A student’s perspective on her first pilgrimage to Manzanar

When I heard about the Manzanar Pilgrimage, I immediately perked up from my seat in Professor Wayne Maeda’s “Intro to Ethnics” class. I knew that I had to go on this trip as soon as possible because my grandparents were incarcerated in such concentration camps during World War II.

I was nervous when I arrived at the Florin Buddhist Church to meet up with everybody, because I didn’t know anybody that was going except my professor. I met some students from my school — California State University, Sacramento — and I quickly made friends with them. It was a long bus ride, but the activities on the bus helped make it a fast one. I was a volunteer and helped with folding cranes for a memorial service that was going to be held the next day at Manzanar.

That day, we drove to the Manzanar camp, where I saw the guard tower staring down at us. It was so windy I wore two layers of jackets. We walked into the auditorium, which held high school graduations during the internment. It was a museum that had a bookstore, a guard tower, a sample of how the barracks looked inside, a model of what the camp looked like back then (it was amazingly huge) and the best one I think of them all, the names of all of the incarcerees.

I immediately walked over there to see if any of my family members’ names were on that gigantic wall. I found four names that were my father’s cousins. I also found three other names that I wrote down so I can ask my great aunt if they were related to us.

Then, our park ranger led us to two barracks. One barrack was the first kind that was built. It was made up of tar and wood. It was so bare; you could see the dust on the ground that crept through the cracks. Some of the incarcerees told us their experiences from staying in these barracks. It was sad to hear that some of them had to put tin cans in the holes on the ground to prevent snakes and scorpions from coming through those holes.

After, we walked to the men and women’s lavatories. This is where we held our memorial service for the late Bob Uyemura, a former pilgrimage coordinator who passed away on the pilgrimage last year. We laid out the paper cranes that we folded. After we paid our respects, we walked over to the mass hall. That’s where we ate our delicious bento boxes for lunch. We also chatted with some former incarcerees about their experiences.

Jennifer Hotta photo courtesy of Jennifer Hotta

Later, we drove over to the monument. It was so white, it was like seeing a light through the darkest tunnel. My friend Sajidah and I walked over to it immediately. We were handed flowers and we watched the memorial for all of the people in the camps. We laid the flowers out and paid our respects. We took pictures next to the enormous monument. We then started doing bon odori. We danced with some UCLA taiko drummers. It was so much fun to see all of these different ethnicities and age groups dancing together in one big circle.

I felt bad for all of the Japanese Americans who were held in these camps. How could they be happy in these deserted c amps? They had guns in guard towers pointing at them, not protecting them from the outside. They couldn’t pass the wired fences, but they made a life out of what they had. They had gardens, dances, clubs, and jobs inside of the camps. This taught me to appreciate all of the things that I have. The Japanese Americans were allowed to only bring things that they could carry. They lived off of only those things. This trip taught me to be grateful for my parents and the things that we own.

This was a great experience. I have no regrets about going on this trip. I met a great group of people and if I am available, I will go on this trip again. The group of participants age 25 and under made a Facebook group called the Manzanites. We shared our experiences on this page and pictures. We also plan events where we can meet up again.

It was so emotional to see people finding their family’s names on the wall. This one woman found the barrack where her mother stayed, and that was emotional to watch. Next time, I would like to take my parents with me because they have never been to Manzanar and I think they should learn the history about it as well.

 

Jennifer Hotta is a first-year student at California State University, Sacramento majoring in speech pathology and audiology. Her grandparents were incarcerated at the Gila River concentration camp. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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