My dog Pip loves the dog park here in Santa Fe, a beautifully open stretch of sand, rock, and cactus with views of two mountain ranges capped with snow. It’s the only place where, legally, I can let Pip off his leash to run with a freed dog’s delicious abandon, chasing other gamboling dogs. I’ve never encountered a mean dog there, or a surly owner, which leads me to wonder whether dogs bring out the best in us as we—sometimes—bring out the best in them.
Pip likes to roam the entire big park and is not always immediately obedient when I call him to come back. So he leads me into unexpected places. One of them is the monument that sits on top of a nearby hillside, commemorating the Japanese internment camp located there during World War 11.
I had known, vaguely, that it existed, somewhere not too far from the nuke factory at Los Alamos that produced the bomb that destroyed two Japanese cities.After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941, our government began to round up citizens of Japanese ancestry living here, some of whom had been in this country for years, owned businesses and had families. The government suspected them of disloyalty. According to a recent lecture, “The Santa Fe Japanese Internment Camp in the Shadow of Los Alamos, 1942-1946,” Nancy Bartlit, author of Silent Voices of World War II reveals, among many other things, that our government had made plans, long before Pearl Harbor, to round up Japanese men living in the U.S. The government targeted middle-aged men who were known to be spiritual or intellectual leaders in their community, giving them no time to dispose of their houses or businesses, resettle their families, or pay off mortgages. Since the amount of money they were allowed to keep in bank accounts was limited, their houses and businesses were often foreclosed on between 1942 and 1946, when they were released.
4,555 men lived behind barbed wire for those years although not one of them was ever charged or convicted of a crime. Bartlit sees irony in the placement of this camp, one of two in New Mexico, only forty miles south of the top secret machinations at Los Alamos, but to me the choice reflects the well-known indifference of the Federal Government to this state, which is considered a “sacrifice area,” appropriate for nuclear dumps and internment camps. It matters that we are a poor state, next to the bottom in all national rankings and, possibly more dangerous, a state that may be the only one in the U.S. where Native Americans, Spanish speakers and white people live in proximity. If it works, to some degree, here, and has for generations, why not elsewhere? A disturbing question.
Until today I have been most concerned about our undocumented workers here, four of whom are friends and employees of mine, who are threatened with deportation, especially if our Republican governor authorizes the President’s order to use 10,000 New Mexico National Guardsmen to round up our people, an attempt to get around our status as a Sanctuary City.
Now, Nancy Bartlit’s book reminds me that the government’s attempt to list and deport people from seven Muslim countries may have been planned long ago as a run-up to an all out nuclear war against those countries, as the internment of Japanese men was planned long before Pearl Harbor. The countries targeted now are crucial to our control of the flow of foreign oil.
The President’s new budget contains provisions slashing tens of billions of dollars from the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department, potentially crippling them, which not only gives free rein to the oil, gas and coal industries here but perhaps weakens the State Department’s possible resistance to an all-out nuclear war.
The relevance of what we built at the top of the Frank Ortiz Park here is clear. We rounded up men who had committed no crimes, on suspicion only. We are doing it again.
I’ve been wondering lately about the fact that so many of the responses to my last blog, “We Did It,” about our reinforcement of our status as a Sanctuary City, assert that all undocumented people here are “criminals.” There is no proof that this is so and abundant proof that it is not. But does this matter? Have we, as a country, long since abandoned the idea that an individual is innocent until proved guilty?
I am not sure most people here ever believed it, given our propensity to judge on appearances alone. The Japanese men we interned sometimes “looked different”—see the attached photo—and perhaps spoke English with an accent. Is that enough, for us as a people, to have condemned them to five years behind barbed wire and the loss of nearly everything they had owned?
Part of the way we fill our private for-profit jails to overflowing rests on the same assumption of unproved guilt, as Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson makes clear. He describes the children housed for life in adult prisons in Alabama, the unjust conviction of African-American men based on flawed or non-existent proof, and the imprisonment of poor women on suspicion of infanticide. All of these gross injustices presume faith in Original Sin since there is no proof of any wrongdoing—and this is easiest to believe in the case of poor women or dark-skinned men.
How much of our propensity to judge based on appearances is the poisoned fruit of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin? Although seldom preached now in our churches, the idea is deeply embedded in Fundamentalism; after all, it’s the story in Genesis that pins evil on Eve for giving Adam the apple—an evil that begins at birth, or before birth, and can never be completely eradicated. It is “the hereditary stain with which we are born.” Innocence until proof of guilt has no place here.
Maybe it’s a stretch to see a connection between the idea of Original Sin, pinned on a woman, and our lack of self-respect and confidence, which allowed forty-one percent of white women to vote for the current President. Some of us say worse things to ourselves than he said about us.
Too often we condemn based on our fear of human beings who looks or sound “different”—or who don’t fit in gender categories we find familiar.
And so we intern, and deport.
And do it again. And again.
And then forget about it.
[For even more information on the Japanese internment camps in New Mexico, please see this excellent article by Gabriela Silva and the short local PBS video, Remembering The Santa Fe Japanese Internment Camp, featuring the stories of three people whose families were affected, including artist Jerry West, who produced the painting above.]