This piece was originally published on Righteous Anger on 10 July 2012.
If you’re old enough, you’ve heard one bigot or another try to explain away a racist statement. Once upon a time, the go-to phrase was, “Some of my best friends are black.” Today, in the State of Arizona, we have a modern version of that. It concerns Latinos and Latinas, and goes something like this: “I don’t have any problem with Mexicans. I just hate illegal immigration.” The storm around SB1070 has made this even more common. It has a corollary along the lines of, “SB1070 isn’t about prejudice or profiling. It’s about illegal immigration.” I’m here to tell you that you can trust those statements every bit as much as the old “some of my best friends” apology.
I married into a Mexican-American family in 1992. My husband is the first generation of his father’s family born in the U.S. His mother met his dad in the 1960s, when she went to Mexico City to attend the university. Like her, I am the Anglo wife and mother of Mexican-Americans. So, when I speak of my anger over SB1070 and other demonstrations of ethnic hatred, it’s a personal issue.
My husband is a very light-skinned Mexican-American, but it’s obvious to whites that he’s not “one of us”. As a kid, he said he was often asked, “I know you’re not white, but what are you?” He was obviously Other to the white eye. And often to the Mexican eye, as well.
When our daughter was young, Saturday was always Daddy-Daughter Day. When she was very young, this usually entailed trips to the park. One summer day in 1995, my husband and our three-year-old daughter took one of these trips to the park. Rodeo Park, the place they went that day, was a large park in our very poor, overwhelmingly Mexican-American neighborhood.
It’s Arizona, so it gets hot early. So, they prepared to leave after our girl played for about an hour. As they were preparing to leave, my husband was approached by a Tucson police officer. The cop demanded ID. He held my husband and our small daughter in the hot Arizona sun for about an hour. He insisted on questioning my husband and waiting for a report to come back before he would let them go. Like many minority individuals, my husband is easily spooked by police officers. He knows what they can and will do to men like him in a way that white people will never know. So, he stayed.
When the call came back that my husband was “clean”, the cop tried to laugh it off. “Never can be too careful,” he said. Of what? Of a man being an involved father? Of a man taking his child to the fucking park? Of a three-year-old child?
An isolated incident, you might insist. Just one overzealous police officer in one neighborhood of one town on one day. Well, you’d be wrong. It would happen again just a month or so later. This time, it was not in Tucson, but my hometown of Globe, Arizona. My husband again took our daughter to the park. The park in Globe sat immediately across from the Globe Police Department. During their visit to the park, my husband would be approached by a Globe cop. What was he doing? Why was he there? Where did he get the kid? Seriously…where did he get the kid? I know it’s a small town and all, but I know they taught some basic biology at Globe High School. I attended that school for a couple of years, so I can attest to that.
To illustrate the contrast, I had my own experience with the local Tucson law enforcement around the same time. I was stopped for speeding on a Tucson freeway. The officer noticed a loaded, concealed handgun in the car. (It was only slightly visible.) This was years before Arizona went wild with the concealed weapons laws, so it was absolutely illegal. He wrote me the speeding ticket, then advised me that I should probably take the rounds out of the gun. He told me he absolutely understood why I was carrying the gun, and he sympathized. Then, he sent me on my way.
Of course these stories are common and widespread, across Arizona and the American Southwest. They don’t just happen to the poor and unknown, though. Raul Hector Castro is everything that the anti-Hispanic bigot claims to celebrate. He’s a man who came to the U.S. and “assimilated”. Learned English. Worked his ass off, both physically and in school. Earned not one, but two college degrees–a teaching degree from Northern Arizona University and a law degree from the University of Arizona. Served as the Pima County Attorney. Served as a U.S. Ambassador multiple times. Elected to the office of Governor of Arizona. Yet, despite all that, Gov. Castro has been stopped by law enforcement–in this case Border Patrol–three times. The most recent was just last month.
The incident was recounted in Nogales International by Anne Doan, a friend of the governor and University of Arizona employee, who was accompanying Gov. Castro that day. She reported that the agents knew that the governor had just undergone a medical treatment that set off their alarms. She talked of them making him get out of the car, having more tests, then being released…only to be stopped again and being ordered to show identification. In Ms. Doan’s words:
After all of this chaos in the Arizona heat I thought it was interesting that the agents never asked me for my identification, and I was driving the car. Maybe I was the nuclear threat.
I understand Border Patrol has a job to do, but this was absolutely ridiculous. I feel less safe knowing that time and money is being wasted by agents who must check a box or file a paper knowing full well that there is no threat. It is the equivalent of TSA detaining a toddler simply because of random searches.
This is the anger that exists with that checkpoint. We residents understand why it is there, but are reminded every day at how wasteful and ineffective it is. I am sorry, but in America, Americans should be able to drive from one city to the next without being detained and questioned by other Americans simply to file paperwork.
The Border Patrol’s excuse has been that they only “delayed” him for ten minutes. Others report it was about 30 minutes. I think they’re missing the point, especially since this was the third time the governor had been stopped by U.S. Border Patrol.
The story of Castro’s first encounter with Border Patrol on another day almost 50 years ago appeared in a Salon piece:
Nearly half century ago, working on the front fence of his Tucson horse farm in his work clothes, Castro was stopped by a passing Border Patrol car. The agents asked if he had his work card. Castro said no. When they asked whom he worked for, Castro referred to “the señorita inside.” The agents nearly arrested Castro until he showed them the sign by his farm entrance: “Judge Castro.”
The Salon piece goes on to explain that the 1970s would see another incident, this time proving that Arizona isn’t the only place this can happen. Castro reported that he and his daughter were stopped in San Diego, California. The agent demanded to know where Castro was born:
I wasn’t about to lie. I was born in Mexico, I said. The guard starts questioning me. “What about that young lady?” She was born in Japan, I said, during the Korean War. He thought we were being smart. He didn’t want to let us go. In the meantime, someone came by and recognized me. Governor, how are you?
“But,” the protests of bigots go out, “those are federal agents. They don’t have anything to do with SB1070.” Well, yes and no. They are federal agents. However, they are just another illustration of where these laws come from, how they can be used to harass even our most celebrated, successful citizens simply because they have brown skin, a Mexican accent, and an ability to speak Spanish. Two of the three incidents also occurred in Arizona, and were enforced by Arizona residents.
Things like SB1070 do not happen in a vacuum. They come from a place of bigotry. They come from the same place that moves the Arizona State Legislature to attack the ethnic studies program at Tucson High Magnet School, even as it has been proven over and over to be a positive influence on the education of our students. They are motivated by the same hatred that moves people to post nasty anti-Hispanic comments on the websites of any Arizona newspaper that publishes a piece on Hispanics–whether they be citizens or not. They come from the same place as the bigoted comments from other whites to me; the comments of those who see my white skin and assume I won’t care. They come from an ugly place in the hearts of too many Arizonans.