The Little-Known Story of a Mexican-American Teenager Who Lived in a Japanese Internment Camp

Pictures of people who were incarcerated at Manzanar War Relocation Center are displayed alongside family tags at Manzanar National Historic Site on December 9, 2015 near Independence, California. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In one of the most shameful chapters of this country’s history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order that forced thousands of Japanese and their American-born children into internment camps in 1942 as retaliation for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, 17-year-old Mexican-American student, Ralph Lazo, was attending Belmont High School, located in a multi-cultural neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Lazo, who grew up playing basketball with his Japanese-American friends, witnessed the injustices being committed by the federal government against a community dear to him. He bravely chose not to look the other way.

As an act of solidarity, Lazo left his family behind and voluntarily traveled to the Manzanar camp to provide moral support and share in his friends’ struggle. He would spend three years living there – until he was eventually drafted by the U.S. Army – and is believed to have been the only non-Japanese person (who wasn’t the spouse of a Japanese detainee) to live in a US-run internment camp.

“It was immoral. It was wrong and I couldn’t accept it. These people hadn’t done anything that I hadn’t done, except to go to Japanese language school. They were Americans, just like I am,” Lazo said when asked about his motive.

Widely known and embraced by the Japanese-American community, Ralph Lazo’s heroic story was immortalized in 2004 with the 30-minute short film Stand Up for Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story, written and directed by John Esaki, Director of the Japanese American National Museum’s Media Arts Center. Blending historical dramatizations – in which Latino actor Alexis Cruz portrays Lazo – with archival footage of the period, Esaki’s piece was designed for use in classrooms as an engaging way to discuss civil liberties and personal responsibility.

“He was celebrated amongst Japanese-Americans for being a courageous individual, as someone who crossed the boundaries of ethnicity and race to really come to symbolize friendship at the ultimate level,” Esaki told Remezcla during a phone conversation.

Since Lazo passed away in 1992, making a traditional documentary proved difficult, thus Esaki and his producers opted for a narrative hoping that it would be more appealing to young students. Lazo’s story was preserved through the people that knew him, high school classmates and those who spent time with him at Manzanar, so Esaki and his team did interviews with all of them to piece together the most accurate representation of Lazo possible.

The cross-cultural connection Ralph Lazo represents is a testament to the effect that a single individual can have when he or she refuses to ignore an issue and actively fights for what’s right. Esaki notes that Latinos are often surprised to learn about Lazo’s story, while Japanese-Americans have always considered him a legend. “The film has screened at a Latino film festival to a mostly Latino audiences, and they were very surprised to hear the story. A lot of people came up to me afterwards to say it’s not something they knew about.”

After returning from the war, Ralph Lazo went to UCLA and eventually became a college counselor. Later in life, he taught in Mexico, married, and had three children. Though very private about what he experienced at the camp, Lazo remained an outspoken advocate for social justice until the end of his life. In 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District presented his relatives with a certificate honoring his contributions to the Japanese-American community.

Stand Up for Justice is available on DVD here.