You fatefully step out of air-conditioned bliss and into the middle of some desert. Your trip’s chaperones have driven you and your fellow students three hours north of Los Angeles to visit the former site of a domestic concentration camp named Manzanar.
Outside, after an impossible brightness relents from your eyes, the landscape’s natural colors begin to materialize around you. Actually, colors is a strong word. Black, brown, gray, ailing yellow, and occasional tufts of green are the full expanse of the local shades (with the notable exception of the pregnant ocean hanging above your head).
You look down and are horrified to find that your skin – your proud, Hawaiian, Japanese, well-pigmented skin – seems to be sizzling helplessly in the sun. Woefully, you brought with you neither shades nor sunscreen. (You greatly underestimated the strength of that word, desert.) As you walk towards the narrow copse of trees ahead of you, you breathe in the taste of dry, dusty air. The wind is whipping itself hard against your lips, which immediately begin to crack.
Your group is taking a couple of minutes to explore one of Manzanar’s few remaining preserved sites: a small stone and wooded area, once a sort of desert oasis. A nearby placard indicates that this dead space formerly housed a vibrant garden, designed and constructed by some of the most creative and resilient women and men who were incarcerated here.
Later, in the museum, you will see photographs, glimpses of what this place was. In these pictures, prisoners and staff alike linger here, spending a few moments together in the sacred peace of blue and green, koi and cactus and cool stone.
Yet bitter irony screams out from these quiet images, as this sad, bizarre juxtaposition abounds. In this desert garden, in this concentrated safe space, enemies and friends gathered together in peace in the midst of inescapable violence. It is truly the eye of a hurricane.
There isn’t much life left here. The fish have died, the guards gone, the plants dulled, their colors masked by thin, cloaking layers of sand. Only the harshest flora and fauna have survived the death of this place. (There are perhaps a few prickly, aggressive-looking bushes left. And tumbleweeds. Scorpions. Real rattlesnakes.) The riverbed itself, which once drank deeply of water pumped in through local irrigation fields, is just as extinct. Thin cracks jet across its concrete floor, reaching center and spiraling out again from long-dried depths.
In recent years, archaeologists sponsored by the national parks service have unearthed (and subsequently restored) many of these garden spaces. These constant and complicated excavations are necessary because after the Supreme Court finally decided against the legality of the mass incarceration, the federal government undertook a desperate surge to erase the evidence of this crime.
Bulldozers were ordered to promptly demolish rows of barracks and homes, strip down fences and guard towers, fill in handmade gardens and ponds with cement and dirt. This project was not an act of contrition, but one of obfuscation. Your country’s military and political leaders did not want people to find out what really happened here, so they summarily dismantled the existing testimony. (This was also certainly the reason why all “sad-looking” photographs depicting life inside Manzanar were ordered to be destroyed before the camp closed.)
Not much other than what was already dead survived this purge. Out of respect, or perhaps a sense of shame, Manzanar’s cemetery was not destroyed by this fleet of censure. To this day, the modest piece of land stands strong and silent on the edge of camp. Formerly imprisoned Buddhist and Christian leaders have made pilgrimages to the site each year since the camp’s closing, to perform traditional remembrance ceremonies. Aside from this, no one was allowed to return to this twisted Eden.
The burial ground is your next destination.
Your group hops back into the soothing atmosphere of the vehicle, and you drive off.
Inside the van, the desert has already started to seep in; water is in short supply. Both of your bottles are nearly gone. You were sure one wouldn’t be enough, so you brought two, and that wasn’t enough either. The seals crack open and you can barely feel the water flowing across your lips. Before you know it there’s nothing left.
Outside again, and the world is hot and stale. You breathe in big sips of desert air, but through your nose, in order to keep your mouth from drying any further. Marching towards the desert graves, you actually feel heavier, as if gravity itself has been cranked to eleven, working harder than ever to press you back into (the) dust.
As you near the graveyard, you stop in your tracks when you notice it – it is dead silent. No casual, ambient noises fill your ears – no cars zooming along gravel roads, no music blaring, no cell phones chirping, no more beating wind. You close your eyes, and picture yourself standing inside a tiny, soundproof room. This tremendous void is nothing like the Los Angeles you arrived from, nothing like the Los Angeles many of Manzanar’s own residents were forced to “evacuate.” The silence itself is a form of oppression.
