Amidst news of family separations and migrant caravans at the Mexico-United States border, Luis Valdez’s Valley of the Heart—onstage October 30 – December 9, 2018—could not have come to the Taper at a more pertinent moment.
During two different Community Conversations inspired by the play, panels made up of activists, educators, and artists drew a number of connections between Japanese American internment in World War II and current events—even offering their solutions to prevent history from repeating itself.
The first Community Conversation on November 5, 2018 featured a screening of Stand Up for Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story and a post-discussion Q&A at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). The film’s protagonist was the only known non-spouse, non-Japanese American who voluntarily moved to one of the 10 internment camps located around the country. Lazo, who moved to Manzanar as a high school student,
was so legendary in the Japanese American community, said the director and writer John Esaki at the event,
especially to people who had gone to Manzanar during World War II.
Stand Up for Justice weaves archival footage of internment with a dramatization of Lazo’s story. At one point in the film, the actor who portrays Lazo says to a reporter,
Who can say that I haven’t got Japanese blood in my veins? This phrase was borrowed from a 1981 Los Angeles Times interview of Lazo in which he expressed the immorality of the camps and his support of his Japanese American friends. Esaki, a former staff member at the Asian American media arts organization Visual Communications and the current director for the Watase Media Arts Center at JANM, created the film not only to commemorate the life of Lazo but also to broaden our understanding about a critical time in our nation’s history.
It was the perfect vehicle to tell the story of the camps in a multicultural way, not just for Japanese Americans but for all people to understand the issues involved, said Esaki.
According to Kathy Masaoka, a member of Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress (NCRR), the group that co-produced the film, Stand Up for Justice was part of a larger initiative to educate the next generation of critical thinkers and activists.
Many of us were teachers in NCRR. We thought the Ralph Lazo story was the best story to talk to students about what had happened in World War II, said Masaoka.
We were very eager for teachers to teach the material and to make it accessible and interesting for students.
The generation immediately following internment lacked these types of resources and access to stories like Lazo’s.
When I was growing up, most of our families never really talked about camp, said civil rights leader Miya Iwataki.
At school it was not in our history textbooks, and we didn’t have Stand Up for Justice. When I was at Cal State LA during the ’60s and ’70s, the whole world was talking about social change, social justice, and for all of us, it was really exciting. It was through various social initiatives and organizations—ranging from the Brown Berets to the women’s liberation movement—that
we kept looking at our own selves and learning about our own history, said Iwataki.
The lesson that we learned is that we need to support other people who are facing similar discrimination.
That type of contextualization was also integral to the second Community Conversation on November 28, 2018,
Dignity Amidst Injustice: From the Japanese American Internment to Today. That panel explored the many ways Americans have demonstrated solidarity during the Japanese American internment and at similar historical moments.
How Race Is Made in America author and USC professor of American studies and ethnicity Natalia Molina listed the diverse groups of people who offered their support to Japanese Americans—including the Quakers who collected food and holiday gifts for families in the camps through the American Friends Service Committee.
What I always try to get across to [my students] is that we don’t always choose our identities, but we choose our communities and our actions and how we support each other, said Molina.
Panelist Jean Bruce Scott, Producing Executive Director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry, likened this show of support to the one that took place at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. Thousands of people from around the country, including the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, resisted plans for an oil pipeline that would threaten the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation, as well as the area’s clean water and ancient burial grounds.
That was an incredible moment for Native American history, said Scott.
It was the largest gathering protest against the U.S. government in Native American history.
The panel also discussed moments of unity within the Japanese American community, especially during the redress movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, civil rights organizations—including the NCRR—led a grassroots movement to campaign for a bill that included a presidential apology, an education fund, and $20,000 in compensation for each surviving interned Japanese American. Twenty days of hearings were held in major U.S. cities, amounting to over 750 testimonies from internees, historians, civilians, and government officials who ran the internment program. Eventually, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted the stated reparations.
For us as Japanese Americans fighting for redress, one of the biggest lessons we learned was that we were so small, explained Masaoka.
During the war, we were so small, and people didn’t know who we were. She said that the redress movement would not have been possible without the encouragement and action of fellow Japanese Americans, as well as allies.
After that, the lesson that we learned is that we need to support other people who are facing similar discrimination, said Masaoka.
I think that’s a legacy that lasts for a long time.