Thursday, January 04, 2007

Return to Manzanar

-- Sara Robinson

NPS photo

Manazar looked almost exactly like this photo last Wednesday when I drove by it: cold, clear, with the snowy eastern escarpment of the Sierra rising up behind it in the winter light. The California Highway Patrol had cleared the road of commercial traffic between Olancha and Independence after two Crystal Geyser trailer trucks on their way to the bottling plant had blown over in the 60-mile-per-hour winds thrashing the southern end of the valley, so there were just a few cars straggling along the empty highway. The kids in the back seat were still talking about the trucks as we approached Independence, northbound toward home and a brief visit with my dad's side of the family.

"Look to the right, kids. There's usually a herd of tule elk grazing in that field out there. The lake is Haiwee Reservoir -- haiwee is the Northern Paiute word for small bird, and a popular name for Paiute girls. The water's going into the aqueduct, headed for LA."

They nodded and looked. Being perhaps more sensible than us, the elk had taken note of the wind and cold and made themselves scarce. I gave up on them, and returned my eyes to the highway. It was then that I noticed a new landmark ahead on the left -- one I'd never seen in nearly half a century of driving this familiar stretch of US 395.

NPS photo

Against the clouds, there was a tower. The shape was familiar: I'd seen it in photographs all my life, at least since the first Saturday I took my shiny new driver's license and my mom's car, drove down to the county's rare book library in Independence, and asked to check out the Manzanar High School yearbooks -- one of which featured this stark black-and-white image on its cover. It was a guard tower made of fresh pine boards, maybe 30 feet high, imposing and unmistakeable at the edge of the road. Nearby, a new sign (a perfect copy of the 1942 original, right down to its oddly Nazi-looking font) marked the Manzanar Relocation Center, National Parks Service. As we approached the tower, I saw a dozen cars parked in a new, paved parking lot. After sixty years of decay and denial, Manzanar is returning to life.

NPS photo

I used to visit Manzanar a lot in my twenties, when I lived in LA and made this trip home half a dozen times a year. Back in the 70s and 80s, there wasn't much to see. The stone pagoda-shaped gatehouse was abandoned and falling to ruin. The big auditorium -- the only remaining building of consequence -- was being used by the county as a heavy equipment storage barn. Other than that, the only evidence from the road that this had once been a makeshift city of 10,000 incarcerated people were the trees.

Those who remember Manzanar back in the day often like to talk about the gardens. Dropped into the stark high-desert xeriscape, fending off 120-degree summers and zero-degree winters in board-and-tar-paper huts, faced with a severe lack of water and winds like the ones we were braving today, you’d think that landscaping would be about the last thing the inhabitants would think to attempt.

But "Manzanar" means "apple orchard" in Spanish. After the local Paiutes had been marched off to Fort Tejon in the early 1900s (the first crime committed by the federal government on this land, but far from the last), it had been the name of an apple farming community that had been founded there in 1910. Those farms were forcibly run out of business in the 1920s when -- with federal collusion -- the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) diverted the valley's water to the city. (If you want the details, rent Chinatown.).

So the site came dotted with mature apple trees, which formed the basis of much more extensive gardens. Many of the internees were nurserymen and farmers, who whiled away the next three and a half years planting trees and flowers, building hardscape, and turning some of Manzanar's sandy, windy avenues into gracious outdoor parks.

The huts are long gone, removed by the government along with the barbed wire fences, the guard towers, and all other evidence of the crime immediately after the war. But for decades afterward, even whizzing by the site at highway speeds, you could see that in that particular square mile of sage and rabbit brush, there were trees -- and they all stood in straight lines, marking the interstices between the barracks where the streets of Manzanar had once been. And if you stopped for half an hour, and took the time to tromp through the brush (watching carefully for rattlesnakes and horny toads, as Owens Valley kids learn young to do), the desert landscape would reveal more treasures.

One day, I found a large round concrete planter, which had once probably held a spreading tree with flowers and rock arrangements underneath. (Manzanar is built on an alluvial outflow where, at the end of the last Ice Age, a dying glacier dropped the load of salt-and-pepper granite boulders it had carried down through the centuries from the Sierra crest. The smooth, round ice-washed stones are a landscaping and construction staple all over the valley.) This work, unlike most anything else at the site, was signed and dated: "Built by Wada and crew, June 19, 1942." ("Wada," it turns out, was Bunyamon Wada,whose family still lives in San Diego.)

photo by Ligaya & George Wada

Not far away stood the stone foundation and hearth of the superintendent's house. Once in a while, the sand underfoot gives way to a square of concrete; or a small circle of stones marks where a campfire once burned or a tree once grew. Off to one side is the cemetery, the final resting place of fifteen souls who didn't live long enough to see the gates open and their families return home. (One hundred and fifty Manzanar residents died during the internment -- including two killed in a riot -- but all except for these 15 chose to be cremated.)

photo by Tory Amorello

For five decades between 1945 and 1995, these little remnants in the gravel are all that remained of Manzanar. Nobody in America wanted to remember what had happened here. Even in my own family, my stepfather -- who was 13 the summer his Japanese neighbors abandoned their homes in East LA's Boyle Heights, took up temporary quarters in the horse stalls at the nearby Santa Anita racetrack, and were ultimately transported here -- can still faithfully recite the rationalizations. There were spies among them. There were Japanese subs in Long Beach harbor. It was for their own good -- and most of them, knowing this, went voluntarily. And besides, life in the camps wasn't that bad: a lot of them drove their own cars up to Independence, and they could leave the camp and drive into town to buy groceries any time they pleased.

