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The Importance of Visiting Manzanar

The other night I was talking about my weekend plans with a couple of people when I got a "Why the hell would you do that?!" reaction. You see, I'll be heading up U.S. Route 395, not to go skiing at Mammoth, not to go hike up Mount Whitney, not for a trip into Death Valley National Park -- all things I'd love to do, and may actually make a side trip out of -- but for Manzanar.

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Manzanar is a National Historic Site to help all of us never forget what the U.S. Government did to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor: concentration camps. That may seem like a harsh word, or one that diminishes the atrocities of the Holocaust, but as the New York Times put it in a 1998 editorial:

... it does no service to the memory of the victims of Nazi genocide to distort an ugly truth about American history. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, when innocent Japanese-American families were seized and placed in camps surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by sentries, President Franklin Roosevelt called the sites concentration camps. Since that is how authorities defined what the Japanese-Americans themselves experienced, it is only logical for the victims to want to remember it that way, and for others to honor that intention.

There is no way I could explain everything about Manzanar in this brief posting, but as the picture becomes clearer about what it was and is today, the reaction I got might make more sense. Why would anyone want to make a trip out of this tragic moment in American history?

I know plenty of people who've been to Manzanar, usually as a quick roadside stop to or from Mammoth (one told me it was a place for a bathroom break). There's a plus to this: travelers are exposed to something they wouldn't normally seek out and they hopefully came away with a new perspective.

But to head to the Owens Valley solely for Manzanar on the last Saturday of April is a whole different experience: It's powerful, deeply emotional, and eye opening.

The main Manzanar Pilgrimage event in 2011 | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

It's called the Manzanar Pilgrimage, an annual event now in its 43rd year to commemorate both President Roosevelt's signing of Executive Order 9066, authorizing the roundup and incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, and the establishment of Manzanar National Historic Site, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.


Over 1,000 people attend, many to reflect, remember, and honor the past -- some were forced to live at Manzanar or one of the other nine camps as a child; some are relatives or knew someone who was at a camp.

"The whole idea of this weekend is that we don't want this to happen to anyone ever again -- the discrimination, the hysteria, the racial profiling," Gann Matsuda of the Manzanar Committee told me. "You have a lot of the same stuff going on today."

After 9/11, Matsuda noticed more and more Muslim Americans showing up at the event, especially at the smaller night program called Manzanar at Dusk where people have a chance to learn from former incarcerees in intimate small groups and reflect on what they learned at the main program earlier in the day. "They felt like they were on an island. They had to face discrimination and racial profiling on their own; they never knew another community had to go through this already," explained Matsuda.

Religious leaders at the Pilgrimage Interfaith Service in 2011 | Photo: Zach Behrens/KCET

I was first drawn to the Manzanar Pilgrimage as a curiosity. I had only scratched the surface here and there, first learning about the camps in high school (being from Illinois, it was at such a cursory level, though), coming upon photos online, and hearing its connections to Los Angeles (the city has a controversial water history with the Owens Valley, and it also leased the land to the federal government for the Manzanar camp that housed many, many Angelenos). When I drove up last year to finally check it out, I was overpowered by everything I encountered: the sense of community and the smiles shared between, the sadness and despair of remembering the past, the optimism of never forgetting, the link to Los Angeles' history; all of it juxtaposed by the beauty of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Unlike other places I've visited, I came back home already knowing what I'd exactly be doing a year from then. The pilgrimage is every year on the last Saturday of April with the main event starting at noon. Whether you can make the event this year or next, or just tour the monument on your own any other day of the year, a visit to Manzanar is an experience that will stay with you for life.


The 43rd Annual Manzanar Pilgrimage is scheduled for noon on Saturday, April 28, 2012, at the Manzanar National Historic Site, located on U.S. Route 395 between the towns of Lone Pine and Independence , approximately 230 miles north of Los Angeles. The Manzanar at Dusk program is from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Lone Pine High School gymnasium, located at 538 South Main Street (US 395), in Lone Pine.

About the Author

Zach Behrens is KCETLink's Editor-in-Chief of Blogs, where he oversees website editorial and advises on projects. When he does write, he mostly covers local government, environment, and the outdoors.
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