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JOURNEY TO TEXAS: Pilgrimage Forges a Path of Protest

Chizu Omori holds a strand of cranes folded by San Quentin prisoners. Tens of thousands of cranes were folded by groups from around the country to help create a symbol of solidarity to be displayed at the rally. (Photos by MARTHA NAKAGAWA)

First of three parts

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

More than 60 people from across the United States participated in a historical pilgrimage to Texas from March 29 to April 1 that included a memorial service at the former World War II Crystal City Department of Justice camp; a protest rally at the Dilley Detention Center; a meeting with Texas legislators; and a visit to a sanctuary church.

The event attracted press coverage from all over the country and from Japan.

One immediate outcome of the pilgrimage resulted in the ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee being invited to the San Francisco Mayor’s Immigrant Rights Commission for a meeting.


Satsuki Ina, from Sacramento, a former Tule Lake and Crystal City incarceree who spearheaded what she referred to as “a small but mighty committee,” said the inspiration for this pilgrimage started about four years ago when she was contacted by Carl Takei, a Yonsei attorney with the ACLU whose grandparents had been imprisoned at the Tule Lake Segregation Center.

Takei had been so bothered by what he witnessed at the Karnes County Residential Center that he had asked Ina to join him for a visit and requested her opinion, as a psychotherapist, of the sort of trauma the children were being exposed to.

After Ina walked through the Karnes detention center, she concluded: “We’ve got to take these prisons down. They’re inhumane, and they need to be taken down.”

Since then, Ina has returned a few more times to Texas and an ad hoc Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was formed to organize a combined memorial service at the former World War II DOJ camp at Crystal City and to hold a peaceful protest rally at the Dilley detention center, a few miles from Crystal City, to oppose the indefinite imprisonment of families with minors and the separation of children from their parents.

Assisting the Crystal City Pilgrimage Committee was Grassroots Leadership, an Austin, Texas-based organization that works to reform immigration and criminal justice policies and works with those impacted by detention and deportation.

Bob Libal, Grassroots Leadership executive director, felt that the presence of the Japanese American community, six of whom were Crystal City survivors, was historical.

“I think that the voice in which you all are coming with are incredibly powerful, and it’s going to be heard by people who are inside (Dilley),” he said.

According to Libal, the Dilley Detention Center is the largest immigration detention center in the U.S. with 2,400 beds for women and children.

“Children as young as babies have been detained there as recently as the last few weeks,” said Libal. “Pregnant detainees are something we have seen recently, including pregnant girls under the age of 18, who continue to be detained.”

Libal added that these immigration detention centers were being run by for-profit corporations.

“This facility is operated by the world’s largest for-profit prison corporation, which is called Corrections Corp. of America, that signed a billion-dollar contract to operate it, so the detention of immigrant families is both a moral abomination and very big business,” said Libal.

He, like those on the pilgrimage, felt that it was time to shut down detention centers.

“We’re a nation that has normalized locking people up for everything, from addiction to homelessness to poverty to mental health issues,” said Libal. “So we really see this as part of a fight to build a healthier and a more just community for immigrants and for other people of color and for those without the means to stay out of jail.”


About two weeks before the pilgrimage, Mike Ishii spearheaded a campaign to have 10,000 folded cranes sent to the Grassroots Leadership office to be used at the protest rally as a symbol of solidarity.

More than 25,000 tsuru appeared at the Grassroots Leadership office, with many more boxes still being delivered. As of the pilgrimage, more than 150 boxes of tsuru had been delivered to Grassroots Leadership but that number could top 200 boxes.

The folded cranes came from all across the U.S. and Japan, including some from San Quentin State Prison.

Kathy Kojimoto said June Hamamoto was responsible for the tsuru from San Quentin. “June teaches a class at San Quentin,” said Kojimoto. “They did this during their free time or so-called rec time to make these cranes specifically for this event.”

Natasha Varner from Seattle-based Densho offered to help digitize and document the pilgrimage.

Members of Bande Folklorico perform for the pilgrims.


Nancy Ukai, a descendant of a Topaz (Central Utah) War Relocation Authority (WRA) camp incarceree, spearheaded the program at the former Crystal City camp, where Japanese Americans, Japanese Latin Americans, German Americans and German Costa Ricans had been incarcerated during World War II.

Grace Shimizu, from the Bay Area, who has been heading the Japanese Peruvian Oral History Project and Campaign for Justice for decades, gave a brief background on Crystal City.

“We’re going to a set of camps that usually people don’t really know about in the general society, but even within the Japanese American community, we don’t know that much about,” she said. “And for a time, people here were seen as having stigma, that there must’ve been something wrong with them because they were picked up first.

“And it’s only because of hard work that our community has done to uncover our own history that we’ve begun to see the diversity of the experiences that our community went through and to see how complex the whole process was that the government was trying to do when it identified the people here as ‘enemy aliens.’”

