Manzanar Committee member James (Jim) To was the Associate Director for Community Affairs with the Associated Students UCSB and taught the class, Japanese American Internment, 1942-46, at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004. In this story, he not only writes about the first time he attended the Manzanar Pilgrimage, but also about how he has worked to share the experience with others, especially students.
This story was published on June 7, 2004 and originally appeared in 93106, which is published for the faculty and staff of UCSB. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.
A few years ago, a friend at UCLA asked me to participate with him in the Manzanar Pilgrimage, an annual event that recognized the struggle that Americans of Japanese ancestry went through during World War II in the 1940’s. That was a period in which thousands of Japanese Americans were interned at Manzanar and nine other camps in various states.
I was not able to go the first time he asked, but later, when I drove up US 395 on my way to Mammoth for vacation, between the cities of Lone Pine and Independence, I noticed a sign that said “Manzanar Relocation Center.” But I never thought twice about it when driving past the sign.
In April 2002, I decided to take up my friend’s invitation to attend that year’s pilgrimage. When first driving through the entrance of Manzanar, I was struck by the starkness of the environment. Two stone sentry posts mark the entrance to the Manzanar National Historical Site. A few wild pear and apple trees stand before you but the flat, dusty plain in the foreground and the mountains in the background give a sense of isolation…
…of being in the middle of nowhere.
As you drive through the site, which is now managed by the National Park Service, you can see some of the foundations of buildings and the old high school auditorium (now the Interpretative Center). As you walk around the site one can see concrete basins where stone gardens once stood.
At the time of the internment, sitting in the garden was a way to pass time and not think about home or the dust that would enter the barracks every day and night. At the end of the guided tour, outside of the old camp boundary, is a monument marking the site of the cemetery and where a ceremony for the pilgrimage is conducted each year.
This year I was able to encourage our students to attend the pilgrimage, and asked them to arrange to take off the last weekend in April when it occurs. As a lecturer, I had proposed a course to the Asian American Studies Department to explore the internment experience through the study of personal vignettes.
This spring also marked the 35th anniversary of the Manzanar Pilgrimage. I brought twenty of my students to the pilgrimage this year, hooking them up with other students from UCLA, the University of California, Irvine, University of California San Diego, University of California, Riverside, and California State University, Northridge for a tour of the site where more than 10,000 people were interned from 1942-1946.
The grand opening of the Interpretative Center combined with the ongoing restoration of buildings and the uncovering of artifacts from the former internment center provided the students an opportunity to see and experience what happened at Manzanar sixty years ago. While on tour, we met staff members from UCSB who either had a connection to the opening of the center or were curious about Manzanar.
My personal journey was to open the door for UCSB students to help them understand what happened with the internment, and for them to decide for themselves how to become involved with their civic responsibilities. Hopefully, they will become involved and make a difference in their communities; become a part of change so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated today.
The views expressed in this story are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Manzanar Committee.
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