Friday, May 21, 2010

Naked Arizona

After over twenty years in Tucson, I’m glad I don’t live in Arizona anymore. I’d need a neck brace from hanging my head in shame.
It’s just one friggin’ thing after another.
In nineteen eighty-seven, a guy called Evan Mecham was governor. He got kicked out of office after impeachment and conviction for misuse of government funds and obstruction of justice. However the thing that sticks in most peoples’ minds is that he called black children “pickanninies.” Later, we got Fife Symington. He was forced to resign after indictment for extortion and bank fraud. Then there was in infamous Martin Luther King holiday debacle. Bruce Babbitt signed on for it, Evan Mecham cancelled, and Arizona suffered a 350 million dollar loss in revenue from an entertainment and convention boycott. In 1990, having already landed the Superbowl, Arizona lost it to Pasadena, California.
The MLK holiday was voted back in 1993.
If Arizona is a cowboy it seems most adept at shooting itself in the foot.
Oh, and remember the so-called Minute Men? Bunch of geezers sitting on the border with shotguns and cell phones? Those were ours.
But it’s just not funny anymore. And I’m not sure people comparing it to pre-Nazi Germany are wrong.
They’ve been busy down there these days. First, the passage of Senate Bill 1070, which allows police to stop anyone on reasonable suspicion of being an illegal immigrant. The police are supposed to do this without racial profiling, which is impossible. Illegal Hispanics in the US look just like second, third, and forth generation Hispanics, who simply wear bigger belt buckles and drive better trucks. The law actually targets the poor, illegal or not. An enormous percentage of people in the area are of Mexican descent. Until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, virtually all of southern Arizona was part of Mexico. SB 1070 also opens the door for harassment of the Navajo, Pima, and Tohono O’Odam nations, all of which don’t look any different from Hispanics to most whites
Italian and middle eastern white guys should keep their heads down too. You have been warned.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has already stated it will not enforce this law. Not due to ideological objections-- though I hope that’s part of it-- but simply because it lacks sufficient manpower.
Second is Arizona House Bill 2281. This bill bans ethnic studies classes in public schools. I live in Washington State now, which has far less ethnic diversity than Arizona, and have spoken to many individuals who do not understand why this is a big deal. Well, it is. A very large percentage of the Hispanic population of southern Arizona lives at or below the poverty line. This creates the same problems it does in any poor population regardless of color or ethnicity. Substance abuse, involvement with the criminal justice system, lack of health care and mental health resources, broken families; the whole package that leads to lousy self-esteem and lack of self-respect and dignity. Ethnic studies programs empower people by teaching them who they are, what their traditions are, and what they are capable of. Some individuals will take advantage of this, some will not. But one thing is certain. If they don’t know what the options are they do not have a choice.
Last but not least is Arizona’s stance on removing teachers in public schools with “heavily accented or ungrammical English.” It’s not clear what constitutes a heavy accent, but suffice it to say that Albert Einstein would not have gained a teaching post in the great State of Arizona. As far as “ungramattical” English goes, I assume the person who penned this gem means bad grammar or non-grammatical English. The fact is, virtually everybody, including this writer, is guilty of bad grammar daily. Language is not static. Things go from structured to the vernacular, to part of mainstream English so quickly most people don’t even notice. When I was in school we got marked down for using the “non-adverbial” form. We said, “do it quickly” not “do it quick.” This still annoys people like me, but is generally accepted and I hear it and see it in print every day. As I earnestly write, I don’t even want to talk about split infinitives.
But what upsets me the most, far beyond the ignorance these laws engender, is their basic lack of humanity. I’ve spoken with decent people who probably out of ignorance and a lack of understanding-- Arizona is a unique cultural and ethnic mix-- say things like, “we can’t keep absorbing all these people.”
I don’t even know what that means. First of all, who is “we?” Americans? By what virtue do Americans deserve to eat and raise their families yet individuals below an arbitrary line drawn in the sand in the desert southwest, do not? Birth? That’s an accident. Virtue? Where? I’m just not seeing it. “We” is something much bigger. It is all of us.
People cross endless miles of relentless desert beneath the scorching sun. They die locked in the backs of trucks, boxcars and car trunks; they swim canals more likely to result in death than success. I knew a guy who had crossed the Rio Grande with his kids on his shoulders ten times. People don’t do these things because Disneyland is closed and they’re looking for a good time. They do it because they live in a desperately poor country with a perennially corrupt government functionally blind to the needs of its people, and don’t believe they have a choice.
Hispanic immigrants don’t want to take our stuff or our jobs. They simply want lives. Survival by luck and the skin of your teeth is not living.
We’ve got a recession; times are hard for many. Many Americans of whatever color and ethnicity are losing their homes and standing in unemployment lines. It is very sad. But what is sadder is the fact that instead of reacting with compassion and empathy, Arizona and its sympathizers have chosen to react with venality and, not to put too fine a point on it, hatred.

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