RABBIT RAMBLINGS: On processing the Crystal City pilgrimage

bioline_Chizu Omori

I’ve been home for a while since the March 29 to April 1 Crystal City, Texas pilgrimage and demonstration at Dilley, the largest detention center for asylum seekers in the U.S. It is as though my head and my heart are so full of thoughts and feelings that I can’t “process” the experience with detachment. What was supposed to be a “scouting” expedition to prepare for a bigger pilgrimage in November turned out to be much much more, encompassing the past (Crystal City as one of the camps that the government used to incarcerate American Japanese, Japanese Latin Americans — most from Peru — and some American Italians and Germans) and the present (demonstrating in front of a big detention camp for present-day incarcerated peoples).

Our group of 60 to 70 people participated in a number of activities such as stringing up and preparing more than 25,000 paper cranes on a Friday, readying them for display at various places. One of our leaders, Mike Ishii, had issued a nationwide call for sending in these tsurus, origami paper cranes, and when he asked for 10,000, I thought he was out of his mind. It turned out that cranes came from everywhere, boxes and boxes, totaling more than 25,000. It was an impressive show of solidarity and support for our demonstration protesting our immigration policies and the detention centers holding these asylum seekers.

TSURU AND SOLIDARITY ­— Marge Taniwaki adds a strand of tsuru (paper cranes) during the demonstration in Dilley, Texas. photo by Martha Nakagawa

We went to the site of the former prison camp at Crystal City, participated in a Buddhist ceremony led by the Rev. Ronald Kobata, and met with town officials who were there to greet us. We had taiko, sober reflections on what had happened there and a tour of the grounds, all creating a meditative mood. We had lunch at a nearby middle school where we were entertained by a troupe of girls who were members of a Folklorico Mexican dance group. The townspeople were welcoming and some told stories that they recalled about living there when the prison camp was in operation. One person remembered his parents exchanging tortillas and other food for oranges from the camp.

On to Dilley where our demonstration took place, with the placement of thousands of cranes on the fence, stirring speeches by Native American elders, our chants and songs, more taiko, and impassioned speakers linking what happened to us in World War II with the incarceration going on right now. Here, the mood changed to one of determination to be witnesses and opposers of what was happening at Dilley, and again, very emotional.

We then had an evening program of reflections on what we experienced during the day. The next day, some of our group went to the Mexican border at Laredo to witness what was happening at the border and met with volunteers who were helping the migrants there. Others of our group went to the Greyhound bus station where church volunteers were helping those leaving the detention center and on their way to sponsors and family all over the U.S. The rest of us had a discussion and listened to stories told by survivors of the Crystal City experience, particularly from those who were kidnapped from Peru. The Laredo pilgrims reported back on their experience, and we talked about what we as individuals could do to protest, to work toward changing today’s government policies of detention and incarceration.

On Monday, we went to Austin to talk to state legislators on our history and how we connect directly with today’s issues. A Chinese American legislator, Rep. Gene Wu, was especially welcoming. On speaking about our country’s discrimination against Asian Americans, he choked up and couldn’t continue. This was such a surprising turn of events, the rest of us also choked up. The remarkable thing about the whole experience was that so many of us and also the people we encountered were so moved and affected that tears were evident at every encounter. This welling up of emotion showed how past issues and present day realities are very close to the hearts of many of us.

Then we went to a church that was being used as a sanctuary for some asylum seekers and learned about local people’s work in aiding these people and working with individual cases. The stories of the asylum seekers were heart wrenching and getting up so close and personal to actual human beings who were caught up in the snarl of our immigration and legality issues had a profound impact on all of us “pilgrims.”

Well, we cannot stand idly by while thousands are being detained and families separated. These situations are reminders of what our families went though, incarceration, separations, difficult decisions, impoverishment, loss of autonomy and to a great extent, a confusion about our identity.

All in all, it was a remarkable weekend. All of this was recorded by an NHK crew from Japan and many others. I’m still processing.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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