The station was filled with worried faces and hushed voices. Soon, those who gathered there would leave their lives and livelihoods behind as prisoners of the internment camps where over 110,000 people of Japanese descent—most American citizens—would be incarcerated for the duration of World War II. They didn’t want to leave, but they had been ordered to go.
Except for Ralph Lazo, that is. The Mexican American teen wasn’t supposed to be at the station at all, but had volunteered to go. The person who took down his information in early 1942 had seen his brown skin and assumed he was Japanese, too. “They didn’t ask,” he told the Los Angeles Times later. “Being brown has its advantages.”
Lazo was about to become the only known person of non-Japanese ancestry who volunteered to live in an internment camp. What some saw as a years-long ruse or proof he sympathized with the enemy in World War II, he saw as an act of solidarity.
By 1942, the teenager had experienced discrimination himself—and those experiences often overlapped with those of people of varying racial and ethnic identities. He was born to Mexican American parents in a black hospital in Los Angeles in 1924, a time when segregation based on skin color also extended to Latinos. He saw other discrimination on a Native American reservation in Arizona, where he lived and went to school briefly during his childhood.
The neighborhood in Los Angeles where Lazo spent most of his childhood was home to people of all sorts of nationalities and ethnic identities. And as a teenager, Lazo watched in horror as his friends, the Japanese American children of Japanese immigrants, were discriminated against. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941, that discrimination snowballed. Lazo’s friends were told that their parents were enemy aliens and that they were the enemy.
Those suspicions were soon reflected in national policy toward people of Japanese ancestry: The United States began rounding up Japanese American leaders, then announced plans to “evacuate” people of Japanese ancestry who lived within a wide swath of land near both coasts. Those affected lost their businesses and had to leave their homes—and friends—behind.
At the time, Lazo was a high schooler. But he had read about evacuation orders in the newspaper, and was shocked when a neighbor, using the racist language of the day, told him he had “jewed down that Jap” after purchasing a lawnmower from a neighbor who was trying to sell all of his possessions before heading to an internment camp.
That experience was fresh in Lazo’s mind when a Japanese American friend playfully asked him what he’d do without all of his buddies and suggested, “Why don’t you come along?” So he did.
Lazo told his father he was going to camp, but was evasive. By the time he arrived at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, it was too late—and his father did not ask him to come home.
Manzanar was one of the 10 camps where Japanese Americans spent the war. Located at the base of the Sierra Nevadas, it was prone to dust storms that swept through the flimsy barracks. Lazo would come to hate the brutal summer heat and the frigid winter temperatures there.
The camp offered few comforts, but some of Lazo’s friends were there. He attended school and got a job delivering mail around camp. He also forged lasting bonds with Issei (first generation Japanese) internees, who looked after him until he moved into a friend’s barracks. At Manzanar, Lazo studied Japanese, threw parties for his friends, planted trees and even became class president. “Ralph was by far the most popular student in our Manzanar High School class,” former internee Bill Hohri told the Los Angeles Japanese Daily News in 1992.
The presence of spouses meant there were other non-Japanese people at Manzanar, but Lazo was the only one there out of solidarity. He did leave the camp twice: once to appear before a draft board, once to represent Manzanar’s YMCA at a Colorado conference. The draft board trip was bitterly ironic: most Japanese Americans, even citizens, were not eligible for the draft, and Lazo could leave the camp and return at will. The trip was tainted by bias, too: In Colorado, Lazo recalled, his group was refused service at a Chinese restaurant.
In August 1944, after two years at Manzanar, Lazo was drafted into the Army. Though his goal was to attend the Military Intelligence Language School, an Army program that taught Japanese to second-generation Japanese soldiers and trained them to use their language on the ground as translators and intelligence workers, he ended up fighting in the Pacific Theater instead. And his story made the national papers. “I did not believe that my friends of Japanese ancestry were disloyal to the United States,” he said.
Over the years, Lazo maintained his close ties to the Japanese American community—and his conviction that internment had been a mistake. “Internment was immoral,” he said. “It was wrong, and I couldn’t accept it.”
He was one of just 10 donors to give $1,000 or more to the lawsuit that kicked off the years-long movement for redress for those interned during the war. Eventually, people of Japanese ancestry who had been interned in the camp were paid $20,000 and given a letter of apology by the United States.
World War II was a defining moment for both Mexican American and Japanese American communities, writes historian Greg Robinson, and significant interactions between both groups in urban settings meant some shared a sense of outrage over Japanese American internment. Nonetheless, Ralph Lazo is still the only known person without Japanese ancestry—Mexican American or otherwise—to go to the camps in a non-spousal capacity.