The same year that your government began to illegally incarcerate its Japanese American residents and citizens, your country’s number one song happened to be a popular little tune called “Don’t Fence Me In.” (Here is a cover performed by your favorite band.) The song plays a lot like that old anthem home, home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play – it’s about a renegade, no-nonsense cowboy who’s making a living on the Western frontier, where life is good because he’s free to do as he pleases:
Oh give me the land, lots of land
Under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open
Country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in
Even as Manzanar’s artists and architects labored to create stunning stone and wood gardens, its musicians came together to form camp bands, informal groups of vocalists, brass, and string-playing Japanese Americans who were given permission to perform at dances and other public events. The music these women and men made here, like the camp’s flowered gardens, was a popular addition to camp life, celebrated among staff and incarceree alike. However, one tune was explicitly forbidden from being played. And your nation’s most popular song never pierced the desert silence.
the grave of a child who died here, trapped in Manzanar
Over one hundred and fifty people died in this humble Californian concentration camp. Some passed away from natural illness or old age, others from disease and preventable infection, which often spread like wildfire from barrack to barrack. A few of those incarcerated here simply lost the will to live. Others, including two teenage boys, were even shot and killed.
Their thin marble gravestones fleck the barren landscape. Some headstones are small, marking the burial of infants and children. Of all those interred here, all but six families ultimately sent for the remains of their loved ones to be transferred elsewhere, or to be cremated in traditional Japanese fashion. Even the dead don’t deserve to be trapped in this forgotten wasteland.
You instinctually raise your right hand to make the sign of the cross, father, son, holy spirit. Amen. But you do it quickly, making sure no one else sees. Though you’ve taken comfort in this gesture a million times before, somehow it feels out of place… disrespectful even, to be doing it here. You are, after all, standing on hallowed ground, in a Buddhist graveyard, in a former ghetto on American soil. It’s one of those moments where you feel split in two.
In the sky, off to the east, it’s almost prophetic. You recognize the shape of (not a bird! or a plane! but) a rainbow, hovering boldly above a craggy peak. You snap a simple photo that does not nearly do the moment justice.
Although rainbows have certainly come to mean something more to you in recent years, your mind first flickers back to what you learned in Sunday school: that this meteorological phenomenon actually represents God’s covenantal promise to protect and bless his people.
But you’re looking around, and you can’t see this God anywhere. This God who declared that he would lift his people out of oppression and slavery, this God who promised to break every chain and to give his people a land of their own. All you see are graves.
Dry, hot tears start to run down your face, creasing into little rivers as they’re pulled away from your eyes. Where is this God, who, as the great story goes, was himself illegally imprisoned and executed by the government, whose very own body was swept aside and stashed away in a garden tomb?
You remember the great stories your great uncle used to tell you, how he volunteered out of one of these camps to join a segregated military unit which fought in France, Italy, and Germany during the second world war. You remember the story of Daniel Inouye (who went on to become your country’s most senior senator), who lost his arm and was awarded numerous medals for his bravery in the war, only to return home, in uniform, and be candidly refused service in a San Francisco barbershop – “we don’t serve Japs here.”
Manzanar is absolutely swollen with great stories such as these, pregnant with the ghosts of gardeners, musicians, and soldiers who cultivated careful life, bred music, and went off to bleed and die for a country that kept their mothers and children behind barbed wire.
Yet if there’s one thing you’ve learned today, it’s that only Manzanar’s bleached skeleton remains. This is not a prison anymore. It’s not even a graveyard. It’s just a capital wasteland, a national park eternally illuminated by the inescapable memories of those who lived and died here. Really, it’s just a shell now. Just sand and tumbleweed and a few arid landmarks. There’s not a lot to see for those without the eyes to see it. But for anyone who has a little bit of empathy, or imagination, for anyone who likes ghost stories, this place is inextinguishable, unlimited.
You really don’t know where this God of salvation and promise is. The only thing you know right now is that this God of the forgotten is somehow here, in the graves, with the crucified and the restless dead.
You once heard a great king ask his friend the question “what can men do against such reckless hate?”
First, we weep. And then we close our eyes, and whisper that tired old prayer, father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…
And then we rage.