Our stay at a resort in Mammoth Mountain was exceedingly delightful; from the steaming hot chocolate served in the lobby every evening to the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets and warm down comforters, every guest was made to feel truly pampered and special. After four days, every member of our family including our dog Taliyah was wagging more and barking less.
Yet more than an elegant repose, what gave the holiday its most valued experience was the insightful twist that we came upon on the drive coming home. As the 395 South descends from Mammoth Lakes, the landscape on either side of the highway denudes into a stark and barren wasteland surrounded by unscalable mountain peaks in every direction.
It was late in the day when we turned onto a small gravel road, just past the little town of Independence. The air was cold and dry, and the dusty inhospitable surroundings, though inescapably beautiful to the naturalist, made for a fitting backdrop to the hopelessness that at one time enveloped those who lived here.
The sign read “Manzanar War Relocation Center.” The name Manzanar will send chills down the spine of any Japanese-American who is old enough to remember what transpired at this historic site.
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In February of 1942, following the signing of executive order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, all people of Japanese ancestry residing in the Western seaboard of the United States were ordered to report to collection sites. Resident aliens and citizens alike were given days to sell their possessions at a fraction of their worth. Their bank accounts and assets were frozen, as they were forcibly transitioned into concentration camps throughout the Western United States.
As one of 10 such internment camps, Manzanar became home to more than 10,000 detainees; twothirds of those imprisoned were American citizens. They had not committed a crime, been convicted of a crime, nor were they given due process in the matter. Yet in defiance of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, men, women and children alike were marched against their will into camps like Manzanar.
The stories within the camp were as numerous as those who were detained, yet only a small museum remains in Manzanar to witness this scar on our country’s history. Housed within a metal building that was originally constructed by the detainees as a gathering place for social events, the museum gives a remarkable flavor of what life was like in this desolate place. The barracks in which the detainees were housed were poorly insulated, porous to the howling wind and dust, and at times blisteringly cold. “No one dared escape,” read one of the inscriptions from one of the detainees. “There was no hope,” read another.
Manzanar became a protracted purgatory for its residents. A quote attributed to one mother at the camp read, “The pain I felt in the shameful experiences of camp were for my children rather than myself. The laws of the United States prevented us from becoming citizens, but my children had been born and raised here and were always told to be good Americans.”
As an American Muslim father of three children, these words struck a chord more than any other aspect of this dreadful place.
Apart from the museum and the few stone remnants, the winds of time have blown away much of what America remembers of Manzanar. Its lessons have, for the most part, been lost to the people of our generation.
Today the anti-Japanese fervor has been replaced with an anti-Muslim and anti-Islam face. In 25 states, anti-Sharia legislation is under way to infringe the rights of American Muslims to practice their religion. Now at a time when fear and xenophobia are ramping up against religious minorities like the Muslim community, perhaps it’s time for a national anamnesis about what transpired in places like Manzanar.
Can we allow our Constitution and Bill of Rights to be carried away by gusts of hot wind, from venomous polemics and radicals, or will we stand true in defense of not just our nation, but also our Constitution? Visit Manzanar. What remains is a testament to religious and ethnic minorities in America of how quickly life can change. At least for me, it was a gentle reminder of how life without freedom may be just down the road from a short stay at a luxury resort.
Dr. Rushdi Abdul Cader practices emergency medicine in San Luis Obispo.