SANTA FE, N.M. — It was a blustery day in April 2002, and around 200 people gathered for the dedication of what was turning out to be one of Santa Fe’s most controversial historical markers ever.
There was a somber sort of satisfaction in the air. But also a whiff of something less pleasant.
“On the dedication day, it was sort of a fearful day for me. There were so many oppositions, and the police had to watch closely over the area so that nothing would happen. It was that distressful on that day,” former internee Bill Nishimura, 90, recalled.
Nishumura took part Saturday in a discussion on the history of the 10-year old historical marker in Frank Ortiz Park that overlooks the site of Santa Fe’s World War II internment camp.
The panel was part of a two-day symposium, organized by the Committee to Preserve New Mexico’s Internment History, on the state’s internment camps. The event continues today at the New Mexico History Museum.
Historian Nancy Bartlit said she decided to add a session on the history of the marker, because people have been genuinely surprised the issue so deeply divided Santa Fe.
Originally, the idea of marking the internment camp site arose because of the pilgrimages to Santa Fe made by former internees and their families. Some had difficulty finding the location of the now-vanished camp, and many left without the “closure” they sought.
To that end, a committee was formed in 1998 to remedy the problem.
Bartlit, a member of the committee, said some of the controversy about whether to erect a marker was due to the use by some of the word “monument” instead of “marker.” The original resolution considered by the Santa Fe City Council referred to a monument, she said.
“These words are extremely important and they’re misused and they’re interchanged and we need to make sure they’re not,” Bartlit said.
New Mexico’s link to the brutal Bataan Death March was also, of course, inextricably tied to the issue. Many local survivors and their families and friends were aghast at the idea of an internment camp marker.
There was also confusion about who exactly lived in the camp, Bartlit said. Some thought it housed Japanese prisoners of war, for instance, or Japanese-Americans considered disloyal to the United States.
While Santa Fe did host some of the latter – speakers noted there were many reasons someone might have been put in the category – many at the men-only camp had sons fighting in the war or family members helping the war effort in other ways. Some were even military veterans themselves.
The City Council postponed a vote on the matter so a series of public discussions could be held. Organizers eventually asked councilors to vote on two resolutions: one to erect a monument on behalf of all American war veterans and another creating a historical marker for the internment camp.
During a passionate meeting in 1999, the City Council unanimously passed the first measure. However, councilors split on the internment camp resolution. Mayor Larry Delgado broke the tie with a favorable vote.
Former City Council Carol Robertson Lopez said Saturday she was “really torn” about how to vote, especially since many Santa Fe luminaries and veterans opposed the idea.
“On one hand, I wanted to respect all these people (who opposed the marker),” she said. But, “how are we going to teach the horrors of war to young people if we don’t teach them the horrors that happened on all sides?”
Robertson Lopez voted in favor of the marker. “Sometimes in our lives, we get put in a position where we get to do the right thing,” she said.
But, she noted, there were some people who stopped speaking to her after that.
One audience member Saturday, who said he attended those City Council discussions, remarked on the racism he encountered and noted that “you would have thought the war was still going on.”
“The comments I heard as an Asian from white people were just incredible,” he said.
Later, local officials received threats from people who said they would graffiti and defecate on the new marker. A prominent veteran wrote to a local newspaper accusing Delgado of voting to build a memorial to “individuals who were enemies of the state.”
The historical marker, a 6-ton rock and plaque, went up in 2002.