Santa Fe Internment Camp

The drive to the Frank Ortiz dog park in Santa Fe is a pleasant one. On the north side of town, west of the plaza, the route takes you through the Casa Solana neighborhood, with its stylish  adobe-style homes and inviting overgrown gardens. Just go through a roundabout, crest a small hill, follow the car with a happy dog wagging its tongue out the window, and you’re there.

Since I don’t and have never owned a dog, I have no reason to go to the dog park. While I think dogs are lovely creatures in their own right, I will gladly avoid a situation in which they are bounding about me untethered. But one warm spring day, I made the drive to the dog park in order to visit the memorial for the Santa Fe Internment Camp.

The historic marker for the Internment Camp that incarcerated men of Japanese descent during WW II is located just to the side of the dog park. After some local controversy and debate, the memorial was created in 2002. It embarrasses me to say that after all my time living in the area, this would be my first time visiting it. I had envisioned, and was prepared for, a long trek under the sun fending off a sea of dogs. In actuality, the walk to the memorial is a very short trek up a dirt path. The memorial sits off on its own and consists of a plaque affixed to a large boulder.

It’s wonderful that the historic marker exists, that it does serve as a memorial, that it serves as a reminder of history and how we should try to remember all sides of it. However, one thing I find a little odd about the marker is that it begins “At this site, due east and below the hill, 4555 men of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated…” I am terrible at direction, so while there I spent a bit of time looking around me in every direction trying to locate the exact spot being referred to. If near a mountain range, I have a general idea of the four directions, but one direction goes a long way. From where I was standing I knew I was on a hill looking down. But wasn’t the ground beneath the hill I was standing on also a hill? How far down was I meant to be looking?

I knew that the former site of the Internment Camp is the current site of the Casa Solana neighborhood. But it was difficult to locate the neighborhood through the trees and a large work truck that blocked my view. Suffice it to say, I find it a little odd that a historic marker should read “this site” and point to a separate site not directly identified, apart from “due east” and “below the hill.”

It’s possible that the residents of Casa Solana do not wish to be directly linked with the Internment Camp, which is completely understandable. Casa Solana, meaning sunny house; house of the sun; house of the eastern wind. The neighborhood was developed in 1950, shortly after internees were released, the camp was razed, and many I’m sure were eager to forget that ugly part of local history.

But reading about the Internment Camp has only served to pique my curiosity about that time. I have learned that the Japanese men brought to the camp were respectable members of their community – they were ministers, professors, artists, writers, craftsmen. This was true of all Internment Camps, but it was especially true of the Santa Fe Camp because detainees there were more likely targeted by the FBI for being prominent members of their communities, and were brought to Santa Fe for hearings.

To occupy their time, the internees created art out of wood, watercolor, charcoal pencil, found items. They created a camp newspaper called Santa Fe Jiho (Times). They created a theatre company and put on outdoor performances. They created wonderful dishes which they served in restaurants that they ran in the mess hall. They created a tennis team, a painting club, a poetry group.

While it sounds like the internees were given some liberties compared to those at other camps, it was by no means a great experience. These were still men with no rights who had been separated from everyone they knew and loved. These were men who were subjected to loneliness and injustice and prejudice and violence. Here’s a haiku written by Keiho Soga, one of the Camp internees:

Many a friend

Who is incarcerated

Ages Visibly.

Summer is passing by.

Still, it’s fascinating to think about those few years, a time period when the New Mexico landscape was filled with Japanese music and poetry and painting. Meanwhile, 40 miles north, Georgia O’Keefe was painting her stark landscapes of Abiqiui and Ghost Ranch. Just 30 miles north in Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project was in full swing.

It’s interesting what we choose to display and hold onto for historical records and why. In this case, I’m more interested in what’s lost. I would love to get my hands on some old issues of Santa Fe Jiho. I would love to read more haiku and see more paintings, the records of that time from the internees’ perspective.

The historical marker is nice and all, but it doesn’t even begin to tell the full story.

____________________________________________________________________________

For more on the Japanese American WW II experience, visit Courage and Compassion, a current exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum.

What: Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience

Where: Albuquerque Museum

When: June – November 2019

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