It is interesting, this whole internment issue. I grew up in CA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, so not in a remote place. My father’s family is all from Santa Cruz, both the Italian and the Anglo sides. During WWII, Santa Cruz and the Bay Area were some of the areas most affected by internment, of Japanese- and Italian- Americans, in the whole country. And I heard first about Japanese internment in the 1970s, when a book Farewell to Manzanar, by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston, came out. That was 30 years after internment ended. Granted, I did not know many kids of Japanese descent. But still. I thought this was huge news. Why had I not even heard it mentioned?
And guess when I found out about Italian-American internment. 2009. Are you kidding me? Am I so oblivious? No. Although my family was not interned, having come to the U.S. in the mid-1800s as farmers and loggers, they certainly would have been close to the fishing families who were personally affected. Talk about embarrassing secret, well I guess this was it. It wasn’t even beginning to be talked about until the late 1990s and early 2000s, and that was because a man, Lawrence DiStasi, researched, published a book, and put together a traveling program about it. The book is called, appropriately, Una Storia Segreta. The information about Una Storia Segreta is at this website http://www.segreta.org/. But even after this came out, it was not widely publicized, and you would not have seen it unless you happened to be a member of one of a few Italian-American organizations or on one of the university campuses where it was exhibited.
My dad was even a member of one of the Italian-American organizations that hosted it, and it snuck right by him. Probably while he was at “Opera Night”. Last summer, Rosemarie DiMaggio, director of the Pittsburg Historical Society’s museum in Pittsburg, CA, was kind enough to let my dad and me wander through the exhibit in the room where it is permanently stored when not on display. It is a touchingly sad collection of photos, letters, newspaper stories and other artifacts of the Italian-American internment experience.
Italian-American internment was for the most part very different from Japanese-American internment. Most Italian-Americans were targeted because older members of the family had not obtained citizenship, and Italian-Americans do not let mama and papa get moved by themselves. So they had to give up jobs, boats, businesses and homes along the coast and relocate inland, sometimes as far inland as Nevada. Some Italian-Americans were targeted because of their affiliation with Italian language schools or newspapers, or other cultural enterprises. They, like the Japanese-Americans, were sent to distant camps, but they were targeted as individuals, not families. Most Japanese-Americans were sent to camps as whole families.
I have wandered, many times, around the place that was Manzanar. If you read my previous post about artifacts, you can imagine the town I described that is no longer there. This is Manzanar. Granted, in this case, there remains an actual building, the gymnasium, unlike the town in my post. It has been refurbished into the National Park museum. It houses the artifacts of internment in a wonderful display. There are also 3 reconstructed building that provide a tangible experience of what the buildings were like. But if you come to see Manzanar, those buildings are only a small part of the experience. Manzanar is much more. It is the extremely remote and lonely space pressed up against the back-side of the Sierra Nevadas. Absolutely freezing in winter, hot and dry in summer, few trees, and windy all the time. Actually an incredibly beautiful area, along one of my favorite drives in California. The town itself remains as only a few square miles surrounded by some dirt roads between scrub and small trees. But look. In among the scrub you can see the remains of what were well-tended gardens and pools, a still-maintained cemetery, and squared off areas that once held hundreds of portable buildings which were the homes, schools, factories, hospitals and churches, for thousands and thousands of people.
What strikes me about Manzanar is the resilience that you can still sense. The harsh environment may have reclaimed the town, but its site still stands testament to the people who were forced from their comfortable urban homes. They did more than exist in this place. They planted, built, created a space, where for the time they were there, they could live.
DiStasi, Lawrence. Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment During World War II. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001.
Houston, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1973.