Valley Voices

Their grandmothers were interned in WWII. Now two Fresnans react to migrant centers

Toma Hubert, left, a Lakota Sioux tribe member, and Michael Topaum, with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, protest plans to house migrant children at Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla., June 22, 2019. Protesters called the plan for the site, home to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, a return to one of the nation’s great shames.
Toma Hubert, left, a Lakota Sioux tribe member, and Michael Topaum, with the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, protest plans to house migrant children at Fort Sill, in Lawton, Okla., June 22, 2019. Protesters called the plan for the site, home to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, a return to one of the nation’s great shames. NYT

Dear Fresno: As we prepare for the Fourth of July, we cannot help but think of our grandmothers. As children and teenagers, our grandmothers spent the 4th of July in 1942 confined behind barbed wire fences in a concentration camp in the desert of Arizona.

Our Japanese American families were forced into these camps on the heels of the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, in a time when wartime fear stoked the flames of ongoing, state-sanctioned racism that was rooted in our country. Long before Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian racism was codified into law and social norms. We need to only look to our farmland to show us these patterns: in 1913 and 1920, California passed laws to prohibit (lawful) Asian immigrants from owning land in California for no other reason than our race. This is one example of the ways in which fear of the “other” has manifested to separate people into two groups: those who are assumed to be loyal and rightful Americans, and those of us who are suspect. Our belonging as a people of color is consistently — sometimes brutally — challenged and under question.

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Schoenwald Photography Fresno State

We have both returned to the Gila River camp in southern Arizona to imagine our grandparents’ lives on that land. (Gila River was one of two prison camps built without consultation on Native American sovereign land.) How do we not weep when we think of the young lives of our grandparents: their teenage years spent without liberty, freedom, or the basic dignity of due process, caged indefinitely in harsh desert barracks? Generations later, we are still healing from the wounds.

Now, wounds are re-opened. Yet again, this Fourth of July, immigrant families are locked up by our government. The “zero-tolerance” policy that led to family separations of migrants at the southern border continues, despite its executive reversal. Our government denies entry from specific Muslim-majority countries. And the ongoing mass incarceration of black and brown people continues to destroy families of color. The “land of liberty” is only accessible for some. Another daughter, son, parent, child, aunt, uncle, cousin, will spend our country’s symbolic day of pride and freedom, July 4th, confined in squalid conditions.

On Saturday, June 22nd, we saw our elders protesting at Fort Sill — a military site built during the 19th century wars between immigrant settlers and Native Americans, then used to detain innocent members of our Japanese American community during WWII. As they recalled their memories of being imprisoned as children, we were called to remember the complex layers of this country’s story. Their actions at Fort Sill remind us: We are descendants of survivors of trauma, and yet, our country has still not learned.

Once again, children and other refugees seeking asylum, and those seeking freedom from poverty and violence in the United States, are seen as suspect, not belonging here. Instead of considering our connections, and the global economic structures creating extreme poverty in Central American countries and elsewhere, we have chosen to separate, detain, confine, and imprison the migrants who come seeking shelter, seeking opportunity. Do we not believe we are created equal? Do we not believe in unalienable rights: to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

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Fresno Bee file

We have arrived at a moral reckoning. What will we do?

To reckon is to remember; to remember is to turn toward the history of this country with curiosity, and a true desire to face the patterns of brutal exclusion that bring us to this moment. What happens if, to honor this country’s promise of greatness, we ask ourselves a set of deeper, perhaps more difficult questions?

What does it mean to belong to one another, as a community, and as a country?

How can we encourage each other to bravely acknowledge the suffering of the past caused by government-sanctioned racism?

Where and when in our lives do we risk comfort by reaching across to someone suffering to learn their story, in all of its complexity?

Our grandmothers and grandfathers shared stories of neighbors who showed acts of kindness as they were being evacuated and sent to desert prisons, and neighbors who stood by, silent — or, worse, who called them names, confiscated their land, and turned a cold shoulder when they returned from the camps.

Where, in our lives now, are we bystanders, and when are we brave?

In the words of the poet, Adrienne Rich: “A patriot is not a weapon. A patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country / As she wrestles for her own being…”

Dear Fresno, today, we are wrestling. If Fresno were our country, would we not welcome new immigrants, remembering it was immigrants who made our Valley fertile farmland possible? If Fresno were our country, would tacos not be our national pride? If Fresno were our country, as imperfect as it is, would we not welcome anyone to work, live, and love here? This is our dream. We are great-granddaughters of immigrants and we see our grandmother’s faces in the shadows of today’s migrant detention camps. We long for absolution.

Brynn Saito is a poet, assistant professor of creative writing at Fresno State, and co-director of Yonsei Memory Project. Nikiko Masumoto is a farmer in Fowler, performer, and co-director of Yonsei Memory Project.
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