What's a nice little gringa like me doing at a protest like this? A white middle-class suburbanite's manifesto

by Pollyanna Sunshine

I have been thinking about this question a lot the past couple of days, due to the reactions I’ve been getting from family members and old friends and colleagues who are not quite sure why I’m suddenly getting worked up enough about SB 1070 to take to the streets–even though they all agree that it’s a bull$#!+ racist law, and a few of them marched in the big rally back in June, which I missed because I was out of town—because neither I nor any of my middle-class English-speaking citizen and permanent resident and legal guest worker friends and family are at any risk of deportation, although some are definitely at risk of getting pulled over by the deputies for Driving While Brown and getting their errands delayed for however long it takes the cops to run their plates and AZ driver’s licenses through the system.

Please note that this has been happening since years before SB 1070 was even a gleam in the eye of any member of the AZ state legislature, and it seems likely to remain the case even if the entire law is struck down by the courts. Because SB 1070 is only a symptom of the madness that has been sweeping this state over the past few years, although frankly when I moved here in 2002, very few gringo Arizonans–including Sheriff Joe Arpaio–paid the slightest bit of attention to immigration issues, beyond a self-interested concern for how federal policies affected their ability to find enough workers to pick the oranges and build the tract homes and mow the laws and clean the hotel bathrooms. This is a sudden onset madness that has mostly been brought here from conservatives outside the state, but it has caught on and exploded into a feverish and disabling epidemic that threatens to cripple a state whose economy and social fabric have already been ripped to shreds by this recession. And which conservatives all over this nation seem to be thinking is some sort of magical solution to the national ills.

But to tell you the truth, a week ago even I had no plans to do anything this week, because I start in-service on Monday at my new job as a public school teacher, and I have 5 brand new classes to plan and bunch of stuff to take care of at home before both my students and my own kindergartener start school Aug. 9. My sudden radicalization on this issue is particularly perplexing to friends and family who know that–although Polly was born and raised a die-hard liberal (by Kennedy-worshipping Polish-Irish-Catholic baby boomers from Massachusetts), and has been activisty about feminist stuff since at least the 2nd grade, and is in possession of a Ph.D. from one of the nation’s leading centers for the study of armchair Marxism and the deconstruction of patriarchal/capitalist/racist/homophobic/imperialist Western paradigms–she has almost never done anything more political than vote, sign petitions, attend a few high-profile rallies with proper parade permits, do a few hours of leafleting for Democratic candidates whose stickers she leaves on her bumper long after they have lost their elections, gnash her teeth in rage at the local and national news, or very occasionally write a ranty letter to the editor.

But it was actually the fact that I am about to start teaching public school—at a school where over half the students qualify for free lunches and many of those are either Latinos or Native Americans, who look every bit as “illegal” and “un-American” to the tea partying idiots who live in suburban tract homes on their ancestors’ land and use water from their people’s sacred rivers to keep the golf courses green—and the fact that I am currently preparing lesson plans for 7th and 8th grade American history/government and 10th grade world history/geography, which made me realize that I was going to feel like a total jerk if I didn’t at least look around and see if there was any place I could go wave a few posters on Thursday, in support of the radical principles that I do not like masked stormtroopers raiding peaceful neighborhoods 5 minutes from my front door to terrorize brown-skinned parents and children (who were doing nothing more questionable than driving down a 2-lane city street at a maximum speed of 25 mph), for the sole purpose of catching in their dragnet a handful of small stocky brown people who are guilty of the vicious federal crimes and misdemeanors of sneaking across the border without permission, overstaying a visa expiration, faking a social security number on a job application, or getting a job with an employer who does not bother with the I-9 forms.

But, of course, I am a bleeding heart Pollyanna socialist who still believes in that whole hopey changey thing and all that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights” bull$#!+, so why should any Real American care what I think?

But I would note for you out-of-state folks who are genuinely concerned about securing the borders that the “illegals” targeted by SB 1070 and the preceding years of Maricopa County Sheriff’s raids are actually the most scrupulously polite and neat and otherwise law-abiding people in the state of Arizona, because they know full well that one malfunctioning tail light or slow roll through a stop sign could land them in the county jail and thence to an ICE detention center and thence on a bus to some border town 1000 miles away from anywhere they’ve ever been. You find me one US citizen in this entire state who has never run a red light or bought beer with a fake ID in their youth or fudged a little on a job application, and I will eat my pink “I ♥ the Bill of Rights” t-shirt right here and now. Todos somos criminales aquí, ya’ll, because this is the wild, wild west y a nadie le gusta some pesky bunch of bureaucrats fencing us in.

