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The Santa Fe Opera: Kids Uncover Santa Fe's Past
Dolores McElroy, Press Office Associate, The Santa Fe Opera
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"We're just gonna stare at a rock all day?" demanded Matthew, a second grader at Carlos Gilbert Elementary. The offending rock is a granite memorial perched atop a hill that looks out over modern-day Santa Fe and its low-lying adobe buildings and churches. The memorial commemorates the 4,555 Japanese men who were interned at Camp Santa Fe from 1942 until 1946.

Sixteen second- through sixth-graders spent weeks learning about the Casa Solana neighborhood near their school and its historical significance as the site of a Japanese internment camp during World War II. The Santa Fe Opera
helped the students use this research to write and perform their own opera based on what they learned.

Andrea Walters, director of education and outreach for The Santa Fe Opera; Acushla Bastible, artistic manager of the student-produced opera program; Artist-in-Residence Julie Trujillo; Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Leslie Carpenter; Carlos Gilbert Elementary Principal Kristy Janda; and classroom teachers Kathy Shapiro and Kathy Byrnes formed the team which helped the students in their academic and artistic endeavors.

With this support, students met with New Mexico State Historian Dr. Estevan Rael-Galvez and Assistant State Historian Dr. Dennis Trujillo to learn how to use resources like maps, photos, and written materials available from the New Mexico State Archives. They also conducted interviews with long-time Casa Solana residents and Santa Feans who remember the camp. One of these residents was Byrnes's grandmother.

One late winter day, the students took an afternoon field trip to pound some pavement (and a lot of dust) around the actual site of Camp Santa Fe. First stop: the dog park. Due to Santa Fe's strict leash laws, there is really only one place dogs can run free and that place is a zig-zag of dusty trails with an expansive southeastern view of the city and the entire Casa Solana neighborhood. At the top of this hill is a granite memorial with a plaque that honors the memory of the men of Japanese descent who spent the duration of World War II in forced confinement at Camp Santa Fe.

The children gathered around the rock and listened to Dr. Rael-Galvez. "What is a memorial?" he asked. "Something that stands out in a landscape to remember something." Dr. Rael-Galvez began by asking the children to think of their birthdays. On the same date every year their families bake them a cake and bring them presents. He drew the comparison between these familiar days of remembrance and the commemoration of history in general. "History," he said, "is living. It's what you do every day."

A few of the older girls lingered in front of the memorial after the group moved on. When asked their opinion on internment camps, the students demonstrated thoughtfulness and a surprising amount of knowledge. Daria, a second-grader, pronounced, "I don't think internment camps are good. Except if it's for war." Pearl demonstrated her knowledge of the fact that the government interned people who merely looked Japanese. Sarah spoke up about the two American-born Japanese men who died in the camp. She adds, "We used to call them aliens 'cause they weren't like us."

Meanwhile, this varied and talkative group comprised of singers (Lucy was in the children's chorus of The Santa Fe Opera's production of Simon Boccanegra), dancers, soccer players, and saxophonists was bused down the hill to the Casa Solana neighborhood. The children roamed the tree-lined, quiet streets for a good 20 minutes to give them a sense of how large the 80-acre camp was. Walters reminds the group that there was no privacy in the camp and locals could come and stare at the inmates through the fencing.

Just eight weeks after this field trip, these kids, who list among their favorite types of music hip-hop, rock, pop, smooth jazz, country, and R&B, presented their opera, The Face of the Enemy, about the dramatic history of their own backyards.

This project was made possible due in part to a grant awarded by the History Channel to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian in Santa Fe. This "Save Our History" grant allowed The Santa Fe Opera and Carlos Gilbert Elementary School to partner for a "Here in Our Backyards" project. This is one of 26 "Here in Our Backyards" projects around the country that encourage communities to take an active role in the preservation of their histories.

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