GRANADA — 80 years ago this Saturday, President Franklin Roosevelt signed a declaration that would go down in infamy, sending over 100,000 Japanese Americans to interment camps during World War II.
One of those sites opened in southeastern Colorado, a mile outside the town of Granada. The internment camp opened August 27, 1942, and it would reach its population peak of 7,318 by February 1943.
Survivors of the camp as well as their family members held a roundtable with members of Colorado's congressional delegation Friday.
Senator Michael Bennet, Senator John Hickenlooper, Representative Ken Buck, Representative Joe Neguse, and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland were among the elected officials present.
The families and elected representatives discussed what the designation of the Granada Relocation Center, better known as Amache, as a National Historical Site meant for Colorado and the country.
The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill designating Amache as a National Historic site Friday morning. Senators passed the bill earlier this week, President Biden is expected to sign it.
Two survivors of the camp attended the round table and shared their experiences.
Ken Kitajima wasn't even a teenager when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a day President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared as a day that would forever live in infamy. For Kitajima, February 19,1942, the day Roosevelt signed the declaration sending Japanese-Americans to interment camps, was his day of infamy.
Starting the week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kitajima recounted how he and his sister faced racism and harassment. For weeks, he and his sister were forced to walk three miles each way to school, but even that didn't stop the harassment. On their daily routes kids would throw rocks at them and yell racist words and phrases.
Following Roosevelt's declaration, his family was given two weeks to move to the camps, and in that time period they lost nearly everything they owned. In January 1943, Kitajima and his family were transferred to the Amache Camp, where the rest of his relatives were living.
Kitajima said over the years, he learned that many Americans knew nothing or little about the "shameful" act of internment.
Carlene Tinker was just a toddler when her family was sent to Amache. She recalled that many people lived in horse stalls at the camp, because that's what they were being offered as homes.
Tinker said on February 19, 1942, when she was just two years old, she "was an enemy alien. Not because of what [she] did, but because of what [she] looked like. [She] looked like the enemy," and her mother and father, despite being born in America, were also enemy aliens.
Tinker remembered the extreme heat and cold in the camps, that the people of Colorado "suffered from," and the barrack apartment her family lived in with just a single bulb for light, and the unending dust storms.
Every day Tinker's parents would leave the camp looking for jobs. Her father found work shoveling coal and working on railroads, and her mother worked in the nearby onion fields.
Tinker is happy Amache is being designated as a National Historic Site, because "all of [the survivors] are going to be gone someday," and they need "somebody to continue our story." She said that Saturday "will be the best day of remembrance" she will ever experience.
The descendants present talked about how the trauma of the internment camps affected their families for generations after the experience.
Mitch Homma, the Director of the Amache Alliance, never knew his grandfather, who died in Amache in 1944. He said it was hard to learn about his family's experience in the camps, because they "never talked about the World War II years."
Calvin Hada, the President of the Japanese Association of Colorado, deeply loved his father but hated to see the pain the internment camps caused him.
For Stacey Shigaya, the Program Director for the Sakura Foundation, the incarceration during the war "created a wall of shame" for her parents, and it "prevented them from communicating their feelings and their trust," Shigaya added it affected the way they parented.
Secretary of the Interior Haaland told the crowd "nothing can make up" the time that was stolen from the Americans interned at the camp, and it "takes a deep reckoning" to deal with these historical truths.
Haaland said she "feels very strongly," about knowing the history as an American citizen.
Haaland and Senator Bennet both spoke about how personal this designation was for them. Secretary Haaland's parents were taken from their family at age eight and sent to American Indian boarding schools, which were centers run by the United States government where abuse of students was commonplace, and Native Americans were subject to teaching meant to 'Americanize' them.
Bennet's mother and her parents were separated in Poland during World War II and nearly all of his mother's family was killed during the Holocaust.
Bennet said the bill and the designation was a small step towards moving the United States to its higher ideals, a country his mother loved "not because it was perfect, but because it was imperfect."
Senator Hickenlooper viewed Amache and the internment of Japanese-Americans as history that Americans "can't afford to forget," and that "internment was a test of our democracy, a test that many Americans failed when they failed to stand up for their neighbors, their friends, and their fellow citizens."
Representatives Neguse and Buck praised the bipartisanship that came together for the passage of this bill. Buck said that for this bill, "politics was put aside and we did the right thing for the right reasons."
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