I had left Fresno, California, for college and stayed east for work, then for more school. When I returned home I would go there for lunch sometimes, usually with my dad. My parents remember when Herndon was the far north of town: the country, the sticks. Beyond the normal circuits of life.
Because I came home to Fresno only once in a while, and since I saw, every time I returned, how much the place had changed since my last visit, at some point I got curious about the city’s history. Because of something called “the fiscalization of land use,” whereby existing infrastructure can’t be paid for without tax revenue from new development, growth in this formerly agricultural town is rapacious. Fig trees turned over to make parking lots, whole orchards uprooted for box stores, on and on. It is a particular form of erasure.
So I began to wonder about what had existed before the strip malls: about what had been paved over. I learned all kinds of things. But the most striking, the thing that haunts me now more than ever, was that my hometown had hosted not one but two Japanese prison camps. More precisely, I learned that the Mexican restaurant I so often came back to when I returned home — the space whose tastes and smells I associated most with my return trips — was built on top of a concentration camp.
The disjunction was jarring, even perverse. I’d never heard of these camps, never talked about them, had no recollection of any detailed lessons about them in school. When I talked to her by phone last month, Gale Nakai, the director of the Central California Nikkei Foundation, a center for Japanese cultural heritage, reassured me that it was perfectly normal not to know much about internment in Fresno. “You shouldn’t feel bad about not knowing about it,” she said kindly, wanting to put me at ease. “Really, don’t. I’m a Sansei [third generation] Japanese American, and even I didn’t know about the camps until much later in my life.” This seemed easy to understand until I learned that Gale’s own parents had been incarcerated. Her mother had been a young girl in Gila River (Arizona), Gale thought; her father a teenager in Rohwer (Arkansas). “But I don’t really know for sure where they were,” she said, “or really any details about that time — we never talked about it.”
Now all but erased from everyday life, consigned to a strange silence, the two camps for holding internal enemies in my hometown were named, euphemistically, “Assembly Centers.” The term conjures an image of a warehouse, or Santa’s workshop, but it was meant to indicate that these were temporary facilities, holding pens. They were intended to contain Japanese Americans while the sturdier and more permanent concentration camps in Tule Lake, California; Poston, Arizona; or Manzanar, California, were being built.
One of these temporary detention facilities, the “Fresno Assembly Center,” had been downtown, on the grounds of what is now called the Big Fresno Fair. My dad used to work at the Fair in the late ’70s, and remembers a man named Robert Kanagawa who, as a child, had been incarcerated in the Fresno camp, where internees were detained in the horse stalls. By the time my dad knew him, Kanagawa had been elected president of the Fresno Fair Board, serving by appointment of the governor of California. He thus presided over the very buildings in which he’d once been held prisoner.
The other camp, the one buried under the Mexican restaurant, was the Pinedale Assembly Center, selected for its proximity to railroad lines and power generators and purpose-built, on an old lumberyard, for the containment of internal enemies. Just days ago, after tracking down one of the few people on earth who know the detailed history of the Pinedale camp, David Rodriguez, I learned that the eastern fence of the camp would have been five blocks from the restaurant, in the neighborhood where kids would gather to throw rocks at the inmates. Inside the fences, on the site itself, now sit tract houses, a Mercedes dealership, and a Consulate for the nation of Mexico.
Like the one at the Fairgrounds, the Pinedale facility opened in May 1942, the same month Jimmy Cagney debuted in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
Under a newly created branch of the federal government called the “Wartime Civil Control Administration,” the United States declared an “exclusion area” on the West Coast, within which a kind of martial law obtained. Japanese Americans were rounded up, transported, and detained against their will, often with only days to prepare for departure and without being told of their final destination. Highway 99 is a ribbon running up the San Joaquin Valley: those living west of it went immediately to Assembly Centers; those to the east got more time, and were relocated directly to permanent camps. “I think a lot about what that must have been like,” Nakai explained to me on the phone, “the feeling of that journey. The feeling of not knowing at all where you were going, or what might happen to you.”
Families at Manzanar slept six to a barrack, so a family of five would have a stranger added to their group. A family of seven would be broken up. The curtains were white sheets. In the 1940s, my grandfather sold seed to farmers in Burbank, California, and would talk later of how the Japanese growers he sold to, his customers and friends, “just dropped away,” as my mom remembered. “They disappeared.” The camps in Fresno operated through the late spring and summer of 1942, just for a season, but the emotional and political residue of those disappeared places and people, their trace, lingers still. They are our ghosts.
It is important to remember that the process of internal division and confinement in the 1940s, our American gulag archipelago, was set into motion not by legislative action or court decree but by executive order — a sovereign decision issued by a president acting outside of constitutional processes. In fact, the writ that set this racist process of internal containment into motion, the infamous Executive Order 9066, would not mention the Japanese at all, either by nation or race. It did not need to, since the power to detain and relocate was entirely and without restriction granted to the executive branch. The Order granted the president “and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate” unimpeded authority to
prescribe military areas […] from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
It is astonishing to reread this document now, at a moment when a new president has granted to himself the power to declare martial law in major cities; to pursue and detain anyone his deputies have “reasonable cause to suspect” is an immigrant “alien”; to suspend the health and reproductive rights of an entire gender; and, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, to issue a ban on refugees from Muslim-majority nations, splitting up families and leaving US allies, military veterans, and the parents of veterans stranded to die, an illegal measure for which Japanese internment has been offered as explicit precedent. Like our president’s own poorly written and error-filled executive orders, the bureaucratic prose of EO 9066 shows us a racist government bestowing total sovereignty to itself. Under the extra-constitutional authority seized in World War II, all latitude was granted, anything possible, since its only limits were “whatever restrictions” the presidentially appointed military leader “may impose at his discretion.” President Roosevelt signed the order on February 19, 1942, almost exactly 75 years ago. By spring, American citizens would be arriving at the Fresno and Pinedale camps: our neighbors.
