When Santa Fe had a Japanese Prison Camp

Remembering the capital city's role in racialized persecution

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the federal government to incarcerate people it considered potential saboteurs of the war effort. In practice, ordinary Japanese immigrants and citizens mostly on the West Coast were its primary targets.

One of the largest concentration camps was built in Santa Fe 76 years ago.

Teichiro Maehara spoke to his grandson Paul about his imprisonment at the Santa Fe Internment Camp just once, right before Paul left Hawaii in 1964 to attend the University of Denver as a freshman.

"My grandfather told me, 'You're going to Denver. I remember sleeping on a bench on a train station there while I was being shipped to New Mexico,'" says Paul Maehara, who is now in his 70s. "That's all he talked about, the train stop in Denver."

The Santa Fe camp imprisoned a reported 4,555 men and was one of several camps operated by the Department of Justice during the war. They were distinct from the 10 larger relocation camps scattered across the country, which held around 110,000 adults and children and were maintained by a different federal agency.

From 1942 to 1946, the DOJ camps held around 7,000 people, primarily Japanese immigrants who had been monitored by the FBI prior to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Their cultural connection to Japan, as well as their high levels of education and respected social standing, had earned them the government's pre-emptive suspicion.

According to his grandson, Teichiro piqued the feds' interest because he was a principal at a Japanese language school on the island of Maui in Hawaii. He and others considered "enemy aliens" were transported to DOJ camps around the country, including the one in Santa Fe. Often, those taken to these sites had family incarcerated in relocation camps elsewhere.

Nikki Nojima Louis, a special projects coordinator with the New Mexico Japanese-American Citizen League, says relatively little is known about the DOJ camps—three of which were in New Mexico, at Fort Stanton, Lordsburg and Santa Fe. Her father Shoichi Nojima, a newspaper editor who immigrated to Seattle from Tokyo, was picked up by the FBI just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack (which was also Nikki's birthday). He was taken to Santa Fe while she and her family were incarcerated in Idaho.

"He was from a samurai family, so he was targeted right away," says Louis. "The FBI had very, very extensive records on the communications back and forth" between immigrants in the US and relatives in Japan.

The 80-acre camp in New Mexico's capital "was run like a high-security federal penitentiary, with the prisoners treated like prisoners of war, as governed by the Geneva Convention," according to the book Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun. According to authors Everett Rogers and Nancy Bartlit, prisoners had identification numbers stenciled onto their clothes and were penned inside with woven and barbed wire. One hundred guards patrolled the camp, which had a population at its height that constituted 10 percent of Santa Fe's total.

Despite the dehumanizing environment, the men there—most of whom were over the age of 50—were able to operate their own poultry farms and irrigate community vegetable gardens, and produced a newspaper, the Santa Fe Jiho. For a time, a handful were even able to secure daytime work outside the camp, according to Rogers and Bartlit.

Santa Fe was also the site of an uprising by men who had been sent there from a relocation camp in California. Near the end of the war, after years of persecution, hundreds of incarcerated Japanese Americans renounced their US citizenship, legally transforming themselves into "enemy aliens" overnight. Rogers and Bartlit write that over 300 people who had been transported to Santa Fe resisted their confinement with rocks, crowbars and iron pipes against camp guards, who responded with tear gas and nightsticks. Many of the dissidents were transported to harsher camps.

Amid this growing anti-American sentiment, Teichiro remained loyal to the US. Three of Teichiro's sons fought for the US against the Axis powers, including one who was killed in Italy. He did not return to Hawaii until early 1946, months after Japan's surrender.

"He strongly emphasized being an American citizen and honoring the flag," says Paul Maehara.

The expanse of the camp existed within the area now enclosed by St. Francis Drive and West Alameda Street. Apartments and houses sprout where barracks used to be. The only sign of the camp is a boulder in Frank S Ortiz Park on Camino de las Crucitas with a plaque, dedicated by the city in 2002. The plaque reads, in part: "This marker is placed here as a reminder that history is a valuable teacher only if we do not forget our past."

Teichiro did not say much to his grandson about his imprisonment, but Paul has kept the past alive through his own research. Life events have also found a way to put Santa Fe at the forefront of Paul's mind: By coincidence, one of his godsons, Brian Watkins, is now a fire inspector with the Santa Fe Fire Department.

"Parts of the family history was being lost because all my uncles and aunts on my father's side, and now on my mother's side, are all gone," he says.

Louis is also helping keep the memory alive through multimedia theatrical performances that tell the stories of Japanese-Americans during WWII. The NMJACL performed in Albuquerque on Feb. 17, and Louis says a date for Santa Fe and other cities will be announced soon.

"We're always in Santa Fe," she says, "because that's where many of these stories are centered."

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