Inspired by internment camp history, students write a musical work and hear echoes of today

A California high school is using song to examine a painful chapter in U.S. history. “In America” is an oratorio composed by students at Van Nuys High School, with help from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, that reflects on the experiences of Japanese-Americans who were forced to leave their homes for internment camps during World War II. Jeffrey Brown reports from Los Angeles.

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    Next: Some California high school students have chosen singing as a way to examine a painful chapter in U.S. history. Along the way, they're discovering some connections to their own lives.

    Jeffrey Brown reports from Los Angeles.

  • STUDENTS (singing):

    Where can I be an American, if not in America?


    Where can I be an American, if not here? It's a question posed by students at Van Nuys High school in Los Angeles, part of a 45-minute oratorio they wrote and composed, working and singing with professionals from the prestigious Los Angeles Master Chorale.

    Titled "In America," it's about the experience of Japanese Americans forced to leave their homes for internment camps during World War II. The Chorale has been doing this work in L.A. schools for 15 years, choosing historical themes the students would find relevant.

    This time, says the Chorale's Alice Kirwan Murray, who served as lead teaching artist, they got more than they bargained for.

  • ALICE KIRWAN MURRAY, Los Angeles Master Chorale:

    This story is an enormous tragedy, and I find it fairly alarming that, 75 years ago, this occurred.

    But what I also found alarming was that the students were not that surprised by it. Many of them, as immigrants themselves, have faced similar suspicion and bias and mistreatment. It was very relatable to them.


    Van Nuys High has seen its share of stars. Among its famous students were Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, and Natalie Wood. This area and the school were once mostly white, but now are majority Latino. Some are very new immigrants, like sophomore Rafael Gomez, who came here from Mexico last summer.

  • RAFAEL GOMEZ, Senior, Van Nuys High School (through interpreter):

    I enjoy singing this because it has a lot of meaning, especially the part where it says, don't judge me because I am different. Just because someone is of a different race or has a different color of skin, they shouldn't be judged before you get to know them.


    To learn about this earlier moment in American history, the students read, researched, and visited L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum, where they heard stories of survivors of the camps.

    Mas Yamashita was 6 when his family was sent to Topaz camp in Utah.

  • MAS YAMASHITA, Internment Camp Survivor:

    I was able to tell them about my personal experiences, and it seems to always help students to relate to the experiences if they can meet somebody who actually experienced it.


    Seniors Olivia Rodriguez and Lucy White said they didn't know much about that dark period of American history, until now.

  • OLIVIA RODRIGUEZ, Senior, Van Nuys High School:

    How hard it was for everyone to leave their homes and what they knew, just a huge divide between the American people, the Japanese American people, and the Japanese-born people.

  • LUCY WHITE, Senior, Van Nuys High School:

    I really just wanted to illustrate truthfully the awful, awful struggle that these people went through and that their country forced them into.


    The students also conducted interviews with their own family members about their own immigration stories.

    Brianne Arevalo is the school's choir director.

  • BRIANNE AREVALO, Choir Director, Van Nuys High School:

    Even students that weren't immigrants themselves, they may have family members, so maybe grandma and grandpa were immigrants, neighbors. Like, in this community, everybody knows some immigrant.

    And so whether they have gone through it personally themselves or they were able to share in somebody else's experience, every single student got something so powerful and a really deep meaning out of this project.


    For everyone involved, the resulting work, nine movements in all, resonated with today's political debates.

    Olivia Rodriguez is a second-generation American of Mexican heritage.


    I repeatedly say, move to America. Move to America. Live the American dream.


    So, what did those lines mean to you?


    I think I was trying to be that hope for the people, and show how important it was for these people to come to America. And then towards the end of the piece, towards the end of the entire oratorio, so, by the time I'm done, they're saying, how can I be — live in America if I'm not — if I don't feel American, if I'm not being treated like another American?


    For Mas Yamashita, who attended a final rehearsal, the emotions of long ago were still raw.


    They were flashing pictures from the camps, and the lyrics that the students wrote, it was just — just brings back a lot of those emotions for me.

    I was ashamed of being in the camp. I never told anybody. It was probably 30 years before I discussed the camp.


    Just because of the shame that you felt.


    Yes. It's my hope that people can really look at this as saying, we can't isolate a group of people just for who they are.

  • STUDENTS (singing):

    Don't suspect me because I'm different.


    And for the Los Angeles Chorale, this outreach is also about the power of art.


    It is important to us certainly to engage young people in the creative arts, in performing arts, in choral arts. It is the first art form, really, just the human voice. We all possess this.

    So, for us to grab those students and let them know that they have that ability, they have that power, it's the ultimate communication.


    From Van Nuys High School in Los Angeles, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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