Our Stories

Students Overnight trip to Manzanar to learn about Japanese Americans During WWII

By Sehba Sarwar

Students from both schools play basketball and reenact the experience of the imprisoned eighty years ago

On a cold Monday morning in mid-April, 18 Blair High School and Pasadena High School students alongside seven adults boarded a charter bus out of Pasadena for an overnight trip to Manzanar Historic National Site, one of the 10 concentration camps that the U.S. government created in 1942 to incarcerate more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II. As we drove north on the 210 toward Owens Valley and further into the Sierra Nevada mountains, the land became more desolate and students sat by the bus windows to snap photos of the ice-capped mountains.

At Manzanar’s visitor’s center, one of the park rangers gave us a tour, after which students explored the archives inside the building and the grounds outside. Some students were drawn to investigate a historic fire truck in the station, while a few picked up a basketball and began playing on the court that was created for imprisoned children eighty years ago. Later, many reflected on how they were hot and tired before they stumbled on the court but that they, like the imprisoned may have, “found freedom on the court.”

Post-bus ride at 7:30 pm on April 16 – everyone poses in front of the chartered bus outside Blair

On the second day, our bus driver drove us around the perimeters of the site to explore the cemetery where today only six bodies are buried, and where thousands visit each year for an annual pilgrimage to honor those who suffered. Other sites that we explored included: more barracks, a recreation of a classroom, and toilets that were used by women. We ended our tour with a stroll in the Japanese Garden that had been built by the incarcerated, and also visited the site where there had been a Manzanar uprising when two inmates were killed and others injured.

At different points during our 36-hour visit, students participated and led community circles to reflect on their visit to a space and history they have been studying for the past few years through Building Empathy. A Blair ninth grader said: “When exploring the grounds of the Manzanar concentration camp I felt really happy because, after a long time of learning about the Japanese Americans and the camps, I was finally able to see it with my own eyes instead of from pictures in Google.”

Blair DLIP and Chicano/a Studies teacher Jesus Cobian standing alongside the display of cards collected at PEF’s fundraiser as well one of the cards that students brought back from the Manzanar Visitor Center.

As a follow-up to their visit, nine PHS and Blair students, who participated in the Manzanar field trip, shared their learning at PEF’s May 7 annual fundraiser, Celebrating Our Schools. At the event, students asked attendees questions that were similar to those faced by Japanese American prisoners before being transported to an assigned concentration camp. The cards were then installed on a rack for all to read.

In a closing reflection, a Blair 9th grader said: “It was fun to be able to cooperate with my classmates, and also get to experience something new. I also had so much fun visiting these historical places in real life…I was able to see different monuments, and historical views that impacted our world years back and still make a difference in today’s world.”

The teachers who have poured their energy into making the project successful are: Ms. Jesus Cobian (DLIP & Chicanx Studies, Blair), Ms. Esmeralda Lomeli (DLIP, Blair), Ms. Bertha Aguilar (graphic arts, PHS), and Mr. Jean Raya (English & El Puente, PHS).


Header image: Students explore the cemetery; only six bodies remain buried in the space, but each year, thousands attend a pilgrimage to honor the history of the trauma that Japanese Americans endured during and after WWII.