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Ralph Lazo - Friendship in the Face of Injustice

Young People at Manzanar Relocation Camp, California, 1943

Young people walking at Manzanar War Relocation Camp, 1943. Photo by Ansel Adams, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Ralph Lazo, born in Los Angeles in 1924, was of Mexican and Irish descent. In 1942, at age 17, while attending Belmont High School in Los Angeles, Lazo learned that Japanese American friends and their families were ordered to relocate to government “War Relocation Centers.” He was incensed, later explaining, "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." Lazo insisted that he, too, be sent to the camps. He chose to accompany his friends to the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in Central California. Lazo admitted that he deceived his father into believing that he was only leaving for some vague weekend camping trip with his friends. When his father later found out where his son actually had gone, Lazo explained, "My Dad was a very wise man. He knew I was safe and with friends. You couldn’t ask for more protection—barbed wire, searchlights."

Ralph Lazo, Manzanar Relocation Camp, California

Ralph Lazo (far right, center row) in a group photo at Manzanar War Relocation Camp. Image is gift of Helen Ely Brill at the Japanese American National Museum.

Lazo is believed to have been the only person of non-Japanese descent, without a Japanese American spouse, to voluntarily enter the camps during the war. There he continued his high school education alongside Japanese American friends at Manzanar High School.

Ralph Lazo,  Manzanar Relocation Camp, California, 1944

Ralph Lazo (center) pictured in a yearbook photo among classmates at Manzanar High School, Manzanar War Relocation Camp, 1944. Image is gift of Helen Ely Brill at the Japanese American National Museum.

In 1944, after graduating from high school at Manzanar, Lazo left the camp only because he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He went on to serve in the war in the Philippines and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroism in combat.

"When 140 million Americans turned their backs on us and excluded us into remote, desolate prison camps, the separation was absolute—almost. Ralph Lazo’s presence among us said, ‘No, not everyone.’"

William Hohri, internee with Ralph Lazo at Manzanar

After the war, Lazo graduated from UCLA and became a teacher. He mentoring disabled students and encouraged college and voting among Latinos. He remained a friend to former internees. He joined in speaking out on behalf of the redress movement for Japanese Americans interned during the war and helped raise funds for a class action lawsuit. He rarely spoke in public about his own experiences in the camp, preferring to focus on Japanese Americans and redress. He died in 1992 at the age of 67.

Lazo is the subject of the docudrama, Stand Up for Justice. The film was scripted by John Esaki and produced by Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress and Visual Communications.

Sources: Japanese American National Museum; Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress; National Park Service; History.com; UCLA - Our Stories, Our Impact