Issue 12 / Winter 2018
How do we notice what is not there? What does it take to recognize the missing or the invisible?
Driving down a Los Angeles street we had driven down at least one thousand times, I noticed a newly vacant lot. “What used to be there?” I asked my passenger. Neither of us could remember. The building was an omnipresent backdrop to quick errands and long car trips. And now that it was destroyed and absent, we could not conjure it back into the memories of our lives.
When my family moved from a low-income part of the world to a middle-income part of the world, I knew what was missing: my friends in their variegated hues. It was then that I also learned, as did many of us, how to bury away certain experiences, viewpoints, and identities. It took decades to excavate them. Now I write and discuss the invisibility of my demographic, of professional women who happen to have Mexican ancestry, like me.
Identity and demographics are part of what I address as I work with aspiring teachers, teaching equity and access for diverse learners. This work both terrifies and thrills me. There is a fierce tension as well as a wonderful sensation of building a community that can, if not comfortably, at least publicly address the conflicts and pressures that accompany discussing racism and race, identities, and identity. In class we explore Mendez vs. Westminster, the California family that sued for access to the “whites only” school in Westminster. We examine the forced “repatriation” of U.S. citizens to Mexico. A conservative estimate says 600,000 U.S. citizens were shipped to and abandoned in Mexico. There are so many other instances of institutional racism making this work challenging in the best possible way. As a class we bring history into light, examine it, reflect upon it, discuss it, and broaden our personal horizons. After doing this for years – doing it well, I felt, making a positive impact, I presumed – I became a bit complacent about my own enlightenment and cultural awareness. Until I stepped in to teach another instructor’s class for Whittier College.
We adjuncts are a scrappy and fiercely optimistic lot: we consider ourselves lucky to be tapped to teach other people’s classes. We know that when designing a course, a truly gifted educator has an overarching goal for the semester, and that goal threads through all the assignments, readings, and discussion with its intent in mind. However, when we step in and teach another person’s class, filled with her readings and projects, the goal shifts dramatically, particularly if we have a demanding course load. The goal then becomes survival: staying one task/week/day ahead of the class. And the day before we were supposed to discuss it, I found out about American Indian boarding schools, or the U.S. version of re-education camps.
I burned with my own shame and embarrassment after reading the assignment. I became self-conscious of my ignorance, and then furious with myself and my education for not knowing. I became committed that these and my future students would always know. My perception opened wider to a demographic even more invisible than my own.
Incorporating this understanding of Native history deepened my visit to Alaska. From the moment we landed in Anchorage airport we were surrounded by artifacts and vibrant reminders of the state’s heritage. It seemed to me, as we traveled the state, Native culture was thriving, visible, and honored. Driving miles and miles in Los Angeles I search for any perceptible reminder of the people who were here before the Spanish, before the Mexicans, before the gold rush.
When I met Tim Tingle, a Choctaw, at a Texas Book Festival dinner in Austin, hosted by our publisher. I asked him just that. Why were there so few traces?
In his amiable bluff way he answered, “It’s simple. The governor of California offered bounties for Indian body parts. Hands, scalps, heads—” I was horrified as he continued, my husband skeptical, and I was embarrassed about my husband’s skepticism. “No, you’re right to be so,” Tingle told him. “Go research it for yourselves.”
Days later, upon our return home the LA Times had a column including, “In 1856 the state of California paid 25 cents for each Indian scalp to $5 for a whole head.”
Ninety percent of the Californian Native tribes were decimated. State-sanctioned genocide.
The body shakes with the horror of the reality.
The recognition of my own unawareness allows me to better understand the obliviousness of others. Rather than look shocked or disapproving when my college student asked what Manzanar was, because the fifth grader she was working with wanted to study it, a mindfulness of my own limitations allowed me to step back and explain that U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry were rounded up into concentration camps, that one being in California, and the first in the nation. I also pointed her in the direction of a copy of Farewell to Manzanar.
But I myself had never visited. So last May when we drove from South Lake Tahoe to return to Los Angeles, we scheduled a stop. Following Highway way 395 we passed through the Owens Valley, a stark landscape surrounded by mountain ranges. It is stunning in its natural beauty, from the jagged snowy mountains, to the trembling tufa emerging from Mono Lake. We paused at various vista points to admire and gape.
The vista point markers told us of the geology, of the natural species. There were markers telling us why it was named Owens, or Fremont, or Lee Vining. We glanced at a number of “Blue Star Memorials” set up by a garden club in Indian Wells and the California Department of Transportation honoring “the Armed Forces that have defended the United States of America.” I was not sure of their relevance or why there were so many on Highway 395.
Where were the placards to the people who were here first? Where was the acknowledgement of the Mono tribes, the northern Paiute, among many others?
Nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere.
We pondered this silence and continued on our way to Manzanar.
Scientists find a black hole by its effects on the matter surrounding it. What is the effect of the silence, this virtual black hole of our shameful history on contemporary California? Is it partly responsible for the white washing in media representation, or the invisibility of media portrayals? Is it responsible for a culture that denigrates and simultaneously appropriates Native cultures? Worse, is this vast and eerie silence an indicator of more silence to come?
We drove on and parked at the visitor center. This was my first visit to a concentration camp. It is chilling, disturbing, and overwhelming to walk through the displays and see how average U.S. citizens are intentionally turned into villains by the government, the media, the dominant culture, and then rounded up with only what they could carry, relocated, and unlawfully imprisoned. The display shreds the heart and the illusions that we may still carry about our country.
As we left we reread the National Historic Registry placard at the entrance: “In the early part of the World War II, 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were interned in relocation centers by Executive Order No. 9066, issued on February 19, 1942. Manzanar, the first of ten such concentration camps, was bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons, the majority being American citizens. May the injustices and humiliation suffered here as a result of hysteria, racism and economic exploitation never emerge again.”
This is the most honest proclamation on an historical marker I have ever read.
Some of us have taken ethnic studies classes, some of us have learned about the history of our state, but most of us tread blindly on the rubble of bodies underneath us. How do we notice what is missing? We look again. And then we make it visible to others.
Désirée Zamorano is the author of the acclaimed literary novel The Amado Women, as well as numerous short stories and essays. Through her teaching and writing she explores contemporary issues of injustice, inequity, and invisibility. Learn more about her at her website and follow her on Twitter @LaDeziree.