Layers of History at Manzanar

Hello, everybody! My name is Rocio Gomez and I graduated last year from California State University San Bernardino with a BA in History with a concentration in Chinese history. While I was still a student I volunteered for a public archaeology project at Manzanar National Historic Site with my school’s History Club. Manzanar is a place that harbors painful memories of this nation’s past, and stepping foot onto the site on the first day of the project was the single most transformative moment of my life (so far). It grabbed hold of me and forced me to take in all of my surroundings, instilling a sense of responsibility and duty, almost as though I was meant to be there. What was even stranger was that even after leaving the volunteer project it felt like a part of me stayed behind at Manzanar. Obviously, I knew I had to be back one day. And as luck (or fate) would have it, I am now working at Manzanar National Historic Site as an Education and Interpretation Intern. This Saturday was my first day and I can’t believe how fortunate I am to be working on the projects I’ve been assigned. Manzanar, which located in the Owens Valley, is best known as the site of the war relocation center during WWII for all citizens and non-citizens alike of Japanese ancestry. Back then, it was known as Manzanar War Relocation Center. Wartime hysteria and prejudice led to the incarceration of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 when FDR signed Executive Order 9066, declaring most of the western coast in the U.S. a military zone and sealing an unfortunate fate for Japanese Americans until the end of WWII in 1945. Although I am thrilled to be working behind the scenes at this site known for this particular history, this will not be the focus of one of my projects.

A recreation of the mess hall barracks.

A fact unknown to most people is that the Paiute and Shoshone Indian tribes have a significant history in the Owens Valley. They’ve inhabited the valley for over three-thousand years, being the first to irrigate and cultivate the land. My primary focus will be to work on an exhibit highlighting their history in Manzanar – in particular, a prominent group of Paiutes from Lone Pine, the Button family – who once lived in Moffat Ranch, just south of Manzanar. Some years back the rangers at Manzanar conducted an oral history with a couple of members of the family; they shared stories about their time living at Moffat Ranch and the general area of what is now Manzanar National Historic Site. With the help of my supervisor and fellow park rangers, I will be designing an exhibit showcasing a comprehensive history of the Button family and their time living on the same grounds that later served as a site of incarceration. There are so many layers of history at Manzanar! I still can’t believe I get to work here!

Just beyond the Manzanar park site, at the foot of those brown hills, lies Moffat Ranch. The Button family used to reside there in the early twentieth century. I promise I’ll upload better pictures after I take a field trip up there!

There are so many opportunities to take advantage of here at Manzanar. I basically get to do the things I love most every single day: researching and learning. Hay que tomar provecho de oportunidades extraordinarias, and that’s exactly what I intend to do. I’m really looking forward to sharing with you all the details of the other projects I’m working on, including one where I get to work on the park’s walking tour! Hasta pronto!

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