living beings worthy of the rights endowed to them. Constitutional rights get violated, civil rights get violated, human rights get violated when people become statistics. Because numbers have no faces, they have no heartbeats, they have no humanity. Somehow, those other people, those backwards people on the other side of the world, or on the other side of the city, deserve it. Because they are not like me.
What could our country be like if, instead, I saw myself in you. If I looked in your eyes and saw your heart. And, most fundamentally, if I saw my future as staked to your future. This is the powerful idea that must win. This is how America will move forward. This is how we will create a more perfect union—where such terrible injustices will not be allowed to continue.