During the war, the Crystal City DOJ camp imprisoned more than 2,200 people of Japanese ancestry from 13 Latin American countries to be used in hostage exchanges between the U.S and Japan.

In addition, the U.S. government sent Japanese American mothers and their children incarcerated in WRA camps to Crystal City to be reunited with their husbands/fathers, who had been detained at other DOJ camps.

On the bus ride to Crystal City, Kenya Gillespie shared a short Crystal City documentary film he had done as a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he now teaches. Gillespie grew up in Kansas with a father who is of Scottish descent and a post-war immigrant mother from Japan.

“For my grad degree, we were required to do a documentary on any subject of our choice, and I was doing some research and found out about this camp,” said Gillespie. “I had no idea that something like this had existed in Texas. And when I visited the Crystal City site, I thought I have to do a documentary on this subject.”

Several Crystal City elected officials welcomed the pilgrims at Crystal City, including Imelda Salinas, superintendent of the Crystal City Independent School District (ISD); Joel Barajas, Crystal City mayor pro tem; and Councilmember Michelle Ruiz.

In addressing the pilgrims, Ruiz said, “You’re part of history here, so you’re a part of Crystal City.”

Roberto Velasquez, who has worked for the ISD for 42 years, led a short tour of the site, which he also does for former German and Costa Rican German incarcerees who visit the site.

Velasquez, the son of migrant workers, attended the segregated school on the former Crystal City DOJ site, in the same building as those who had been incarcerated during the war. “I sat on some of the same desks that you or your ancestors did,” he said.

The school building was torn down during the 1960s, but Velasquez said that in 1982, he rummaged through some construction rubbish and found an old desk.

At lunch at Sterling H. Fly Junior High School, Velasquez was able to arrange for students to come out on a Saturday to greet the pilgrims. La Bande Folklorico performed traditional Mexican dances during the meal.

Several volunteer keepers of history at Crystal City turned out for the luncheon. Among them was Turi Gonzales, who presented a bag of what looked like rocks to Crystal City survivors.

“These are remnants from the swimming pool,” Gonzales said. “I knew they were important. I’ve been holding on to them for 20 years.”

Jose Casares, the town historian, has been researching birth, death and cemetery records of the Japanese between 1943 and 1947 in Zavala County, where Crystal City is located.

Casares said his parents used to interact with the Crystal City incarcerees by throwing tortillas over the fence and rolling oranges through the fencing.

Fe Felix, the former librarian at the Crystal City school, recalled that when the library was closed about 10 years ago, she tried to save as many historical documents as possible, but many were thrown out.

Others who came out to support the pilgrimage program included Francis Snavely, mother of Little Tokyo activist Toni Osumi, who came out from Idaho. She felt this was part of her history as well since her first husband had been incarcerated at the Poston (Colorado River) and Manzanar WRA camps. She is also Jewish and has lost family in the Holocaust.

“My sons have both sides of their family affected, so certainly there is an awareness,” said Snavely.

Lucretia Burton and her husband, Terry, made a two-hour drive from Braunfels, Texas, to Crystal City to welcome the pilgrims. Although her family has no connection to Crystal City or to other the World War II camps, she offered her apologies to the pilgrims in a gesture of healing.

“This was the first time I had heard about this camp,” said Lucretia. “I had heard about the other camps but it made me so sad that I had never known there was one in Texas. And now, it just makes me sick what we’re doing to people today. It seems like we could have learned from what we did to the Japanese.”

Her husband concurred. “We’re here because what went on here years and years ago relates to what’s going on right now from the border up.”

Diana Palacios turned out to the gathering in hopes of reuniting with Sumi Shimatsu, a former Crystal City detainee who had regularly published the “Crystal City Chatter” newsletter. Palacios’ relationship with former Crystal City incarcerees went back to the 1990s, when she had been the city manager and helped apply for grant money for the plaques.

“One thing I hate is injustice,” said Palacios. “But I’m saddened by the condition of our country today because I see America as made up of many people, and it breaks my heart to see what is happening. But it’s wonderful that you’ve come back.”

Rev. Ronald Kobata (right) from Buddhist Church of San Francisco with former Crystal City prisoners (from left) Hiroshi Shimizu, James Arima, Hiroshi Richard Fukuda, Kazuma Naganuma, Kiyoshi Ina, Joe Ozaki and Satsuki Ina.


The memorial service was held at the former camp swimming pool site, where two Japanese Peruvian girls drowned in 1944.

Kazumu Julio Cesar Naganuma, whose family had been taken away from Peru, said his one of his older sisters knew the girls.

“So tragic,” said Naganuma.

