By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor
Close to 800 people participated in the 49th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage, held on April 28.
This year’s pilgrimage recognized the 30th anniversary of the passage of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act (CLA), with the slogan “Silent No More: Liberty and Justice for All!” The CLA, also known as the redress bill, provided an apology and a token reparation to Japanese Americans who had been wrongly incarcerated in U.S.-style concentration camps during World War II.
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer from the Lone Pine Pauite-Shoshone Reservation, welcomed the pilgrimage attendees.
“Our reservation lies just to the south of here,” Jefferson Bancroft said. “It’s a small piece of land that was traded by the federal government with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as a place for us to live and use.
“Not too many years before that, the Numanu — my people — lived everywhere your eyes could see from here. Now, we never have given up our right to claim this land as our traditional homeland, and we would like to officially welcome you to Paya Hunatu.
“We feel a connection to the people who were placed on this piece of land during World War II, not only because of the connection to this place, but because we share many of the same experiences and concerns.”
Jefferson Bancroft was among those who had successfully fought LADWP’s recent efforts to construct an industrial solar panel farm across from the Manzanar National Historic Site, which would have destroyed the historic integrity of the site.
Bernadette Johnson, superintendent of the Manzanar NHS, reflected upon the 30th anniversary of the CLA, and said, “I’m personally inspired by all the grassroots efforts that are happening now in support of other groups, whether it be on immigration or the LBGTQ (lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer) communities or the women’s marches or march by scientists…I always say what would have happened if, in the wake of Pearl Harbor, we had had the same level of grassroots support for the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans? Would we have had the ten camps?”
A show of hands indicated that about half the attendees were first-timers to the pilgrimage. Among those was Tasha Cerda, mayor of Gardena, who had been invited by Wilbur Sato, this year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award recipient.
“Just taking the drive out here, I can’t even imagine what the families were thinking when they were taken so far away from their homes and brought out to the desert,” said Cerda. “It took me over three hours to get here, and I can imagine what a very scary feeling it must’ve been for families, small kids, of the unknown, not knowing where they were being taken.”
Visibly absent this year was the consul general of Japan.
Another group that did not make it to the pilgrimage this year was a bus from Gardena due to their bus encountering not one, but two, flat tires. By the time a replacement bus was brought over, the pilgrimage ceremony was over and the Gardena contingent headed back without ever making it to Manzanar.
The highlight of the pilgrimage was Ann Burroughs, the new president and chief executive officer of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), whose speech was met with cheers and applause from the crowd.
“When I was in my twenties, in my native South Africa, during those very, very dark days of apartheid, I joined the resistance movement to fight for democracy, for justice and against the policies of racial segregation that were the laws of the land,” said Burroughs. “It was an extraordinarily difficult time that carried enormous uncertainty and enormous fear. We faced police brutality. We faced troops in our townships. Activists and leaders were disappeared and assassinated, and at that time, it was routine for activists who were arrested to be tortured. Peaceful protest was criminalized. A gathering like this would never have been allowed because it was not lawful. Journalists were silenced, and all political opposition was criminalized.”
Burroughs was arrested in 1986, along with many others who had been detained indefinitely, without trial, under an emergency law.
“I was held first in solitary confinement in a very small police cell in a college town that I lived in,” she recalled. “Then finally, I was moved to a maximum security prison and interrogated on an almost daily basis. And it was during that time that I learned that the Security Police, the South African Security Police, were building treason charges against me, which carried an incredibly high penalty. The minimum sentence was ten years and the maximum sentence was 20 years. If I had not been white, I would have faced the death penalty.
“When I was finally released, I was issued a banning order, which meant that I could only stay in my geographic location. I was banned from writing. I was a journalist. I was a researcher. I was not allowed to write. I was not allowed to speak. I was not allowed to be in gatherings of more than three people. And the most difficult part of it all was that I found myself in another prison, but it was in an invisible prison that I was having to police myself and my friends were having to police me.”
In 1990, Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid revolutionary leader, was released after serving 27 years in prison. Soon after, Mandela and then-President F.W. de Klerk negotiated an end to apartheid, but race relations did not improve overnight.
“For me personally, I still had to wait several more years before I was allowed to marry my fiancé, who was not white, because marriage across racial lines was illegal,” Burroughs said.
She was sharing her background because she sees echoes of South Africa happening in the U.S. today: “We’re once again witnessing the corrosive power of prejudice and discrimination, the return of explicit racism to public discourse, the shredding of truth and the disastrous consequences of public policy when it is shaped by the politics of bigotry, hatred and failed political leadership.
“If you remove the war hysteria, it’s the very same climate that allowed the Issei and the Nisei to be swept up and imprisoned in concentration camps. It was the same climate that destroyed their communities, their livelihood, and stripped them of their dignity.
“In the last year, certainly in the last year since I was at Manzanar, we’ve again seen the stripping of rights. We’ve again seen the stripping of constitutionally guaranteed rights, which are not privileges that can simply be bestowed or withheld. They are rights that are protected by the Constitution.”
Burroughs noted that what concerned her most was the policies being instituted or dismantled by the current administration.
“Political leaders will change. They always do, and surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Trump will not always be president, and the wrongs will be righted.
“However, he may no longer be president but what I fear more than anything else is the climate he and his ilk have unleashed. It’s a climate in which the language of prejudice is again becoming policy, in which truth is perverted and racial hatred even makes racial violence permissible. We’ve seen Charlottesville. We’ve seen the Neo-Nazis and the white supremacists marching, but you know they can be tamped down. They can be taken care of, but it’s at the policy level where that is the most pernicious and that is the most difficult to reverse.
