Camp Life Memories

Palos Verdes Peninsula News, February 11, 2009

Exhibit Explores the Japanese-American Experience

by Rebecca Villaneda,   Peninsula News

Chizuko DeQueiroz

The woman behind the brush strokes of ďCamp Days 1942-1945Ē tells her life story like every detail was meant to be.

Borrowing from a favorite saying of her fatherís ó "Out of every bad comes some good, and out of every good comes some bad" ó she has turned any negative in her life to positive and wants to share it with the world.

Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queirozís exhibit, which depicts her three years in a Poston, Ariz., concentration camp, will be on display at the Palos Verdes Art Center until March 8.

"Those 3½ years in camp changed my entire life," Chizuko said. "I think the good that came out of the feelings of loneliness and despair, and wanting my mom alive, and [life] in camp... I think what really worked for me is I started getting more resilient and I started to get more outgoing, because I had to force myself."

Chizukoís life in camp followed shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when she was 9. Her family lived in Orange, California, at the time and her father, a Japanese-born immigrant, owned a nursery.

Her mother died from childbirth complications after having Chizuko.

Having lived with her aunt, then her oldest sister for a few years each, moving again, this time to the camp, wasnít a big deal for the "fearful, withdrawn and non-social kid."

Noticing everyone in the camp looked similar, her sister, Lil, explained to her the reasons why she and her family were relocated ó a moment that she illustrates in a painting.

"I was just so depressed, because I realized then that I was a Jap. That I was the enemy and it was a real terrible feeling," she said. "I always thought I could grow up one day or wake up one day and be blue-eyed and blond. Nothing was impossible in my mind.

"And I always thought my mother would come back to life, because my sister said if I prayed hard enough, my prayers would come true. So I knew before camp that anything was possible, but in camp I realized that was not right... That sort of colored my life," she added.

CAMP LIFE

Once "everything sort of loosened up," life behind the barbed wire was safe and people began to take on roles to make do.

"The Japanese-Americans started farming the land and they dug all the ditches to bring the water from the Colorado River to the camp," Chizuko said. "They did start farming outside the camp, where people would get passes to work the farm for produce for inside the camp."

Some were paid $12 a month, while other "inmates" made $19, she said, depending on their job.

As a fireman, her brother made $16.

"We built a huge society within the camp," she said. "My dad was active... he thought we needed more vegetables and less canned things. Finally, after a year or two, they started sending sacks of rice in, instead of just flour."

Americans volunteered as doctors and teachers, and lived in white houses in the camp, versus the dark barracks Chizuko and her family called home.

Aside from school and her chores, like washing clothes, Chizuko found solace at the campís only library.

"I had a very confined, limited life. I would go to the library, which was half a barrack and about a mile away," she said. "I spent many, many hours in the library. I checked out the same books over and over. It just afforded me a place to go when I couldnít find anybody."

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945, Chizukoís father gathered the family to mourn. She called it the second saddest event while in camp; the first was losing her Uncle Johnny to the war.

"My dad was raised in the Meiji era in Japan... and the attitude people learned was that no matter what your station in life, you do the very best you can and you never hurt anyone else and you never hurt yourself and you make your living honestly," she said. "And always respect your elders and the leaders. He knew that Roosevelt didnít like [the] Japanese and was instrumental in sending us to the concentration camps, but no matter who your leader is, heís doing the best he can."

Chizuko admired her father. He came to the United States in 1902.

Although he came from a well-to-do family in Japan, he set out to find "his fortune" in San Francisco.

Along with other family members, he ran the Tamura Hotel, and helped Japanese immigrants find jobs and homes.

It was very successful until the 1906 earthquake destroyed it.

"His fortune just went up and down, up and down, up and down," she said. "And just when he was starting over again, after the depression, he started his nursery in about 1939-40, and it was doing fine, then the war broke out... He never did make it [back] to Japan."

Chizukoís father became a United States citizen in 1952, when Asians could become naturalized citizens.

"He really considered himself an American," she said.

FROM ARIZONA TO CALIFORNIA

Integrating back into life after the camp was difficult for Chizuko. To move out of the camp, the family had to have a sponsor and a place to live. Her oldest brother moved them to a hostel in Los Angeles, which she compared to living back in a barrack.

But it was home, until her father was offered work tending the properties of a landowner, who also gave the family a chicken coop to live in.

Eventually her father owned a nursery once again, the family got back on its feet and Chizuko was able to go to college at Long Beach State University and Dominguez Hills University, where she earned both a BFA and an MFA, respectively.

Remembering her days in Poston was not a common topic of conversation, as people who lived through it wanted to forget it.

"It was a shameful thing, because we were made to feel like second-class citizens or like we did something wrong. And we really didnít do anything wrong," she said.

The first time she began to talk about camp freely followed a Poston camp reunion. Chizuko was talking to colleagues and couldnít stop crying.

"I think a lot of people have these feelings that they donít know what to do with," she said.

Chizuko chose to paint to get through her memories, although she admits it was painful to get them on canvas.

"I just wanted [people] to know that everybody can become very resilient in bad times and not succumb to the things that are happening to them," Chizuko said.

Her daughter, Meigan Everts, who in high school first began to hear about her motherís past, said the art has been cathartic.

"Sheís a very caring person, and she really feels a lot of things and this is a way for her to express some of those feelings. And I think itís really neat that sheís been able to do that," Everts said. ďItís was not a great experience and it was a horrible thing that happened in the United States history, but itís something that happened. You canít change the past and you have to work through it."

Said Chizuko, "I started to change completely by saying, 'Iím going to be a really great American and Iím leaving this junk behind me,' and I was able to do that."

Chizuko Judy Sugita de Queiroz, a former Palos Verdes High School art teacher, will have an artist talk and book signing on Feb. 22 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Palos Verdes Art Center. To RSVP, call (310) 541-2479.

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