His family did not get out of Crystal City until 1947, two years after the war ended. Since they had no friends or relatives in the U.S., Hiroshi Richard Fukuda’s father, the Rev. Yoshiaki Fukuda of Konko Church of San Francisco, sponsored the Naganuma family and civil rights attorney Wayne Collins stopped their deportation. However, Naganuma said life after camp was worse since they had no jobs and could not speak English.

Hiroshi Fukuda’s family, like Naganuma’s family, were not released from Crystal City until 1947. However, they were Japanese Americans who had been living in Northern California before the war. His father had been arrested on the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, while he was presenting a sermon at San Jose Konko Church.

“Three FBI agents came and arrested him,” said Fukuda. “I was too young, but my older brother told me that he was sort of shocked, seeing these people arresting my father. He spent most of his time in what’s known as the Justice camps instead of the War Relocation Authority camps. We were separated for three or four years and reunited at Crystal City.”

At the memorial service, Joe Ozaki’s family performed taiko. Nancy Ozaki Tsujimoto, Joe’s sister, who was one of the taiko performers, became emotional as she shared what the site meant for their family.

Joe, who was born in Lima, Peru, was almost one year old when his father was taken away at three in the morning.

“My mother did not hear from him for many months,” said Ozaki. “He was one of those disappeared people. Then, about six months later, she got a letter from my father, saying he was in the Kenedy detention camp and that they’re going to be moved to Crystal City.”

Ozaki later learned that his father had been jailed in Lima with about 300 other Japanese Peruvian males and then was taken by bus to Chiclayo, Peru. From there, they were put on a U.S. ship and taken to Panama, where they remained for about a week. The group was then moved to San Pedro and Tuna Canyon in Southern California; Santa Fe, N.M.; Kenedy, Texas; and finally to Crystal City.

The remaining Ozaki family in Lima was picked up and shipped to Crystal City through the Panama Canal to New Orleans and then taken by bus to Crystal City. Ozaki said one of his sisters was stillborn at Crystal City due to poor medical care.

Like the others, Hiroshi Shimizu’s family was not released from Crystal City until 1947. Shimizu was born in Topaz (Central Utah) WRA camp and spent the first four years of his life incarcerated. His family had requested to repatriate to Japan, so they went from Topaz, stayed at Minidoka, Idaho for three days and from there, took a train to Jersey City, N.J. to board the Gripsholm, a hostage exchange ship.

However, the Shimizu family was not among those placed on the Gripsholm, so they were sent to the Rohwer WRA camp in Arkansas and then to Tule Lake, where his father was placed into the stockade. His father eventually renounced his U.S. citizenship and the family was sent to Crystal City.

The Ina family was in the same group as Shimizu’s that was sent to Crystal City. Like Shimizu, Kiyoshi Ina was born in Topaz and spent his early years separated from his father, who was imprisoned at the Bismarck, N.D. DOJ camp. He fondly recalled how his father had made a miniature tank out of scrap wood, thread spools and checkers while at Bismarck and sent it to Kiyoshi at Tule Lake as a present. The family was eventually reunited at Crystal City.

However, because the Ina children had been separated from their father for such a long time, Satsuki Ina recalled wondering who that strange man was when they met at Crystal City.

Rev. Ronald Kobata from Buddhist Church of San Francisco led the ritual incense burning, which he described as the “symbolic idea of purification.”

“By doing this ritual, we are expressing our aspiration of clearing away the obstructions that we create in our minds, the walls so to speak, that separate us, so that we can begin to deeply appreciate the spirit of oneness and the reality of life that everything is connected. Nothing exists alone,” said Kobata.

Kobata noted that he was present not just as a Buddhist but “as a representative of the spiritual traditions that I feel sustained the community here some 75 years ago.” He said this helped the imprisoned families overcome alienation and isolation.

Sister Denise LaRock offered the Christian message. She noted that the U.S. had a history of discrimination against immigrants. Even her own family, who came from Italy, Anglicized their names from La Rocca to LaRock due to the discrimination against Italians during the early 1900s.

“We stand here today where you spent a number of your childhood years because of the hate and discrimination, the racism in our country,” said LaRock. “Unfortunately, systemic racism is not just a thing of the past. It’s part of things today. Each wave of immigrants have experienced that discrimination and we still have not learned our lesson. We still discriminate against those new waves. Presently, it’s against the brown neighbors from Central America.…

“Today, instead of being filled with hate, you’re filled with compassion. And you’re here today, and this afternoon, this weekend to use your experiences for compassion for others. And hopefully your example and your model will help break that chain of racism in our country because we see it over and over again in the news. It’s sad that we haven’t learned that lesson yet. But it is people like you who are standing up for others instead of turning around and discriminating against the next group.”

Leslie Ishii offered a Land Acknowledgement, which is a formal statement paying respect to the indigenous people and traditions tied to that particular land. Ishii also recognized the Crystal City detainees and others who had been oppressed on that site.

Each Crystal City survivor was given a special lei prepared by Kimiko Marr.

To be continued

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