Only a few traces remain scattered throughout the state, testifying to a bleak span of U.S. history: a white marker at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, an old Civilian Conservation Corps ranch near Capitan, and outside Lordsburg on a desolate plain, the remnants of stone ornaments and fireplaces.
Most of the men, women and children who lived through the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during WWII have long since died or moved away. The Japanese American Citizens’ League of New Mexico is working diligently to strengthen the flickering historical memory of incarceration in our state—a chapter they say is largely unknown, but crucial to understanding our heritage.
The oft-celebrated multiculturalism of the American West has a tangled past, one fraught with division, fear, misunderstanding and outright oppression. But alongside those conflicts is story after story of people banding together—small communities acting in solidarity against dehumanizing circumstances.
New Mexico during WWII was no exception. But the memories are often held close by the people who lived them.
After President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order in 1942, significant portions of the U.S. were considered military areas, and people of “foreign enemy ancestry” could be forced to leave those regions. About 120,000 people of Japanese descent were ordered to evacuate the West Coast and parts of Arizona for placement into what Roosevelt termed “concentration camps.” The Department of Justice operated one such camp in Santa Fe where more than 4,500 Japanese American men were incarcerated, while the Army oversaw others at a POW camp in Lordsburg, N.M., and at Fort Stanton.
“A lot of the elders who lived through that time seem to have a hard time talking about it.”
Steve Togami, president of the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens’ League
Togami says it was only as an adult that he began to understand what other Japanese Americans endured not far from where he grew up. “A lot of the elders who lived through that time seem to have a hard time talking about it,” he says.
In 2010, a Ph.D student in history at the University of New Mexico, Sarah Payne, approached Togami and the league about a grant program offered by the National Park Service. It aimed to recognize and commemorate Japanese American internment experiences throughout the West. Payne at the time was working for a small firm based in Albuquerque called Van Citters Historic Preservation. The business successfully partnered with the league to secure almost $55,000 in funding for project design and research.
Payne says their first phase of work has focused on developing an educational brochure that will be distributed to libraries statewide, along with a webpage hosted by the state Office of Historic Preservation. They’re also planning to put a historic marker in Lordsburg that commemorates the camp there. Another marker will be placed at a former Civilian Conservation Corps ranch near Capitan, where Japanese families from Clovis were forced to move.
The most complicated piece of the project, says Payne, is an exhibit that they plan to tour statewide. “We’re really conceiving it around the concept of identity—those who were limited to the confinement sites, and how that experience changed, shaped or created identity for them,” she says.
“It’s interesting that the families taken to the old Raton ranch were probably among the first group of Japanese Americans to be detained.”
Sarah Payne, Ph.D student in history at UNM
Payne agrees, asserting that this national effort has particular resonance in places where Japanese internees were denied basic rights. “The fact that New Mexico had these camps is important as far as our national history of exclusion, as well as how we imposed a certain identity on this entire population of people,” she says. The project also ties into New Mexico’s broader history of WWII. Our state, Payne points out, is the birthplace of the atomic bomb, which was created not far from these camps. “And it’s interesting that the families taken to the old Raton ranch were probably among the first group of Japanese Americans to be detained.”
Russell says that the process of threading together the history of New Mexico’s internment sites led to other insights about how communities coped with the fear and uncertainty of wartime.
In Clovis, a small group of Japanese Americans were hired with the railroad during a worker strike in the ’20s, and they gradually climbed the ranks. This led to some simmering resentments, with Anglos perceiving the immigrants as barriers to good employment.
When war with Japan broke out, the tension boiled over into outright threats of violence. “In the middle of the night, the Department of Justice rounded the people up out of their homes, stuck them in cars and moved them to a camp in the hills around Lincoln County,” says Russell. “They lived in fairly crude conditions for about a year. It was very unusual because New Mexico wasn’t in the relocation or evacuation zone, so that shouldn’t even have happened.”
Circumstances for the larger population of Japanese Americans in Gallup were drastically different, says Russell. “The people in Gallup basically rallied in defense of their Japanese American neighbors. They weren’t fired from their jobs, according to some reports. They had restaurants and other businesses that continued to do pretty well.”
Stories get lost, Russell says, because people with Japanese heritage make up only a small group in New Mexico. “But I like to say that numbers don’t equate to significance. When you have these small groups subject to severe relocation and alien laws, it’s still well worth taking notice.”
With the planning, research and design components of the project complete, Togami, Payne and Russell say they’re hoping the community at large will be motivated to pitch in for the more intensive implementation phase. “There are more grants that we need to apply for. On our side, we’re now trying to get donations as matching funds,” says Togami.
Russell says the Japanese American experience has meaning that the entire community should take ownership of. “It’s one thing to be tolerant and grant civil liberties and rights in times of peace,” says Russell. “But during times of crisis, you have to remind yourself that those rights need to be protected.”
Another glimpse into the lived reality of that imperative will be open to New Mexico residents for a few more weeks. An exhibit of work made by Japanese Americans in internment camps titled “The Art of Gaman” was curated by Delphine Hirasuna, whose parents lived through relocation and internment.
The featured arts and crafts were obviously created by people with nothing but time on their hands, painstaking in their delicacy and detail. There are carved wooden animals with feathers and claws rendered in perfect miniature. Complicated flower corsages were fashioned from loops of faded beads, and religious shrines scaled down into easily portable boxes, each component carved from salvaged material.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the relics is an angled wooden slab, sanded and painted and mounted on a square base. The scene looks like home, and indeed, delicate white lettering at the bottom reads “Santa Fe, New Mexico.” There’s a familiar slope of mountains in the background and a cheery blue sky run through with white clouds. Also rendered there in tender detail: an American flag, furled over anonymous rows of prisoner tents and barracks.
The piece illustrates what Togami says motivates his group’s work on the National Park Service project: “You don’t want to see history repeated.”