Having lived in San Antonio, TX, from second grade through college, studied and taught American and world literature and cultural history for the subsequent 20 years, and lived for 8 years in Maricopa County, AZ, it is still difficult for me to comprehend that there are people living in this state (and elsewhere in the country) who do not realize that the vast majority of poor, Spanish-speaking brown people in Arizona are every bit as red-blooded American citizens as I am, and that most of them are descended from people who have been living and working and speaking Spanish in Arizona when my own ancestors were still tilling the fields back in Poland and Ireland or fighting in the American revolution or preaching against slavery in Massachusetts or sneaking across the Canadian border because the lines at Ellis Island were just so dang long.

Virtually every Latino at the protests on Thursday (except the emigres and freedom riders from New York and California and Las Vegas) has lived or had family living in this state far longer than any non-Latino member of the Arizona state legislature, not to mention Sheriff Joe Arpaio himself, or any newly arrived snowbird or job-seeker or retiree from Minnesota or New Jersey or Alabama who gets annoyed when they have difficulty understanding the accent of the person at the drive-thru window or feel horrifically oppressed when the nice robot lady on the phone tells them to press 1 for English or oprima el dos para instrucciones en Espanol.

And please note that any actual undocumented immigrant who has slipped into this state (none of whom, I am quite certain, were anywhere near downtown this week) is far less likely to be a machine-gun wielding drug kingpin or terrorist than a hardworking guy who wants just wants to mow my lawn and send the money back to his family in Guatemala or some sweet little old lady who has been making tortillas for her houseful of US-born children and grandchildren in South Phoenix since 1952.

(“But, I mean, they still broke a law! And that’s just wrong!” Um, yeah, right, Tea Party dude from Ohio, they are in fact probably guilty of low-level misdemeanors under federal immigration or employment codes. Go ahead and make a citizen’s arrest if you feel obligated. Sheriff Joe will probably pin a medal on you and invite you to join his posse. And dudes, it’s a 10 second delay! And BTW, if you are too lazy to press, 1 you will get the English menu automatically in about 3 more seconds. Is this really such a threat to the fabric of US civilization that you need all those snarky bumper stickers about it? Given the difficulty I have puzzling out my own cable bill without the help of some nice lady in New Delhi walking me through it line by line, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do so in Spanish even though I studied the language for 8 years from high school to graduate level.)

It is the people like me–and Joe Arpaio (who was born in Springfield, Massachusetts to Italian-American immigrant family and as far as anyone knows never set foot in Arizona until got sent here as a rising young agent with the DEA), and former governor Janet Napolitano, and longtime senator John McCain, and right-wing nutbag and SB 1070 leader Russell Pearce, and every other gringo who has gold rushed into this boomtown over the past several decades in search of good weather and cheap housing and better paying jobs than they have wherever we came from–who are the interlopers here.

And although I rarely feel more than a twinge of white liberal guilt when I pause to reflect that I live on land stolen from the ancestors of the day laborers I drive by every day, I cannot bear to see my tax dollars being put to work dragnetting the streets for every brown person with a busted taillight in the hopes of catching a few people actually guilty of committing the misdemeanor of crossing the border without official permission or applying for work with a fake ID. Especially in a state that has arguably been harder hit by this economic downturn than any other state in this nation, although we may be in a rather close race with California.

And I frankly cannot comprehend how any person who considers him/herself a defender of the American tradition, an advocate of fiscal responsibility, or a Christian of any stripe cannot see from 2000 miles away (let alone right here smack dab in the middle of the state) that SB 1070 is the most unconstitutional inhumane piece of badly written legislation that ever failed to even address any of the actual immigration problems that real Americans like myself–y todos mis companeros en la protesta and the vast majority of the conservative republicans I know are concerned about, like

  1. keeping drug dealers and terrorists and violent criminals from slipping across the border
  2. giving first dibs on American jobs to US citizens and legal residents and legal guest workers first dibs on US jobs at this time of unprecedented unemployment, and
  3. (at least for us bleeding heart alien-lovers who support comprehensive immigration reform) providing some orderly mechanism by which people from elsewhere, who would like to come here and do the sort of jobs that many Americans are unwilling or unable to do, can do so without paying some coyote their entire life’s savings and risking their life crossing the desert in the middle of the summer, and
  4. (for the really radical among us) providing some reasonable pathway to naturalized citizenship or legal permanent residence for people who have spent nearly their entire lives living and working and paying taxes and raising families here (many of them people who came here as young children and would have no more idea how to survive in the badlands of Northern Mexico than any of us gringos would, if we were dropped off on the other side of the border in a place where had never been, knew no one, and had only a rusty and inadequate command of the language).

Please note that SB 1070 does not address a single one of those problems, and it quite substantially undermines the ability of both federal and local law enforcement to direct resources toward the prosecution of more serious threats to public safety, not to mention endangering the economic health of public and private sector economies that are so battered the state is selling away its own office buildings to anyone who will promise to keep the lights on for us, and people all over Maricopa County are being forced to walk away from houses they’ve been paying mortgages on for years.