“We’re seeing the criminalization of immigration. We’re seeing over 700 children who have been separated from their mothers, that are seeking to come into this country as migrants or refugees. This country has closed its doors. It’s closed its borders to refugees, people who are seeking asylum. Eleven Syrians, 11 refugees from Syria, have been allowed to come into this country in the last year.
“The travel bans that we’ve seen … may yet still be upheld by the Supreme Court. We’re seeing again the exclusion and scapegoating of people based on race, religion, sexual orientation and ability. And we’re seeing plans for the 2020 Census, where you indicate your citizenship. We know that’s going to be weaponized as another form of exclusion and another way to cement differences and to keep people apart.”
Burroughs recalled the words of Alan Nishio, who was born in Manzanar and was the keynote speaker at this year’s Day of Remembrance in Los Angeles. Nishio had talked about the importance of the redress movement on several levels, including the lifting of the veil of silence from those who had been imprisoned.
“It (redress) was an enormous victory for human rights,” Burroughs said. “It was an enormous victory for civil rights in this community. And it wasn’t just about redress. It wasn’t just the fact of the coming together, but almost more important or equally important was that it drew a line in the sand. It put a stake in the ground, and one that the American government could not ignore. They were forced to apologize for the great wrong that they had done.”
She also quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an anti-apartheid activist whom she had worked with. “One phrase that’s really reverberated through my mind all these years is ‘If you allow bygones to be bygones, there will be no bygones because history will be repeated.’”
“So I find myself at JANM, and one of the great lessons for me has been that JANM has always stayed true to its mission,” she said. “It always will and that’s to preserve and share history, to help people draw parallels between the past and today, to inspire our visitors to think critically and act ethically, and most importantly, to stand strong, to ensure that no other group is similarly targeted, to learn from history and to inform the present and to shape the future, and that’s exactly what we’re doing now. That’s exactly what the work of the Manzanar Committee is. That’s exactly the work of what these pilgrimages do, so it’s an honor, it’s a real honor to stand with all of you.”
Burroughs encouraged the attendees to stay active, work collectively and to vote. “I know that you’re here because you do that already, but go out and organize. Protest, be activists, vote. For goodness’ sake, vote. You must keep your voices as loud as you can possibly make them. You have to remember that part of keeping your voice loud is to honor the sacrifices that the people who came before you made.”
UCLA Kyodo Taiko has been performing at the pilgrimage for many years. This year, in addition to the taiko group, Karen Umemoto, the new Asian American Studies Center director at UCLA, whose father was imprisoned at Manzanar, participated in the pilgrimage.
Umemoto shared about how her father used to bring them to the former campsite as a child.
“All of our friends were going to Disneyland, and we were coming to the desert,” she said. “And I kept wondering why we were coming to the desert, but it was actually because his years during internment were so impactful on his life.”
She noted that while her father, as a high schooler in Manzanar, had had a positive experience in camp, her mother’s family had a difficult ordeal.
“My grandmother’s family, who were in Tule Lake, had a very difficult time,” said Umemoto. “She went into depression. My grandfather died of stomach cancer, they said, from drinking too much bootleg rice wine in camp.”
Umemoto voiced similar concerns to Burroughs’ regarding the current climate of the country. “It is significant that you are all here today for these are not normal times. The parallels between the days between war hysteria and today, unfortunately, are becoming clear with each passing month. In particular, I’m really concerned about the belief, the widespread belief in things untrue, these beliefs that stray from the fundamental facts. Back then, it was the idea that Japanese Americans were a military threat or a threat to our national security. Today, there are beliefs such as the climate is not changing or Mexicans are thieves and rapists …
“Part of our legacy, and for me personally as a Japanese American, is that the lesson of the camps is to take the mantle of justice and to defend the civil rights and civil liberties of any group that faces injustice and attack. For this, we come to Manzanar, to honor those who have come before us and to renew our commitment that such a travesty is never repeated to anyone, from any place, at any time. May today be a day we join together across generations, across color lines and across humanity so that we can support each other in our long march, on the road to social justice and true democracy.”
Umemoto’s father, Hank, was present at the pilgrimage, and he joked that he had come out from Los Angeles to listen to his daughter’s three-minute speech.
But on a more serious note, he said via email, “I came to the pilgrimage to pay respect to the 11,000-plus men, women and children of Japanese ancestry who at one time or another called Manzanar their home, and although it was a ‘summer camp’ for me, sadly, it left many with dreadful memories that were emblazoned in their minds forever . . . After all, the experience affected each of us in different ways. Good or bad, it was surely quite an experience. And for me, it was a memorable one.”
Representing the younger generation was Yonsei Lauren Matsumoto with the UC San Diego Nikkei Student Union. Her grandfather, Bob Matsumoto, had been imprisoned at Tule Lake, while her grandmother, Jane Adachi, had been incarcerated at Gila River.
“Our family was never personally imprisoned here at Manzanar, but my dad and I understood that it was important to take time to be a part of this trek to one of the concentration camps and to reflect on how the three years my grandparents were imprisoned had scarred them so greatly to also have impacted my dad and I and shaped who we are today,” she said.
Matsumoto participated in a new project instituted in 2017 called “Keeping Japanese American Incarceration Stories Alive,” which immerses college-age youths in an intensive two-day workshop at the Manzanar NHS.
“I strongly encourage that these programs be kept alive so that many others can have the opportunity that I did to learn more about the Americans stories that need to be heard and to be preserved,” she said. “Learning about our history is the first step in never letting it happen again.”
End of part 1
Photos by MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo