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Curator of Southwest history for the New Mexico History Museum, Cathy Notarnicola, looks past an ‘Ike’ uniform jacket displayed Saturday at the Japanese internment camp exhibition at the museum. The exhibition is courtesy of the Smithsonian and will be open to the public until the end of the year. The exhibition includes large panel walls of photos, documentation and text boxes telling the story from December 1941 through the end of the war, when some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned.
Cathy Notarnicola gestures Saturday to the various personal belongings of interned Japanese Americans. Santa Fe had an internment camp that held Japanese Americans during World War II. The camp’s population went up and down during the war, hitting a high of about 4,500 people early on.
Cathy Notarnicola explains Saturday how there are more incarceration camps closer to the West Coast with Santa Fe having one of the furthest inland internment camps.

General Assignment Reporter
Curator of Southwest history for the New Mexico History Museum, Cathy Notarnicola, looks past an ‘Ike’ uniform jacket displayed Saturday at the Japanese internment camp exhibition at the museum. The exhibition is courtesy of the Smithsonian and will be open to the public until the end of the year. The exhibition includes large panel walls of photos, documentation and text boxes telling the story from December 1941 through the end of the war, when some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned.
Cathy Notarnicola gestures Saturday to the various personal belongings of interned Japanese Americans. Santa Fe had an internment camp that held Japanese Americans during World War II. The camp’s population went up and down during the war, hitting a high of about 4,500 people early on.
Cathy Notarnicola explains Saturday how there are more incarceration camps closer to the West Coast with Santa Fe having one of the furthest inland internment camps.
It’s a heartbreaking image: a photo taken by Dorothea Lange showing Japanese American children joining other students in pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag sometime in the spring of 1942.
One wonders what the children were thinking or if they understood the sad irony of the situation.
After all, the photo was taken just months after the U.S. government had rounded up Japanese American citizens, first in Hawaii and then nationwide, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — the event that drew the U.S. into World War II.
By the time Lange took the photo, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans already were interred in prison camps around the country — including one in Santa Fe. They had been forcibly removed from their homes, their businesses and in some cases their family members in an effort to ensure they did not engage in activities that could undermine America’s efforts to win the war.
Lange’s photo is one of many images and personal items showcasing the plight of Japanese Americans who found themselves prisoners of the country they had adopted in a traveling Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition called Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II, which opened Sunday at the New Mexico History Museum.
It’s a story too many people may not be familiar with, said Cathy Notarnicola, curator of Southwest history for the New Mexico History Museum. And even if they know the basic facts about this dark period of American history, the exhibition presents a “personalization of the story” that humanizes the participants, she added.
The exhibition includes large panel walls of photos, documentation and text boxes telling the story from December 1941 through the end of the war, when some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned.
It also includes more than 30 personal items Japanese Americans kept through the war years, including a duffel bag used to carry the few possessions they were allowed to bring with them into the camps; an ash tray one incarcerated person made to perhaps kill time; a marriage certificate for two internees who wed behind the barbed wire fences.
Photos from the period also show those Japanese Americans closing up their shops and crowding into trucks in preparation for a forced move to the camps. Hanging a sign on their businesses proclaiming “I Am An American” did not help, based on the story told in the photos.
The look on one boy’s face as he stares from one of those trucks into the camera suggests an abandoned orphan wondering where he was going — and why.
Notarnicola said Japanese Americans probably were feeling “a loss of hope and a lot of fear as to what their fate would be. Would they be evicted from their country? Would they be incarcerated forever?”
Many who had become American citizens probably harbored second or even third thoughts about what that meant now that they were herded into the camps, she said — all but one of which were located in the rural, often desolate western part of the country.
Though the traveling exhibition does not include any specific items, images or text related to the Santa Fe camp, Notarnicola said the museum borrowed an oil-on-canvas painting by Santa Fe artist Jerry West that depicts that camp, located in what is now known as the Casa Solana neighborhood. That painting usually hangs in the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Early in 1942, the U.S. Justice Department expanded a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Santa Fe into a holding center. The camp’s population went up and down during the war, hitting a high of about 4,500 people early on.
The all-male camp included scholars, ministers, teachers and members of the intelligentsia who might have been considered of particular threat during the war. Many had sons or male relatives fighting for the U.S. Army during the war, adding a touch of poignancy to their tale.
The Japanese American soldiers were not fighting directly against soldiers from their families’ native land but instead took on the Germans and Italians in the European campaign of the war. Over time, they proved themselves in battle to such a degree their combined military combat unit — the famed 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team — is considered the most decorated group for its size and length of service in the war. The story of these soldiers is included in the traveling exhibition.
The exhibition also includes some lesser-known or forgotten aspects of the story — such as the fact the U.S. asked its allies in Latin America to arrest all Japanese, German and Italian citizens there to send them to America for incarceration. (There also were prisons made for German American and Italian American citizens.)
Whether these wrongs could ever be righted is another matter. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to attempt to compensate the incarcerated Japanese American citizens. The bill offered a formal apology and payouts of $20,000 to each surviving Japanese American prisoner.
“Here we admit a wrong,” Reagan said at the time. “We reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”
Notarnicola said she believes the apology “helped to heal” some of the wounds left from the experience. But the $20,000, she said, was not enough “especially if you lost your home or business.”
Notarnicola said the exhibition — which runs through the end of the year at the history museum — is full of lessons are important to heed today.
Noting the coronavirus pandemic stirred up anti-Asian sentiment from many who felt China was responsible for the virus, she said: “We still have a lot to learn.”
What: Righting A Wrong: Japanese-Americans and World War II exhibition
Where: New Mexico History Museum, 113 Lincoln Avenue
When: Opening Oct. 23 and running through Dec. 31.
Ticket prices, more info: 505-476-5200
General Assignment Reporter
Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican’s city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.
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