Preserving dark place in TX history

February 19, 2011 5:00:19 PM PST
Saturday marks a dark anniversary for the Japanese American community. Just months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It sent 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. Three of those internment camps were in Texas, in Kenedy, Seagoville and Crystal City. Crystal City, TX -- population 7,083, 35 miles from the border. It calls itself the spinach capital of world. Popeye is its mascot. But on the edge of town, where De Zavala Elementary School now sits...

"I think it's something they just want to wipe out of their memory," said Evan Taniguchi, whose grandfather was interred in the camp.

A largely forgotten piece of history -- an internment camp, where thousands of Japanese, German and Italian Americans were held prisoner during World War II. Taniguchi said, "I think my grandfather was one of the first ones that were picked up."

Taniguchi's grandfather immigrated to California around 1910. He was a farmer and leader in the Japanese community.

Then Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Japanese immigrants and their American-born children became targets of suspicion and the FBI rounded up community leaders.

"They were eating dinner, you know. They had no idea what was going to happen and the FBI come busting in the house without even knocking," Taniguchi said. "They grabbed grandpa and just took him off."

Eventually 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps like the one in Crystal City. The Taniguchi family was reunited months later, where they all lived behind the barbed wire of the camp.

William McWhorter with the Texas Historical Commission said, "It's the largest family internment camp during World War II."

Six and a half decades later, there's a plan to put the crumbling remains of the camp on the National Registry of Historic Places. There isn't much left -- six foundations in the front, where camp staff once lived. The corners are as sharp as the day they were poured. Also, what's left of two bath houses -- one for Germans, the other for Japanese -- and a swimming pool, now half filled with dirt.

This structure was one of the school buildings used in the internment camp. Today it's still in use by Crystal City ISD and it's about to become one of the attractions for visitors.

Crystal City resident Mariana Zavala said, "After they left, right away they made it. They used the school that they used for them, for us."

Zavala has lived in Crystal City most of her life. She was a little girl when the internment camp was open.

"I just remember understanding that los Japoneses lived there," she said. "They just couldn't leave."

But the Taniguchis finally did leave, when the war ended. Eventually settling in Austin, where Evan Taniguchi is an architect. His grandfather, Isamu, died in 1992. But before he did, he designed and built the Japanese garden in Austin's Zilker Park. The garden, Taniguchi says, is his grandfather's contribution to Texas. Now he believes, it's time Texas contribute to the memory of those imprisoned, like his grandfather.

"They should be restored, they should be preserved," Taniguchi said.