February 19th is recognized in places across the country as a Day of Remembrance marking the beginnings of Japanese Internment in the Second World War, when Executive Order 9066 authorized the creation of exclusion zones where Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and placed in camps further inland.
This is an day that American history has continued to brush aside as a blemish, a mere mistake that affected over 110,000 lives, and questioned interpretation of our constitutional rights.
Remember that 62% of internees were American citizens, not unlike myself or possibly you, the reader of this post.
However this isn't meant to be a history lesson, but instead an uneasiness that I continue to feel about my hometown, and the history that I was never taught.
Santa Anita Park, once a hallmark of the city of Arcadia and a premier racetrack, was an "Assembly Center" under the War Relocation Authority that housed, at its peak, 18,719 Japanese Americans right on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
This is also the same racetrack that I sat for three hours, with my entire family in the stands, in June of 2012 awaiting my diploma to graduate from Arcadia High School.
Internee belongings examined on April 14, 1942 (Photo via LAist via Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Horse stalls that are a fixture of the Arcadia landscape was once converted to house Japanese Americans, along with the construction of hundreds more barracks on the parking lots where thousands of people now park their cars to attend the famed "626 Night Market" every summer.
The Arcadia Historical Museum (that I wish I went to more often as a child/teen) has held a couple exhibits on the history of Santa Anita Park during Internment period, but damn, I wish someone pointed this out to me while I was in high school,
literally across the street a block from the racetrack, barely a five minute walk away.
It seems like a point that wouldn't really be left out, right? Especially in those AP US History classes—or quite frankly, any US history class taught at Arcadia High—but it wasn't until after I sat on the grounds of Santa Anita Racetrack to receive my high school diploma did I learn that seventy years ago, Japanese Americans were held in this very space in which hundreds of Asian American students now celebrate their high school graduation.
The line to get lunch at Santa Anita Park in April 1942. (Photo via Colorlines via Creative Commons/National Archives and Records Administration)
The Santa Anita Assembly Center was the largest of all assembly centers, and leaves an incomprehensible mark on Arcadia's history that needs to be talked about more (again, acknowledging the great work at the Arcadia Historical Museum).
Barbed wire surrounded this forcibly created Japanese American community in Arcadia, where Japanese writing (and teaching Japanese) was to be banned. However, life still continued, and flourished in some senses. Via the Los Angeles Times:
Despite the repressive environment, internees formed theater groups, knitting classes, a choir, a band and a string quartet. The camp had more than 70 softball teams, half a dozen Boy Scout troops and a PTA. >
An aerial view of Santa Anita Assembly Center in 1942. (Photo via Densho)
The Santa Anita Assembly Center had six mess halls, with each mess hall serving nearly 3,000 people daily. Food rations came out to 41 cents per internee per day, up from an average of 33 cents that drew complaints. Facilities were generally completely inadequate to fit the huge population, with a ratio of 30 internees to one showerhead.
The Center had its own bands and orchestras, including the "Japanita Jive" and "Starlight Serenaders." Seventy softball teams and many other sports were popular in the camp as well. The Center even had its own camp newspaper, the Santa Anita Pacemaker, that has afforded us a glimpse into this Assembly Center.
You can read more about life in the Santa Anita Assembly Center here at Densho Encyclopedia.
Yet despite this deplorable history, the United States and our broader social fabric still has not seem to learn its lesson on ostracizing entire communities and races. From police brutality to the recent tragedy in Chapel Hill, racial profiling and hate crimes on the basis of race are still very much within our lived realities. The hyper-development of Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era is very much a (wrong) reaction to 2001, as much as Interment was an absolutely misguided and unconstitutional reaction to Pearl Harbor.
Seventy-three years after Executive Order 9066 was signed by FDR, this Day of Remembrance is more important than ever. Our histories are more important than ever as Asian Americans slowly develop momentum in the American social fabric—let us not forget.