Activist Honored at Manzanar Pilgrimage

Ken Koshio performed a traditional Okinawan song.

Second of two parts

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor


This year’s Sue Kunitomi Embrey Legacy Award went to Wilbur Sato, a former Manzanar prisoner and community activist.

Sato, who was born in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, shared about his childhood. Like other Japanese Americans of his time, he was delivered by a sanba-san (midwife) at home. He was a breech baby, which meant he came out buttocks or feet first, rather than by the head.

“So they pulled me out by the butt end, and in doing so, they injured my eye, so I ended up with only one eye,” said Sato. “That’s what happens when you’re poor. You don’t have medical care.”

He also noted the various discriminatory laws such as females losing U.S. citizenship if they married non-U.S. citizens.

Manzanar Committee Co-chair Bruce Embrey with honoree Wilbur Sato.

“And if you were poor and Japanese and you wanted to, for instance, travel to Oakland, you got in your car and you packed a lunch. You went halfway, parked, and slept in your car. Why? Because restaurants could refuse to serve you. Hotels could refuse to give you a room. This was a part of life,” he said.

“Not only that but there was blatant racism from the media, the newspapers, Hollywood and so on. Japanese Americans were called all kinds of names, and not only called names but there was violence. These were terrible, terrible times for Japanese Americans. Then, what happened? We were put into places like Manzanar without being charged with anything. They took away our freedom, our rights. They said we were not American. This all happened to us.”

However, Sato was optimistic that the country’s democratic system was still strong, despite the ongoing activities of the Trump Administration. He pointed to how several cities were switching from an at-large election to electing members by district, an action that is being forced through by lawsuits.

“Trump is just a blip on the screen,” said Sato. “He’s not going to last and democracy is going to win.”


This year’s speaker from the Muslim American community was Yusra Khafagi, the leadership development coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Greater Los Angeles area chapter.

Khafagi shared about the meaning of her name. “My first name means ‘ease,’ the ease that comes after hardship. It’s a word that is used in the Koran, and for me, my name carries so much for my identity, my history and for us, as Muslims.

“And it is this type of ease that comes when allies create a circle of love around Muslims, who were protesting outside of LAX after the first executive order for the Muslim ban was passed. That’s the type of ease I’m talking about.”

Muslim attendees bowed down for afternoon prayers.

Khafagi, however, admitted that she hated her name when she was growing up because no one could pronounce it properly.

She also waded into controversial territory when she noted that “the worst name I have ever been called is Israel, which is the colonial project that stole Palestine.”

She encouraged every attendee to learn new names in an effort to build relationships.

“If people change my name or not pronounce it right, it is because it is easier to kind of erase that which you don’t know. It’s the same thing here with Manzanar, right? It’s easy to erase or put away a group of people that you just don’t understand, so you have to understand the significance of our names and make sure our names are heard because when I’m telling you my name, I’m telling you the message that my life is speaking into my name and the message that my name is speaking into my life …

“So as we stand here today, remembering Manzanar and what happened here and those who suffered not only in the incarceration camps but in camps across America, I invite you to learn the names of someone new because building genuine relationships across communities is a form of resistance. The more we know each other on a personal level, the more we will fight for one another on a deeper level.”


The name of the high school student who won the student essay contest this year was withheld due to his status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. His participation in this year’s Los Angeles DOR and Manzanar Pilgrimage seems apropos at a time when more than 100 Central Americans seeking asylum are currently blocked from entering the U.S. at the San Ysidro port of entry.

In his essay, titled “Keeping Our Families Together,” he drew parallels between what had happened to the Nikkei community during World War II and what was happening to the Latino community today.

He also shared about how his uncle had been torn from his wife and children and deported to Mexico.

Members of AADAP (Asian American Drug Abuse Program) make offerings at the memorial monument.

“The second time he crossed the border, he arrived horribly malnourished,” said the student. “My uncle came to his destination full of cactus spines on his feet and back. When he arrived, he explained the excruciating journey he had endured. My uncle always wondered what ever happened to his family.”

The student noted that although his uncle eventually rebuilt his life in the U.S. and remarried, “my uncle is still trying his best to locate his children so he can be reunited with them.”