FOLLOWING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS: Florin’s annual Manzanar Pilgrimage supports solidarity


Interfaith service at the Ireito Monument during the 55th annual Manzanar Pilgrimage April 27. photo by Gregory

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On April 26, 51 pilgrims boarded a bus at the Florin Buddhist Church in Sacramento to participate in the Manzanar Pilgrimage. Their three-day journey would follow in the footsteps of the three-year ordeal that around 400 people from the Florin area experienced as they were forcefully removed from their homes to a “war relocation center” in the Eastern Sierras.

Following the closing of the camp in late 1945, survivors left to rebuild their lives. The military deconstructed the camp and the artifacts of daily life were reclaimed by the desert. The largest city between Reno and Los Angeles suddenly vanished.

However, a connection to the land remained. Two Issei reverends, Sentoku Mayeda and Shoichi Wakahiro, returned yearly for ohakamairi, honoring the 200 people who died in the camp. In 1969, a group of Sansei students gathered at the site to confront the history there. The “Manzanar Pilgrimage” grew from this gathering, in conversation with the growing Redress Movement, and it continues to be a touchstone for remembering history and advocating for civil rights.

Among the pilgrims of the Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage, seven survivors shared their experiences in the camps through facilitated discussions and a walking tour of the Manzanar National Historic Site. Their memories were powerful reminders of the fragility of constitutional rights in the face of prejudicial populism and political bad actors.

Born of Solidarity
Andy Noguchi, co-president of the Florin chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, has helped coordinate the pilgrimage over the years. He recalls Nisei members urging Sansei to stand up for Muslim, Arabs, South Asians, and Sikh Americans after 9/11. Japanese American organizations were some of the first to publicly stand up for affected communities in the face of Patriot Act surveillance policies.

After Sacramento religious leader Imam Mohamed Abdul-Azeez encouraged Muslims to go to Manzanar to see what dangers faced them, Florin JACL members were inspired to organize a pilgrimage with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has been ongoing since 2006.

Omar Altamimi speaks at pilgrimage. photo by Josh Kaizuka

Omar Altamimi from CAIR served on Florin’s planning committee and spoke at the gathering at the Manzanar cemetery. During this address, Altamimi thanked the Japanese American community for their friendship and spoke to the ongoing struggles today.

“Islamophobia is on a record-breaking streak,” Altamimi told the crowd, “The dehumanization of Palestinians and Muslims these past couple of months did not come without a cost.”

From Exclusion to Cultural Exchange
In 2015, pilgrims went to bowl in the town of Bishop, but were denied, apparently an instance of racial profiling. In response, local leaders stepped up to support the pilgrimage, including members of Chamber of Commerce, Rotary Club, City Council, Indigenous leaders and Manzanar Park Superintendent Bernadette Lovato Johnson (retired).

Sage Romero, director of the Aka Mya Culture Group, approached organizers about a cultural exchange, which has been held annually in Bishop, Calif. since 2016.

According to Sage, “Cultural sharing helps show people that we still have a presence and are a living culture. The spiritual aspect of our arts also helps in the healing of … our respective ancestors’ generational traumas.”

Participants pose after the cultural exchange program. photo by Josh Kaizuka

This year’s cultural exchange featured Indigenous dance, Arabic poetry and Japanese American taiko and Bon odori. Participants also bonded over food and folded cranes to leave at the Ireito monument at Manzanar.

Suzuka Kawaguchi, a member of Koyasan Kongo Gumi, said the cultural exchange helped her see taiko as having power to “make space for communities to tell their own unique stories.”

This year’s program also featured Bishop Paiute Tribal Chairwoman Meryl Picard, Bishop Mayor Jose Garcia, Inyo County supervisors and Bishop city councilmembers. Last year, Inyo County passed a resolution that acknowledged the injustice of the incarceration, which was presented at the cultural exchange.

The Importance of Cultural Memory
The Manzanar Pilgrimage emphasizes that memory projects are not just about the past — they are equally about negotiating the present. The scapegoating and mistreatment of immigrants is not a new phenomenon in American history, but efforts to remember history are one bulwark of democracy.

Florin JACL Co-President Josh Kaizuka described the pilgrimage as “part of the healing process and a recommitment to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.” He expressed that it is important “that people understand what can happen when democracies fail.”

Preservation of Manzanar as a site for reflection is an ongoing effort. The National Parks Service staff and volunteers have recently restored gardens built by the camp’s inhabitants, and a restoration of the baseball diamond is underway, with games scheduled for later this year.

Longtime organizer Michelle Huey stated, “It’s one thing to hear the stories of people in camp. It’s entirely different to be on the land, experience the sand hitting your face, and be surrounded by tons of people whose families were forever changed by camp.”

As Manzanar has shown, education and empathy for the experience of others are fundamental to changing minds and ultimately policy. One lesson from this pilgrimage is that keeping memories alive is more than catharsis; it may be essential to a moral life and the future of American democracy.

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