Art from dark memories of detention

Susan Caba
Jun 25, 2019 · 7 min read

What memories are being made in El Paso?

The Manzanar War Relocation Center, photo by Ansel Adams, Library of Congress
Migrant children separated from their families in El Paso sleep on the floor with Mylar blankets

When 8-year-old Arthur Towata was ushered into Manzanar with his mother and little brother in the spring of 1942, he saw only black — black tar-paper covered the barracks of the internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. They would occupy one of those tar-papered shacks for the next three years.

For years, Towata resisted the pleas of elders to memorialize his three years in the camp. “The Japanese push aside unpleasantness and try to make the best of circumstances,” he said, explaining his reluctance. But his experience at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, in an arid part of California, was seared into his memory.

Six decades later, by then a well-known ceramic artist, Towata returned to Manzanar for the first time. Placing one of his pots — organic and earthy — on the ground, he realized how much his experience there had influenced his work. He began to paint, to express those memories in ghostly paintings on tar-paper-black canvas and called them “The Black Wall Series.”

Layers of what look like script in smoky blue, black and yellow jitter across the paintings, evoking both language and the barbed wire that surrounded the camp. In the distance are mountains symbolized by the inverted “W” often used in Japanese calligraphy. Dark and elliptical, they nonetheless illuminate that dark passage in U.S. history. It is as though the paintings are giving up what those tar-paper walls had seen, and it is a whispered tale of secrets, shame and innocence.

Arthur Towata returned to Manzanar in 2006, photo by Kate Morgan

What memories are being created now in the minds of hundreds of undocumented migrant children held in camps — and not summer camps, either — at the southern border with Mexico? Will they someday make art of the chain link fences that contain them? Will they remember the mylar blankets issued as poor substitutions for bedding? What will they make of the squalor and loneliness of being separated from family?

The Trump administration plans to house up to 1,400 of those children at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Will those children eventually learn in a history class that the same Army base once held 700 Japanese-Americans in tents?

These orphans were cared for in Manzanar by a nurse. Photo by Ansel Adams, LOC

The forced relocation of 110,000 to 120,000 Japanese-Americans or legal Japanese residents to internment camps was ordered in 1942 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 which apologized for the actions of the government and acknowledged that the internments were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

The internment is considered a stain on the country’s history. Yet, listening to Arthur Towata’s memories and exploring Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center, it seems the American government is, if anything, intent on treating refugees from Central America even more brutally than those of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly relocated during World War II.

This baby is being held with other children at a detention center in El Paso. Photo by Reuters

Family members disappeared, then — and now

One of the Black Wall paintings depicts a large hanging bare bulb, its harsh light glaring over three figures around a cooking fire. The shadowy figures represent Towata’s mother, uncle and aunt, discussing his father’s disappearance. Because families in the camps were separated only by hanging sheets as makeshift walls, they spoke quietly, to avoid being overheard.

His father, Itsuji Towata, was a prominent Los Angeles landscaper. He was picked up by U.S. government agents shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and incarcerated separately from his family. A few weeks later, Arthur, his younger brother and their mother were detained in Manzanar. They never again saw their father.

“My mother and my brother and I, the three of us were in this room. My mother said, ‘Your father is not coming back.’ It was an intuitive experience. We got notice he was dead six months later.”

Only years later did they learn he had been shot and killed at Fort Sill, the last of several camps in which he had been kept. They were never given a reason, nor did they receive his body.

More than 300 children were removed from a squalid detention center in El Paso. A hundred of them were later returned because of lack of space elsewhere.

What memories have been etched into the minds of those children — at least 2,700 last year, and probably thousands more — who were separated at the border, so that the parents could be arrested under the Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy? The whereabouts of the children were only “informally tracked” when placed by the Department of Health and Human Services. In April, a federal judge said it may take two years to identify those kids and reunite them, if possible, with their families. What memories will those families have?

The walls were alive with mumble-jumble

As a child, Arthur Towata was taught to observe, to listen, to hold things in his head to be discussed or questioned later, in private. No more than six people could gather at a time in the camp, and guards were always watching.

“We weren’t allowed to congregate, nor talk to anyone outside of our family. When they could, people spoke quickly, in hushed tones, so guards wouldn’t be alerted. We were never sure who was a friend or who was a camp informer ready to turn on you.

A Japanese family in its bunk space at Manzanar, photo by Ansel Adams, LOC

“We were all incarcerated, all strangers — the Japanese didn’t congregate. “They were all careful not to tell too much to anyone they didn’t know. There might be a dog — snitchers, informers — among them.”

Towata was known as the boy who was always listening. Murmurs, whispers and the subtle undertones of conversation did not escape him.

“So that’s what I hear on the wall. ‘Don’t you be saying things like that, we don’t know them, they’re not in our class.’ Mumble-jumble all the time, a little bit of this, a little bit of that, different dialects. Nobody trusted anybody.”

What do the children now held in detainee centers hear? Most do not speak English. They, too, may hear only mumble-jumble all the time.

Alone, isolated and idle — no life for a child

Three school girls at Manzanar, photo by Ansel Adams, LOC

Grim as Manzanar was, Towata and his brother had two things going for them that the children at the border now — some of them infants or toddlers — don’t have: The Towata boys were with their mother, aunt and uncle, and they had a certain amount of freedom to roam the camp. The detainees in El Paso have been separated from family members. The Administration says it has no money for schooling or recreational space, let alone activities.

Mrs. Towata insisted — as many mothers do — that her son entertain himself. She told him to “go outside and find something to do.” There wasn’t a lot to work with, but Towata was a boy with imagination.

“I looked on the dried ground and picked up some very interesting colored rocks — I thought I had found some very precious stones, purplish, blackish, manganese. Then I found out there were creatures, scorpions, all over the place.

“I was very handy with chopsticks. I would pick up the scorpions by the tail using chopsticks. Then I ran across a big, nasty-looking, big, BIG scorpion — larger than my hand. It must have been the granddaddy of them all.”

In a large, almost joyful painting, he memorialized the creatures that kept him company at the camp. In a grid created by many layers of the script-like, barbed-wire lines, he has scratched the images of lizards, rats, spiders, snakes, beetles and, of course, scorpions.

Little boys playing at Manzanar, photo by Ansel Adams, LOC

“These are the things I found to entertain myself. This was my world. So I entertained myself.”

The paintings, he said, “are a tribute to my mother and my uncle and my aunt and to my father. That was my upbringing.”

When they were released, the Towatas rejoined family in Japan. A few years later, Towata — an American-born citizen — was drafted. He borrowed $465 from an uncle for the freighter fare to the States, to report for duty at Scott Air Force Base. Afterwards, he enrolled at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, finishing with two masters degrees. He served as chairman of the department of art at Monticello College, while producing his pottery, paintings, prints and sculptures. Now in his eighties, Towata has since retired.

The “Black Wall Series” was presented at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 2008. The paintings were also exhibited at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, now a National Historic Site.

A version of this article was first published in 2007, in St. Louis Magazine.

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