Please Forgive Me: I Grew Up in Arizona

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In a red USC sweatshirt (who said I was ready to leave?!) c. 2002, with four of my best friends at our high school graduation party.

Anymore, I’m afraid to say it. When I’m meeting a person for the first time, I feel I have to open up the hometown discussion with a caveat: I’m from Tucson, Arizona — but it’s not like you think. What’s the Matter with Arizona? The State Americans Love to Hate, as this week’s Economist put it. Or John Stewart summing it up as only he can (a “nuclear waste dump”).

And I don’t blame them. Let me count the ways Arizona is looking like a holdout for extremist nut jobs.  There’s the 2011 shooting of Gabrielle Giffords (gun nuts). This month’s separate-but-equal style anti-gay law that would have permitted businesses to ban gays on religious grounds, passed by the state legislature and finally vetoed at the last minute by Governor Brewer (bigots). The 2010 immigration law legislators enacted but was later shut down by the Supreme Court that would have allowed law enforcement to racially profile people (in this case, mostly Hispanics) and literally pull over cars that they thought might contain illegal immigrants, then detain people without papers (racists). And the newest anti-abortion bill that congress took up just after the anti-gay bill failed, which would remove the warrant currently required for the Department of Health and Human Services to search abortion clinics (women-hating). Yeah, Arizona is not looking very open-minded these days.

The problem is, I spent a good 14 years of my childhood in Arizona. And while I can’t say I love the place (I high-tailed it out as soon as I graduated a high school I admittedly hated for LA, and then even more liberal Paris and finally NYC), it pains me to see the state in this light. Because it just wasn’t my experience growing up.

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My parent’s dog fetching with another gorgeous pre-sunset Arizona sky.

I was born in Tucson, moved with my parents to Hawaii when I was four, then moved back to Tucson to spend 10 more (of what were admittedly some of my worst) years, through middle school and high school. I was always a bit shy and awkward, a book nerd, a free spirit, not a conformist or a cool kid. I didn’t wear brand-name clothes or drive a BMW offered for my 16th birthday like other students in my upper-middle class public high school. But for all the classism, I, at least, can’t recall outright segregation or racism. There were definitely gay kids — and I spent a lot of time with many of them (I was in the school choir and, in middle school, theater). And while not a single person came out back then, I was there in the late nineties, and being gay wasn’t yet a national conversation. One of my closest girlfriends from high school (who, admittedly, no longer lives in Arizona either) has since started dating a girl. Many others I suspected (and some I didn’t) have come out since — and some still live in Arizona. They’re getting along fine; one even took to the streets in protest of the new law. (Though I have to admit, it must still leave a sour taste — especially since the veto was ostensibly because of the damage the law would have caused to local businesses…I digress.)

More admittedly apparent is the separation of races. There were the middle-to-upper class areas — where the houses sit on acres and there are fancy plein-air shopping centers and yoga studios and high-end Mexican restaurants and Starbucks every five blocks — and there you’ll definitely see more whites than any other race. And then there’s the lower-middle-class-to-poor downtown area — where the houses are packed into small streets and gunshots are part of the soundtrack of the night (my dad, an engineer, told me of one project in a particularly bad neighborhood, where he had to design a special bulletproof streetlight because gang members would shoot out the bulbs and then sometimes each other so they could do their business in the dark) — where you’ll definitely see more Hispanics than whites. But in my high school experience, while there were more Caucasians than Hispanics, the races seemed to get along fine.

What’s more, unfortunately this separation happens everywhere. It happens in New York, where — even though it’s a wonderfully diverse city — a good portion of races leave Manhattan for home in the boroughs every weeknight (the island is filled with obscenely rich white folk who are the 1% of the 1%). Oh yeah, and then there’s that stop-and-frisk law which basically legalized racial profiling and was part of the city’s infrastructure for years. It happens in Paris too, where I taught English in the suburbs for a year after college (in the same area where, just a year before, protestors burned cars in the streets due to a case of racial profiling). As soon as you’re in the suburbs, in many areas you quickly go from white and wealthy with a long lineage of French ancestors to black and impoverished often Muslim from formerly colonized North African countries. In France too, there have been many attempts at anti-immigration laws, and even a controversial law banning Muslim headscarfs in schools.

None of this is something to proud of, but it’s a reality. We can only hope that with the Internet allowing us all to see everything going on around the world, maybe our eyes are being slowly opened…and someday we’re heading toward a more colorblind society.

Back to my original point. Arizona: It’s unfair to classify a whole state (and anyone who comes from it) as a bunch of gun-slinging bigots. Tucson, at least, is a relatively liberal (or at least libertarian) city. I have friends who are working as pro-immigration lawyers, friends who are artists and Democrats and open-minded. I hope that they will continue to fight against the ridiculous laws frustrated conservative groups are peddling and the intimidated legislators who let them have their way. And I just hope the rest of the country can keep their minds open too and not pigeonhole an entire state because of the horrendous things happening on the fringe.

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