Ralph Lazo: A Volunteer for Injustice

Ralph Lazo was born in 1924 to parents who were Mexican and Irish American. His mother died when he was seven, and he was raised by his father. Discrimination was a fact of his life. He was born in a hospital for African Americans. He spent time as a young child on a Native American reservation. His neighborhood was a blend of ethnicities. He was friends with Japanese Americans who lived in his neighborhood.

After Pearl Harbor, the federal government began rounding up the families in his neighborhood who had Japanese-American heritage to send them to internment camps. Many of them had been born and raised in America. Spouses were part of the round-up even if they weren’t Japanese Americans.

When one of Ralph’s friends asked him, “Why don’t you come along?” he made a courageous decision. He joined his friends and was sent to the Manzanar War Relocation Camp. His skin color was sufficient to qualify him. His father never intervened to have him released.

Ralph blended into the camp and became one of the most popular detainees. He learned to speak Japanese and was selected as class president in his high school.

Ironically, Ralph eventually left the camp when he was drafted to serve in the Army. He had hoped to serve in an intelligence unit because of his knowledge of Japanese, but the Army assigned him combat duty. He won a Bronze Star for heroism in the liberation of the Philippines.

After the war, Ralph earned both a Bachelors and Masters degrees. He became a teacher for disabled students and a mentor for Hispanic students. His support for his Japanese-American friends continued. He and others raised funds for a class-action suit to gain reparations for their internment during World War II. That effort took years to resolve, but the federal government eventually offered an apology and $20,000.

Ralph Lazo died at the age of 67 of liver cancer. While his life has been documented in a short film: Stand Up for Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story, his efforts remain largely unknown to most Americans. While many Americans disagreed with the federal government’s internment decision at the time, only one American had the courage to voice their disagreement in the courageous way that Ralph Lazo did.

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“Stand up for what is right, even if you stand alone.” – Suzy Kassem (writer, film director)

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