I now live outside of Washington, DC, and at the Library of Congress they hold an archive of photos from the Pinedale and Fresno camps. These are propaganda pictures, government-made images intended to showcase the humane treatment received by what the captions call the terror-camps’ “evacuees” (the euphemism suggests the prisoners are being saved from something). The black-and-white images show people smiling “in natty blue dresses”; receiving medical care; dancing or playing baseball; marveling over “modern-type shower bath equipment.” One of the photos, taken in the Fresno camp, shows two boys — both imprisoned, anonymous, from who knows where — rifling through what looks like a pile of trash. The government caption tries to pull happiness from this image of children in forced captivity: “Two Boys Find a Gold Mine of Interest in Scrap Heap of Discarded Magazines, Periodicals, and Newspapers” (LC-USZ62-127891). Perverse as they are, this picture and others like it bear witness to the resilience and strength of human beings forced to endure unthinkable hardship, in camps that were cheaply built, often without proper flooring or adequate medical facilities, and were, at Tanforan, California, anyway, infested with snakes. But the photo that haunted me most was taken in Pinedale:
It shows a group of Japanese prisoners eating in a kind of rough-hewn cafeteria: the caption describes “evacuees enjoying a hearty meal.” Most of them look away from our gaze, close their eyes, or continue eating — too tired or distracted, perhaps, to object too strongly to being used for propaganda purposes. But in the foreground another figure, just a kid, looks back at us. When I look at this photo I wonder what he must have been feeling at the moment the flash went off. When his eyes meet my own I wonder what I do, now.
Looking into this young boy’s face, it’s easy enough to see why commentators since the 19th century have associated photography with loss, with elegy, with the spirit world. Across 75 years the boy looks to me like a victim of one of the most shameful lapses of American principles in our nation’s history. Gazing upward, slack-faced, he is a citizen stripped of due process, a child without rights, an American held against his will, subject to a military dictatorship in a country founded on liberty.
But he’s also just a kid eating lunch. Gale, at the Nikkei Foundation, told me that upon their arrival at Manzanar, the disoriented new detainees were fed a meal of sauerkraut, rice, and Jell-O. “Can you imagine that?” she said, “how strange that must have been for them? Getting off of a bus in who knows where, not knowing anything. With Jell-O in their rice?” When Gale herself first visited Manzanar — a high-desert camp in Lone Pine, California, four and a half hours from Fresno by bus and almost impossibly remote — the group she’d traveled with had included a woman who’d been interned there, and whose small brother had died in the camp. The woman had never been back to visit the grave. Together this group of survivors and their descendants toured the camp and its buildings, including what they imagined to be the boy’s burial site, marked by a wooden post. They wept there. At midday, the group ate in a reconstructed mess hall, not unlike the one pictured above. I asked Gale what she’d eaten for lunch, in the mess hall. “No, no,” she said, eager to correct a misconception. “I was never at the camp myself, that was much later.” I assured her I had the timeline down, but wondered what she’d eaten for lunch, when she first visited this iconic concentration camp. “Oh,” she said, “oh, well, let me see. We brought obento boxes, you know — do you know an obento box? — and we ate, I think, a noodle salad, a rice dish and…” She trailed off, paused for a moment. “And can you believe it,” she said, remembering: “you know what — we had brought Jell-O too.”
What would it mean to share a meal with other human beings across 75 years of time? How does it feel to break bread with our ghosts? The circuits connecting then to now link concentration camps to strip malls and the Mexican restaurants built in them: they press us into commonality with the past and remind us of our distance from, and kinship with, what has once been. In this sense, Gale’s meal might do something like what Roland Barthes says photographs do, which is to generate a kind of temporal hallucination, since what the photograph contains is an image of an event or time that is always, necessarily, not-there. “But,” as Barthes says, “it has indeed been.”
For me, Gale’s meal and the Library of Congress photograph challenge us to become intimate with a history from which many of us would rather stay separate, of which we’d almost rather remain unaware. This past is filled with heroism and resilience, baseball and women in natty dresses. But it is charged, too, with the catastrophic suspension of rights, with racialized violence on industrial scale, with barbarism perpetrated on our own neighbors in the name of making America great. We should look this history in the eyes, because it is us.
I am grateful to Gale Nakai, David Rodriguez, and the Honorable Dale Ikeda for sharing their experiences and considerable knowledge with me, and Tammy Lau, at the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, for her guidance with CSUF’s archival materials relating to internment.
Nathan K. Hensley is assistant professor of English at Georgetown University and the author of Forms of Empire: The Poetics of Victorian Sovereignty. He was born and raised in Fresno, California.