When I looked out the car window as we approached the barren landscape of dust and tumbleweeds, I couldn’t help but notice the majesty of the Sierra Nevada backdrop. Snow was sprinkled atop the rocky foundation as if perfectly layering the mountains in a picturesque way—something that could have been taken straight from a promotional Mammoth tourism leaflet.
Mother Nature’s beauty was overwhelming.
We continued to drive until I saw it. In the distance, a hanging placard was at the entrance of the Manzanar site. At a closer glance, the words, “Manzanar War Relocation Center” were carved into the wood. It was the entrance to a place that was once Native American land but became an internment camp, and now a place of living history.
Just seeing that placard flooded my mind with a sense of what once was. The barracks were not there, but I could visualize them and I could feel the dust and constant heat that must have haunted the memories of many former internees.
My own grandmother, who rarely spoke about her concentration camp experience in Poston, Arizona, would remind me how the heat was unbearable. Even though Manzanar was not a place that had displaced my own family, it represented and still represents something that remains to be fully understood by those who have not visited.
For me, it represents a part of living history, a glimpse into a tumultuous period of Japanese American history, a renewed sense of understanding and a place where people of all creeds, religions and backgrounds can reflect on shared histories.
This year marked the second year that I was able to attend the Pilgrimage. The first time, I was a freshman in college, barely learning about my own history as an Asian American and slowly understanding what this Pilgrimage was really all about. It only seems right that my second time attending, would be my senior year in college, with post-graduation prospects of continuing work with Asian Pacific Islander communities.
More rewarding than anything were the Manzanar At Dusk peer-led discussions, which I helped facilitate, and as nervous as I was about helping lead these discussions, my nervousness quickly faded.
I was given a list of questions to a diverse group consisting of high school students, members of the Muslim community, API college-aged activists, a history teacher, a former internee and various other individuals.
I first asked them what they knew about Manzanar and what stories they heard from relatives and/or history books. I was surprised to learn that since most of the group members were not of Japanese descent, they had only learned of the internment experience from mainly history texts. Nevertheless, they knew there was a deeper meaning in what it really means to visit and be a part of the annual Pilgrimage.
There were stories of repeated histories and stories of what must still be done. Even current events and political issues like Arizona’s immigration law were constant in the discussion. Our former internee’s experience also brought back a sense of renewed strength for many who respected and learned about the over 110,000 people who were stripped of their civil liberties.
Manzanar continues to be a special place where I am able to reflect and revisit living history. I have learned that history is a repeating cycle, but it is also constantly evolving and is something that can always be taught, passed on and changed, if we only take the time to understand.
LiAnn Ishizuka is in her fourth year at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she is an International Development Studies major with a minor in Global Studies. The 21-year-old Yonsei from Fresno, California is a member of the UCLA Nikkei Student Union.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
LEAD PHOTO: LiAnn Ishizuka (left) with Jaymie Takeshita (right) at the Manzanar cemetery during the 41st Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 24, 2010. Photo: LiAnn Ishizuka.
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LiAnn, What wonderful insights you have on the JA experience during WWII! Your intelligence & sensitivity is just what is needed to keep the story alive for future generations! Go Bruins!