But I must say that as I was sitting in civil disobedience training on Wednesday night, discussing fine points of direct action for which two decades of advanced study in leftist theory had never prepared me to consider (i.e., what activities can get you thrown in jail, and how far are you willing to take that risk to protest an unjust law, and if you are willing to risk it, how do you manage to block traffic in an intersection without getting yourself beaten to a bloody pulp by a panicky 25 year old deputy in full body armor?), even I was wondering why I personally was getting so worked up about this.

But it was comforting to talk to other folks there (both Anglo and Latino, Arizonans and out-of-staters) who were all so appalled by what is happening here and had taken a day or week or couple of hours out of their busy lives to get their butts down to some meeting they had read about on Facebook and see what they could do to help. And then the training broke up and we all headed over to the Puente Arizona organizing meeting to get the final run-down on what was happening and why, and within my first 5 minutes there it became crystal clear to me why I was there.

Because as I was talking to a lovely light-skinned, flawless-English-speaking Latina grandmother and fellow schoolteacher who was telling me how grateful she was that “people like you, who don’t HAVE to be here,” it occurred to me that she was at no greater personal risk from this law than I am and that the reasons for my outrage at this law are every bit as personal as hers. Because I had also just chatted with a lovely man from Las Vegas who had responded to my “I’ve lived here for 8 years, but I’m originally from San Antonio” with a smile of surprise and delight and “Ah! Tejana!” as if my entire identity and reason for standing in this parking lot suddenly made sense.

I must admit that the latter quite astonished and delighted the heart of a girl who from the 2nd grade on and throughout 8 years of studying Spanish and Latin American literature, had always clearly understood that no, no soy tejana, soy gringa, y todos los latinos are going to automatically code-switch back to English the minute I enter the room, in order to save me the trouble of having to order a meal or engage in casual conversation in a language in which I am almost certainly completely inept.

And then the meeting got started, and the organizers started explaining the next day’s plans in both English and Spanish for the next day, and I suddenly realized that—18 years after I fled the Latin American studies component of my comp lit degree program because I was so convinced by the dueling Chilean Marxists and Argentinian feminist deconstructionists and cigarette-smoking intellectuals who had polished their perfect Castillian accents while spending their junior year in Salamanca—YO HABLO ESPANOL! at least when it is being used by people with Southwestern US or Mexican accents using vocabulary and speed appropriate to telling a large group of people what’s happening downtown tomorrow and where they should show up at what times for the church service or the march or the direct action events or the Jailhouse Rock concert/rally at the Jefferson St. county jail, where both newly arrested protestors and immigrants picked up in the past few weeks dragnets will be sweating it out.

And sweating it out in a county jail that has been cited for violations of human rights by both the international community and the US Department of Justice, not to mentioned repeatedly and successfully sued for very large quantities of taxpayer dollars by the families of people who have perished or been permanently disabled in Arpaio’s jails, while either awaiting hearing or trial (and therefore presumed innocent by everyone but Arpaio and his goons and their supporters) or serving out sentences on offenses so minor that they were not deemed worthy of a transfer to a state prison.

And then I knew for absolutely sure that THIS IS MY ISSUE, TOO.

And as an American citizen and taxpaying resident of Maricopa County, Arizona, I am not going to stop getting all activisty about this issue until reason and human decency and the US Constitution prevail and my tax dollars stop being used to persecute day laborers and brown people with malfunctioning tail lights and go back to keeping the air conditioning on in the public schools and universities, investigating and prosecuting the people who are actually breaking into homes and dealing drugs and committing random serial murder sprees in this state and county, not to mention keeping enough employees in the Child Protective Services to answer the phones and investigate child abuse claims and try to find foster homes for kids who need them. Which, thanks to the dragnets that are aggressively trying to locate and deport every hardworking mami or papi or abuelo/a or tio/a whose papers might not be completely in order, now includes a hell of a lot more sweet little Arizona-born US citizens like my own 12-15 year old students.

So no, this is not some passing whim of an armchair liberal with too much free time on her hands. This is most massive and concerted series of human rights violations that have been committed by a federal or state or local government in the United States since probably the 1960s, and it is happening right here in my frakking back yard.

And this is one white, middle-class, surburban mama and intellectual and schoolteacher and taxpayer who is not going to shut up about it until every tea partying nativist idiot who thinks that only people who look and talk like them is driven out of office by sane, right-thinking voters who actually give a shit about the Bill of Rights.

Si, se puede! Juntos somos fuertes! We shall overcome, ya’ll.

4 replies »

  1. Just helped pay for a friend of Mexican descent to move to northern California. He needed help even though he sold everything he could to get out. Born in Iowa, he’s legal and still gets harassed.

    All of my known ancestors came to America before the Rebellion against the English.

    When I was in Phoenix, I marched with the gay pride people. Several people that knew me came up to me over the years and said, “I didn’t know you were gay.” My standard response was “I’m not but you people need all the help I can give.”

    Well written clear piece, thank you.