Que Lástima, Arizona

Speaker's Corner: The state's new immigration law puts more at risk than tourism dollars and tacos. Adam Karlin reports from the Sonoran Desert.

05.19.10 | 8:50 AM ET

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In a Phoenix taco shop, a John Goodman-Tony Soprano hybrid, built for carrying Obama=Hitler signs at Tea Parties, grabbed the arm of a passing waiter who could have been plucked off a Mayan bas-relief.

“Hey Miguel.”

“Yessir?”

“This new law. Any cops f**k with you? They mess with you and yours, I swear to God I might sue someone.”

Miguel smiled and nodded, and the fat man went off on the current hot topic: Arizona’s new immigration law. With the focus-grouped title of Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070), the law allows police, during “lawful contact” (i.e. arrests, traffic stops, etc.), to detain someone if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the [US].” American citizens who don’t report illegal immigrants to the authorities will be breaking the law as well.

I’ve yet to meet anyone in Arizona—I’m here researching a guidebook—who doesn’t have some take on the issue, although as my experience in the taco shop proves, it’s hard to stereotype people based on appearance. In another taco shop, a sweet Mexican-born lady who both cooked and served my food smiled and told me about how she came to America, built her own business, raised a family. A story as American as apple pie. Or tacos.

I asked her about the new law, figuring she’d be the type to be against it. She exclaimed, “Oh no my dear, ees no problem. They stop me? I have driver license. I show, OK, no problem?”

I’m an outsider here, and outsiders have dug a big communication gap on this issue. The most passionate voice I’ve heard for the law was a North Carolinian helicopter pilot who thinks Democrats are engaged in a plot to wash America away in a tide of minority voters. The loudest voice against it was a Canadian PhD candidate who was presenting a paper at the University of Arizona on DuBois’ concept of double consciousness and identity in border spaces. The middle ground between these two poles seems, to say the least, small.

In the meantime, real people travel through the MexiAmerican median that is Southern Arizona. Mexicans want a better life and can’t wait for Congress to fix our broken immigration system. Americans—white, brown and black—are scared of men with AK-47s sometimes literally sneaking across their backyards.

Twenty-four million Mexicans legally cross into Arizona every year to spend money. Many are now thinking twice about doing so, which is going to be a hell of a blow to Arizona’s tourism revenue—1 in 10 travelers here is Mexican. One of the most touristed states in the nation now faces one of the biggest tourism boycotts of any individual state. 

And the law may discourage more than the simple act of movement. All those boycotts speak to something else: a blow to the blended identity that makes Arizona so interesting. Besides her considerable natural beauty, Arizona’s attraction lies in the way she merges Sonora, Mexico and the American Southwest like she blends purple and red and orange and pink and indigo into impossibly beautiful sunsets. If SB 1070 widens divisions between Arizona’s Anglos and Latinos, it will be harming a big source of the state’s appeal.

La Frontera encompasses two overlapping universes and the creative tension of a human Venn diagram. Take Ajo, Arizona, 40 miles from Sonyata, Mexico. Amid its low-slung homes with air-con boxes busting out the side and the bulb-y round cupolas of the smooth white Catholic mission is a Moorish-Mediterranean-Mexican thread you could tug on and follow to the red dirt towns of nearby Sonora. Those polished white-tile presidios come from across the ocean to the scrubbed out sunshine and low-slung, red roofs of Andalucia, themselves just a hop north of the olive groves (which resemble palo verde copses) and breezy riads of Morocco. Which is speckled with its bulb-y white cupola-ed mosques and trilling ouds which, hey, sound quite-near-almost-proximate to the flamenco guitar that just came out of the local radio station back in Ajo.

The mix is heady and fascinating, and the tragic thing is people of all political stripes here recognize that. I talked with ranchers who supported the law who were hardly bigots. They had fed and given water to immigrants crossing on foot. Many had raised their children to be bilingual. But they feared for their safety. Like a lot of potentially bad legislation, SB 1070 was founded in fear, a panic that followed the murder of rancher Robert Krentz near the border. “Really, it’s not the workers we’re worried about,” one rancher said. “It’s the drug guys.” I had the sense he really meant it, and that if it weren’t for the violence that recently accompanied the Mexican drug trade, the law wouldn’t have popped on his radar.

Or would it have? With bans on ethnic studies classes and teachers with strong accents (are Mississippi teachers included?), however genuine and nice those ranchers were, it’s hard not to feel as though the legislators of Arizona are giving the finger to anyone who doesn’t fit into the muzak sprawl that is the not-seamy-but-boring underbelly of Arizona. The tract housing that spills over Paradise Valley; the obscene golf courses fuzzed green by an increasingly scarce water table; the architects behind the faux-dobe shopping malls that, but for their pseudo-Southwest façade, could be from Houston or Seattle or Dayton or anywhere.

I can’t analyze the legislation as an immigration or security expert, but I can see it from the vantage point of the traveler. And speaking as a traveler, I’m worried that the general mindset of Arizona’s leaders, as exemplified by the above laws, favors bland homogeneity over diversity.

Everywhere I go in Arizona, I see the beauty that occurs when the best of two cultures happily interbreed. If this law increases community tensions between brown and white, it will ultimately work against the gourmet food stalls where Anglo artists paint clever variants on Day of the Dead demigods while serving jazzed up versions of green chile; the radio stations that juke between norteño music and Cowpunk sets; burlesque shows that balance Victorian corsets with chola-inspired graffiti; the sense of opportunity that draws the best and brightest and hardest-working from other countries (thanks, Mexico) and weaves them into our national tapestry.

Que lástima. Beware this law, Arizona. I don’t support a tourism boycott—it’s too simple a punishment for people with complex motivations—but will whatever safety is gained by the law (if any safety is gained) be worth losing all of the above? Because there’s a lot more at risk than tourism dollars and tacos.