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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Following his beliefs led him to Manzanar

Ralph Lazo's decision to voluntarily join his Japanese American classmates in the internment camp still resonates 65 years later.

May 27, 2007|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Manzanar, Calif., May 1942.

It's a warm morning at the dusty, inhospitable World War II internment camp on the bleak edge of the Owens Valley. Latino teenager Ralph Lazo arrives by bus to join his Japanese American friends from Belmont High School.

Lazo, a 16-year-old Mexican-Irish American, was motivated by loyalty and outrage at the internment of his friends. He became the only known non-spouse, non-Japanese who voluntarily relocated to Manzanar.

"Who can say that I haven't got Japanese blood in my veins?" Lazo told The Times in a 1981 interview.

That sentiment is voiced by actor Alexis Cruz , who plays Lazo in a 33-minute docudrama, "Stand Up for Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story." The film, which also uses archival footage, is part of a project to make local history and civics lessons more interesting for high school students.

The Los Angeles Unified School District recognized Lazo's act of friendship and loyalty last week as the Board of Education presented his relatives with a certificate for his contributions to the Japanese American community. Film participants, teachers and members of the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress group were also awarded certificates for the project, part of the board's Asian Pacific Heritage Month Resolution.

Lazo was "an individual who showed courage. He stood up for his neighbors, doing the right thing at a difficult time," said John Esaki, who wrote and directed the film and is program director at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. "This story has been told hundreds of times, but never through the eyes of a Mexican American. He was legendary, winning the hearts of everyone at Manzanar, and it was hard to ignore such a powerful and enduring character."

The film, made for about $100,000, was produced by Visual Communications, an Asian Pacific media arts center, and funded by the California Civil Liberties Public Education Project. It recreates the period after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. More than two months later, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast, believing them to be a threat to national security.

Lazo, who was born in Los Angeles in 1925, grew up in the Temple Street neighborhood on Bunker Hill, a melting pot of Japanese, Basques, Jews, Latinos, Anglos, Filipinos, Koreans and African Americans.

As he watched posters go up in community churches giving instructions for the internment process, "it really hit home," he told The Times in 1981. Anger overwhelmed him as he helped his friends hurriedly sell their belongings for a pittance.

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

His father, John Houston Lazo, was a widower who supported Ralph and his sister, Virginia, by working for the Santa Fe Railroad and painting houses. When his father was on the road, Ralph Lazo often ate at the homes of Nisei friends -- second-generation Japanese Americans. He also played basketball on a Filipino community church team.

In May 1942, prodded by Japanese American classmates "to come along," Lazo slipped aboard a train. He'd told his father that he was going to camp with his Japanese American friends but was vague about the particulars.

"I think he thought I meant weekend camp," Lazo told The Times. But when his father learned that his son was at Manzanar, he made no effort to bring him home.

"He was a wise man," Lazo said. "He knew I was safe."

No government official asked about his ancestry, he said. "Being brown has its advantages."

Despite Manzanar's name, Spanish for "apple orchard," the area had been left barren decades earlier when Owens Valley water was diverted to Los Angeles.

But Lazo helped to make the place as attractive as possible by planting trees. He also delivered mail and kept spirits up by holding holiday parties that featured punch, deviled-egg sandwiches and the Jive Bombers, the camp's dance band. He even played cupid, matchmaking several friends, according to Esaki, the filmmaker.

"He was enthusiastic. He spoke a little Japanese and was a cheerleader who fired up the crowd at all the sporting events," Esaki said.

Lazo told The Times that camp inmates tried to make the best of their situation. "We didn't just sit around and complain," he said. "In the summer, the heat was unbearable; in the winter, the sparsely rationed oil didn't adequately heat the tarpaper-covered pine barracks with the knotholes in the floor. The wind would blow so hard, it would toss rocks around."

When everything looked grim, Toyo Miyatake, a renowned photographer who captured poignant scenes at Manzanar with his contraband homemade camera, "would always point out the beauty around us," Lazo said.

In 1944, Lazo was elected class president of Manzanar High School, even though he graduated at the bottom of a class of 150. "I didn't mind being at the bottom of that group," he told The Times.

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