This misinformation has, unfortunately, persisted through the years; and some of it is still an article of faith among Owens Valley's working classes. Many of the locals in Lone Pine and Independence worked in or for the camps; many of the old families, impoverished since the DWP ran them off their farms, were all too grateful for the jobs. The shame of their complicity breeds an ambivalence that feeds the silence, though occasionally it breaks through: The drug store in Lone Pine, which boasts the largest newsstand in town, still carries Lillian Baker's revisionist accounts of what happened at Manzanar right alongside the geology maps and the field guides to local flora and fauna. Anyone looking for an accurate history will not find it there.

The internees themselves didn't seem eager to break that long silence, either. When it was over, they went home -- some angry and defeated, some simply determined to get on with rebuilding their lives. Their children and grandchildren, a few of whom I went to college with, learned early not to ask too much about those years: in most families, it was something Mom and Dad resolutely refused to discuss. (Jeanne Wakatsuki described this attitude as shikata ga nai -- "It must be done," or in American English: Suck it up, and get on with your life.) Manzanar, under the administrative aegis of the LADWP, began to vanish into the dust of the valley floor; and for the next 25 years, the internment itself simply faded from the national memory, lingering on as a paragraph in an eighth-grade textbook, and a two-minute lecture on civil rights in a high school civics class.

That began to change in the early 70s, when Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston -- one of my stepfather's Boyle Heights neighbors before the war -- chronicled her childhood in the camp in her book, Farewell to Manzanar. In 1976, it was turned into a TV mini-series, which was hailed as the Japanese-Americans' version of Roots (which had also been aired that year). The book and TV series broke the silence at last. In most families, it was the internees' grandchildren who started asking the questions, doing the research, and making trips out to Manzanar, Tule Lake, Poston, and other relocation sites across the west. Ansel Adams' and Dorothea Lange's photographs of the camp were pulled out of the vaults, and put on exhibit; I remember going to the first public showing of of camp photographer Toyo Miyatake's work in San Francisco in the late 80s. Starting in 1969, vanloads of young Japanese-Americans started pulling up in front of that dilapidated pagoda gatehouse on annual pilgrimages, trying to imagine the place as their elders had known it. Political pressure to right the wrongs mounted: in 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a reparations bill that gave $20,000 and a signed presidential apology letter to every internee, or his or her survivors and heirs.

The effort to create a physical monument to the Japanese internment took far longer. Of the ten camps scattered throughout the west, Manzanar was the most logical candidate: there were restorable structures left on the site (which was generally not true elsewhere); and at four hours from LA and Las Vegas, five from San Diego, and seven from San Francisco, it was far and away easiest site for would-be visitors to get to. The State of California kicked off the process in 1972 by naming Manzanar a state historical landmark. The Department of the Interior added National Landmark designation in 1985. Somewhere in the years that followed, the county stopped parking its road equipment in the auditorium, a broad parking lot was graded, and the pagoda gatehouse got cleaned up. In 1992, on the fiftieth anniversary of Executive Order 9066 (which ordered the internment), Congress named it a National Historic Site. The restored entrance sign went up not long after the site's remaining 813 acres were turned over the National Park Service in 1997.

After that, the changes started coming faster; the Manzanar I saw last week is now a completely different place. The auditorium has been completely restored, and turned into a museum and research center. The front fence has been rebuilt, along with the new tower -- a faithful reproduction of one of the eight that originally surrounded the camp. In the next couple years, plans call for a re-created barracks -- and park, with ponds and gardens, like the ones that the internees built in their efforts to make hell seem more like paradise.

Manzanar, which was was vanishing both from both the landscape and our common memory during my childhood, is evolving into a major asset for the tourist economy of the southern Owens Valley -- and the heart of a wide-ranging new conversation about equality, justice, and freedom in America. These days, the annual pilgrimage draws thousands to the Manzanar cemetery on the last Saturday in April every year, where internees, their children and grandchildren, and friends and locals all turn out for a day of remembrance and education. Many hundreds camp out over the weekend, in order to experience the harsh landscape first-hand. (Though late April, with its blooming wildflowers and mild weather, is usually a spectacular time of year for a visit.) The dead are honored in Christian and Buddhist ceremonies; and internees gather in the great auditorium they built to tell the tales one more time -- this time in front of cameras, so they will not be forgotten. Local schoolchildren no longer get lies or silence, but rather frequent field trips. The county museum in Independence is expanding its own collections, and hosts regular internment-related events aimed at locals and visitors alike.

My little valley, lauded by no less worthies as John Muir and Ansel Adams as one of the most beautiful spots in America, is dotted with the wreckage of a century of government and corporate malfeasance: a handful of Native Americans shoved onto postage-stamp reservations, the epic story of farms seized and water stolen so a few families could get rich and LA could sprawl, unabated mining pollution, sundown towns and meth labs -- and the guilty memories of the region's main contribution to the war. Manzanar is the first monument to this last wrong; it is holy ground now, not just to the ancestors of those who were interned there, but also to all Americans who care about what happens when we allow fear to undermine our commitment to our best principles and ideals.

It's appalling that, even as we are busily re-creating this famous concentration camp into a place of national memory and healing, we are also busily constructing yet more camps under yet more wretched conditions -- thus dooming our own grandchildren to someday build monuments of memory to our own failures, in order to disinherit themselves of our shame. Anyone who thinks interning illegal immigrants in faraway places is a good idea should be brought to Manzanar, preferably in the baking heat of summer or the fierce winds of winter, and made to stand in the shadow of that tower. It is not a place we can, or should, continue to pass by.

Manzanar Relocation Center is located on US Highway 395, six miles south of Independence, CA. A wide variety of information on the camp -- including its history, current facilities and programs, and trip planning assistance -- is on the excellent Manzanar National Historic Site website.

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