Nikki Nogima Louis remembers the day the FBI interrupted her fourth birthday party and took her father away.
The family lived in Seattle, where he worked as bookkeeper.
“He’d been in the U.S. for 30 years,” she said. “We didn’t hear from him for a long time. I’d get packages stamped ‘Alien Enemy Mail.’
“My family never lived together again.”
Louis’ family was one of more than 120,000 of Japanese ancestry forcibly removed from the West Coast into camps across the country. Four camps were in New Mexico.
Japanese American confinement during World War II has long been a cauldron of American shame. The bombing of Pearl Harbor ignited paranoia and racism across the county.
“Courage and Compassion: Our Shared Story of the Japanese American World War II Experience” backflips that legacy by focusing on acts of kindness defending the residents of Japanese ancestry whom the FBI targeted as “enemy aliens.”
By August 1942, the U.S. government had forcibly removed about 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast to prison camps throughout the West and Arkansas.
New Mexico’s camps were near Lordsburg, Santa Fe, Fort Stanton and Old Raton Ranch (also known as the Baca Camp) in Lincoln County. The exhibit mines the untold stories of the people of Gallup, Las Cruces and Clovis who tried to help.
Government authorities considered New Mexico’s Japanese population too minuscule to be threatening. But the four camps held people of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, said Louis, a board member of the New Mexico Japanese American Citizens League and exhibit community curator.
Wartime drama erupted in Clovis, because of racism and economic resentment toward Japanese railroad workers who refused to strike with their Anglo colleagues. Their company loyalty fueled hatred that smoldered for years.
Days after Pearl Harbor, the FBI advised employers to tell Japanese railroad workers to stay off the job. At midnight in January 1942, State Police rounded up more than 30 workers, forcing them to the Baca Camp in a neglected and abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps building.
“They slept among the bedbugs and the spiderwebs,” Louis said.
Decades later, a longtime Clovis resident named Adrian Chavez learned about the mass removal in a history class. In 2014, the shocked student lobbied Clovis officials to invite the former residents back as honored guests of the Pioneer Days Celebration.
In Gallup, community leaders and citizens in general championed their Japanese American neighbors.
“The sheriff told the community, ‘I will protect you as much as I protect my Italian American family,” exhibit coordinator Jane Cole said.
Cole’s father was a Lincoln County farmer of Japanese descent. After Pearl Harbor, gossip about the lights atop the family barn circulated.
“People in the community said they pointed to Fort Bliss to lead the Japanese pilots,” Cole said.
On the whole, people were kind, she acknowledged.
The government sent Louis’ father to an internment camp near Lordsburg, where he remained for a year before being moved to Santa Fe. Louis and her mother were evacuated to a camp in Minidoka, Idaho.
Mostly, she remembers the bitter cold.
“My mother made me a mask out of an old Army blanket,” she said. “I remember traipsing off to kindergarten with holes in the mask for my eyes, ears and nose.”
By the time Louis was 7½, church and civil rights groups helped relocate her and her mother to the Midwest. Louis grew up in Chicago.
“My mother still believed in the American dream,” she said. “My uncle was a World War II war hero; he joined an all-Japanese American unit. Many men came to the Santa Fe camp to visit their fathers in uniform before being shipped out.”
“We’ve had 35 years of cataloging the injustice,” she said. “It’s time for reconciliation.”
The exhibition includes a traveling component by the Go For Broke National Education Center in Los Angeles.