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A Teenager's Courage Remembered

L.A. Then and Now / Cecilia Rasmussen

April 05, 1998|Cecilia Rasmussen

In a unique, powerful and now forgotten protest of one of America's worst social injustices, Ralph Lazo, a Latino teenager, joined his Japanese American friends from Bunker Hill when they were interned during World War II.

When his friends and their families were ordered to Manzanar, an internment camp in the desert, Lazo followed them. He was the only non-Japanese in any of the internment camps.

While he was growing up, anti-Japanese bigotry was a staple of California's divisive racial politics, as it had been for many decades. In the anxious early days of World War II, this long-held prejudice quickly escalated to a hysterical pitch.

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The American Legion, the California Farm Bureau, unions and all California's leading newspapers quickly began to demand the internment not only of resident Japanese immigrants, but also of Americans of Japanese descent. "Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands. Let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone whose veins carry his blood," wrote syndicated columnist Henry McLemore of the San Francisco Examiner.

Popular columnist Westbrook Pegler agreed. "To hell with habeas corpus," he wrote.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order approving the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast, alleging that they threatened national security.

Among the handful of non-Japanese Americans willing to resist such vicious official nonsense was Lazo, who was growing up in the Temple Street neighborhood on Bunker Hill, in those days a melting pot of Japanese, Basques, Jews, Latinos, Filipinos, Koreans and African Americans.

His father--John Houston Lazo, a house painter and muralist--was a widower, often absent, supporting him and his sister, Virginia. Ralph Lazo frequently ate at the homes of his nisei friends, played basketball on a Filipino Community Church team and enrolled at night in a Japanese language class at Central Junior High School.

"He was a real hustler, who always made everyone laugh," said his high school friend Yoshindo Shibuya, who is now a dentist in San Diego.

Lazo also was an idealist who shared his nisei friends' pain and confusion when they were pulled out of Belmont High and forced into the internment camps. He helped in the sad task of hurriedly selling their personal belongings.

Soon afterward, Lazo resolved to accompany his friends to the internment camp at Manzanar.

Internment "was immoral. It was wrong, and I couldn't accept it," Lazo said later.

When Lazo, then 16, told his father of his decision, he was purposely vague, allowing his father to believe he was going to a Boy Scout-type camp. Days later, when the headlines of a local newspaper roared: "Mexican American passes for Japanese," his father knew the truth. But he made no effort to bring his son home. And despite the news story, internment camp authorities permitted him to stay.

Ringed by barbed wire and machine gun towers, Manzanar was located on barren, dusty land 200 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Owens Valley and--for four harsh summers and four bitter winters--was home to 10,000 Japanese Americans and one Mexican American.

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No one of Japanese descent was exempt from internment. Young and old, sick and well, even 101 orphans and foster children, some as young as 6 months, were imprisoned. Lazo was the only one who could walk out, but he didn't. He stayed and made more friends, who would remain steadfastly loyal to the country that imprisoned them.

He landed a job delivering mail for $12 a month. Later, he was a $16-a-month recreation director.

Lazo, who had a slight build, was cheerleader for the camp football team, which played all its games at home because the squad was forbidden to leave Manzanar. He was elected president of his high school class, although academically he ranked last among 150 students.

When everything looked grim to Lazo, Toyo Miyatake, who would become a famous photographer, would take out his contraband camera and point out to the boy the beauty around them.

His Latino background was officially acknowledged only when Lazo was drafted in August 1944. At that time, a news release from the U.S. Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority, announced: "America's only non-Japanese evacuee, Ralph Lazo . . . of Los Angeles will leave Manzanar Relocation Center soon to join the U.S. Army."

Lazo served in the South Pacific, helping to liberate the Philippines, where he earned a Bronze Star for heroism in combat.

After the war, he graduated from UCLA and later earned a master's degree in sociology from Cal State Northridge. He taught at several schools throughout Los Angeles and worked with gang members before becoming a counselor at Valley College, where he retired in 1987.

Until his death in 1992, Lazo maintained close ties to the Japanese American community. He was one of 10 contributors who gave $1,000 or more to the fund initially used to prepare the class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government that finally won financial compensation for those who were interned.

His only regret: "that there was a Manzanar."

Four years ago, the Manzanar High School Class of 1944 dedicated its reunion to the skinny Chicano kid from Bunker Hill, recording this sentiment:

"When 140 million Americans turned their backs on us and excluded us into remote, desolate prison camps, the separation was absolute--almost. Ralph Lazo's presence among us said, No, not everyone."

Last Sunday's Then and Now should have credited the Seaver Center for Western History Research for use of its picture of May Knight Rindge.

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