The Nation: The Other, Better Arizona
Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland, forthcoming from Nation Books.
Just days before the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona's former superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, invoked an eleventh-hour ruling and declared Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American Studies program in violation of a new Arizona law that bans any curriculum promoting ethnic solidarity or the overthrow of the government.
In effect, Horne, a Canadian-born son of Jewish refugees who fled Poland during the Holocaust, outlawed the celebration of one of Arizona's most enduring and important voices: Mexican-American leader Cesar Chavez, who famously led the United Farm Workers under the banner that "nonviolence is the only weapon that is compassionate and recognizes each person's value." After Horne announced his decision, his popularity surged among right-wing anti-immigrants across the country; he even resigned from the Arizona board of the Anti-Defamation League after the organization found that the charges leveled against the program were baseless.
In the past few years, episodes like this have typified news coverage of Arizona, prompting furious debate among the nation's politicians and pundits, and inviting laugh lines from late-night personalities like Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who dubbed the state "the meth lab of democracy." But while Horne and fellow anti-immigrant demagogues like Governor Jan Brewer (transplanted from California) and Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio (from Massachusetts) tend to dominate the headlines, the truth is that Arizona is also home to a resilient base of progressive and liberal leaders, who have worked tirelessly to rescue the state from radical right-wing interlopers and political carpetbaggers over the past century.
The battle to transcend the headline-grabbing exploits of the right wing in Arizona has proven to be a formidable task for Arizona's liberal ranks. But in the aftermath of the shooting, the nation has been reintroduced to "the other Arizona," a truer reflection of the borderlands' multicultural and progressive politics -- not the worst but the best the state has to offer. The state is not only a bastion of gun-toting, hate-filled sensationalism, as we are seeing. It is also the home of Congressional intern and University of Arizona student Daniel Hernandez, who rushed to aid his beloved boss and friend, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, just after she was shot; and 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away a magazine from alleged shooter Jared Loughner moments earlier. It is a place where 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green was encouraged to nourish her interest in democracy, and where a packed crowd of thousands gathered to hear President Obama honor Green and the other victims and herald a new national effort at civility.
"I know everyone in the country thinks World War III is going on in Arizona," said Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon at Tucson's University Medical Center who is attending to Giffords, "but it's probably still the nicest place I can think of to live."
Within hours of the shooting, vigils and tributes had spread from the hospital to religious institutions and theaters to the capitol in Phoenix, bringing together a state often depicted as divided. On Sunday, reflecting on a vigil held at the historic Rialto Theatre in downtown Tucson, where Giffords had frequented concerts, noted rock musician Joey Burns of Calexico told National Public Radio: "The theater canceled its prior event and just kind of opened the door to the people.... And so, a lot of musicians came up, performed. Some people got up and spoke. People lit candles. It was a very touching and moving occasion."
In recent days Representative Raul Grijalva and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik have become the de facto political spokesmen for “the other Arizona.” But long before they emerged in the national media to discuss the tragedy, the two took the lead in speaking out against the state's lax gun control laws and the increasingly strident rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies promoted by their conservative counterparts Brewer and Arpaio. "This is a media-created event," Dupnik declared last summer during the heated debate over the infamous SB 1070 law. "I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure." Even in a tight election year, Grijalva -- co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, who was shortlisted for the Interior Secretary position -- called for a boycott of his own district.
By extending tolerance and compassion to the state's immigrant communities, Grijalva and Dupnik are honoring a local tradition that stretches back centuries, predating even the state's inception. The first non-native (illegal immigrant) to enter Arizona in the 1530s was an African Moor scout and slave -- most likely a Muslim -- who led the first Spanish expedition. Historians often hail Charles Poston, a renaissance man and Kentuckian who sided with Lincoln and the Union, as "the father of Arizona." Poston was arguably the first founder of an "American" community in the territory; his nearly utopian Tubac mining settlement was established in the 1850s as a place with "no laws but love," and peopled with immigrants from around the world.
Although Arizona's woodpile certainly doesn't lack for a supply of corrupt politicians and impeached governors, its statehouse and politics have been largely shaped by centrist Democratic governors (including, in recent years, Bruce Babbitt and Janet Napolitano) and common-sense Western conservatives like Paul Jones Fannin and Ernest McFarland. In the mid-twentieth century, the state's progressive spirit was embodied by Representative Morris Udall, a liberal giant who served thirty years in the House and became one of the nation's most powerful environmental advocates. (Udall, who waged an unsuccessful presidential bid in 1976, has left a political legacy of his own. His son Mark is a senator from Colorado, and his nephew Tom is a senator representing New Mexico.)
Udall called himself a "one-eyed Mormon Democrat from conservative Arizona." But the conservatives he invoked have little in common with today's extreme right-wing political leaders in Phoenix. "The political landscape has shifted such that the word 'conservative' is meaningless today in Arizona," says Arizona author and historian Gregory McNamee. "Barry Goldwater, Fannin, McFarland--those were conservatives. And although they believed in a kind of small government, they were not stingy or shy of putting government to work to do social good," McNamee adds. "McFarland, for example, had a major role in getting the GI bill through. Those people look like progressives today, and their GOP descendants would scorn them as liberals. Today's GOP descendants are not conservative or anything of the sort, but instead right-wing extremists. There's a big difference between conservative and right-wing radicals."
In many respects, the roots of Governor Brewer's often extremist and anti-federal policies date back to carpetbagging Arizona politicians who bucked a US House Committee's recommendation to conjoin Arizona and New Mexico as a single state in 1907. Their reasoning: "Arizona is America, New Mexico is Mexican." The reality that New Mexico's Mexican Republicans would outnumber Arizona's Anglo Democrats unleashed a racist campaign that shocked the nation. Arizona preferred to give up its state rights rather than acquiesce to a "different race."
Over the next century, Arizona served as the final showdown over the question of race and ethnicities -- and gun law battles -- on numerous occasions. In 1992, voters in the state overruled disgraced former Republican Governor Evan Mecham's refusal to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. No decision was as controversial as the federal establishment of Japanese internment camps in Arizona during World War II. "To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally, but we seldom have the foresight," Eleanor Roosevelt declared, when she visited the Japanese internment camp in Gila River, Arizona in 1943. She added: "We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion."
It remains to be seen how much time Arizona's progressive and liberal forces will need to undo the mistakes that Brewer and the radical right-wing state legislature are making. But as they struggle to pull the state back from the brink, they will be able to draw from a rich and thriving legacy. Copyright 2011 The Nation. To see more, visit http://www.thenation.com/.