Manzanar Still Resonates for Monica Embrey ’09

Manzanar monument with origami cranes in foreground and snow-capped mountains in background

Early on the morning of April 27, a group of students, faculty and staff from Pomona College and the other Claremont Colleges will board a bus bound for Manzanar in the Eastern Sie­­­rra.

Their destination is the desolate yet starkly beautiful National Historic Site less than four hours from campus where thousands of Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 authorized the forced removal of people of Japanese ancestry, the majority of them U.S. citizens, to 10 remote locations around the country.

One of those held was Sue Kunitomi Embrey, whose granddaughter Monica Embrey ’09 returned to campus April 18 to talk about her grandmother’s life and the 50th Manzanar Pilgrimage, the annual gathering the Claremont group will join. 

Sue Kunitomi Embrey, who died in 2006, helped found the pilgrimage and was the driving force behind the creation of the Manzanar National Historic Site. She also was the longtime chair of the Manzanar Committee, on which her granddaughter now serves with an eye toward broad issues of social justice. 

“It’s incredible to think that what my grandmother started 50 years ago as a path toward healing and a demand for justice feels, unfortunately, all too relevant today,” Embrey says.

Sue Kunitomi Embrey was born in Los Angeles, but her first trip to Manzanar was not optional. Like about 120,000 other men, women and children of Japanese ancestry, she and her family were forced to leave their homes, jobs and businesses behind.

“One of the first things that my grandmother shared with me that she felt getting off a bus with blacked-out windows and arriving at Manzanar was the wind whipping against her face and the sand beating against her arms,” Embrey says of her grandmother, who was Nisei, or a second-generation Japanese American. “People talk about the dust a lot.”

Nor in later years did her grandmother stand for euphemisms such as “relocation center” or “internment camp.” She called it a “concentration camp,” by its literal meaning, distinct from the Nazi “death camps.”

“Internment often paints a prettier picture than what was actually happening at those places,” Embrey says. “You were surrounded by barbed wire with armed guard towers. You were there against your will.”

History Still Resonates

As the years and generations pass, the meaning of the pilgrimage and the faces of those who attend have changed, says Embrey, whose own blue eyes and light-brown hair do not reveal her Yonsei, or fourth-generation, heritage.

“What’s interesting is in the beginning it was a couple of carloads and van-loads of young people, mostly Sansei, third-generation,” says Embrey, who has returned to Manzanar all but one year since she was in elementary school. “The first pilgrimages were for the Japanese American communities to explain and heal and learn and honor what happened. As time has passed, it’s grown and grown and is relevant to everyone in the country. So we see folks from all ethnic backgrounds. I think it’s important that everyone holds this history.” 

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Embrey says many in the Japanese American community identified with the difficulties Arab Americans and Muslim Americans faced.

“As racial profiling and xenophobia and hate were spreading across the country, my grandmother and many others spoke out against what was happening to those communities, to Arab and Muslim Americans here in the United States, as a parallel to the experience she and my family had endured,” Embrey says.

She expects such immigration issues as asylum, detention and DACA status to be at the forefront this year.

“One big theme that I think will come up and is important is the family separation,” she says, noting that even Japanese American children in orphanages or foster care were taken from their homes and sent to Manzanar. “Again, the xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment we’re seeing now.”

Diverse Students Drawn to Trip

Jorge Rodriguez ’21, one of the Pomona students who will make the pilgrimage – the final event in a Manzanar Series organized by professors Lynne Miyake and Sharon Goto of Pomona and Todd Honma of Pitzer – says he identifies with Japanese Americans who grew up in the U.S. but found themselves uprooted.

“As an immigrant from Mexico, I am not unfamiliar with the prospect of being incarcerated in the name of public safety,” Rodriguez says. “I have practically lived my entire life in the United States, but, in the eyes of the current administration, that does not safeguard me from having my civil liberties infringed upon – as was the case of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Experiences like these give Japanese Americans and people like me the resilience, power and responsibility to speak out when other groups experience similar injustice. These parallels in history are what drew me to attend the pilgrimage to Manzanar.”

Other students are drawn to a history they had missed, even though there was an “assembly center” as close as the fairgrounds in Pomona.

“As an Asian American who grew up in Southern California, it is still shocking to me that my schools never taught this part of our history to us, despite it having happened so close to where we live. Especially when we are seeing the same sentiments of racial profiling and discrimination repeating itself today,” says Taylor Park ’19. 

The pilgrimage now closes each year with an interfaith ceremony to honor those who have passed away as well as those who face threats, Embrey says.

“That’s been a really intentional shift, to not just tell our history to remember what happened to us, but also to tell our histories to prevent it from happening again to others,” she says. “That’s a really big part of what the pilgrimage continues to do today.”