by Veronica Isabel Dahlberg
When I was a kid in the 70s, we had a sky-blue station wagon with wood paneling on the side. Like many families, we took vacations driving across the country, staying in Holiday Inns, my brothers and I fighting at every stop over whose turn it was to sit in the back seat. I have vivid memories of trips to Arizona to visit family: hiking on Mount Lemmon, drinking sarsaparilla in Tombstone, and picnicking at Kitt Peak on the Tohono O’odham reservation. In those days, Arizona spurred the imagination with a Roy Rogers image of saguaro cacti, tumbleweeds, the Grand Canyon, and Mexican and Native culture.
But—my gosh!—things have changed so drastically. That warm, nostalgic image of Arizona has been replaced by a startling new one: that of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an outsider from Massachusetts that blew into Maricopa County like a haboob, blinding all vision and suffocating all reason.
I can only shake my head in stunned disbelief at the news coming out of Arizona today. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the symbol of Arizona now, replacing the majestic Grand Canyon. His leadership has set the tone for the entire state: shrill, cynical, hostile. Phoenix is a Manzanita thicket of hate groups, posses, lawsuits, and shouting matches. Arpaio’s vast numbers of supporters applaud enthusiastically the more sadistic he becomes. He gleefully sets up immigrants and people of Mexican heritage as objects of derision, parading them through the streets in shackles, or using his armed force to separate loving families. Arizona is chain gangs and pink underwear. The whole state has been cheapened and degraded.
I have a silly photo of myself posing next to a cowboy statue near a recreated Western town. That was in Tombstone many years ago, a place I can never return to because it’s where the Minutemen, a border vigilante group with ties to white supremacists, were recently formed.
I can’t say “Arizona” anymore without adding, “…is ground zero for hatred in this country.”
Arizona, what happened? It seems that human suffering is on your new postcard. Arpaio and anti-immigrant state leaders are trying to out-do one another concocting ever more creative ways to make people’s lives miserable. Not exactly a forward-looking vision. Also troubling, Janet Napolitano was Arizona’s governor while Arpaio and his ilk stoked the fires of racism and intolerance, and she did nothing. Some say she even pandered to them. Now, as Secretary for U.S. Homeland Security she has presided over the largest number of noncriminal Latino immigrants placed into detention, more than even the Bush administration.
What kind of world do Arizona leaders like Sheriff Arpaio and Sec. Napolitano envision? Today, many American families can no longer afford family vacations, but Sec. Napolitano recently articulated an idea that is revealing. She told the New York Times she wants to convert America’s vacant hotels into detention centers for immigrant women and children. She didn’t mention pink underwear.Veronica Isabel Dahlberg is executive director of HOLA, a Latino grassroots organization based in NE Ohio. www.holatoday.org.