Arizona's Ugly Political History

I was raised in Tucson’s Barrio Hollywood, lived in Arizona for the first 30 years of my life and considered it home even after I left to begin my academic career. My memories are good and bad. The good include the pleasures of youth complemented by great food, especially the uniquely savory carne seca chimichangas and green corn tamales that are the best I have ever tasted. The bad include discrimination of varying types and intensity.

But the state’s apparent commitment to resuscitating its myopic and racist past weighs increasingly on my estrangement from my home state.

We're still learning the facts about this weekend's shooting — which killed six people at local Congressional meet-and-greet — but it is just the latest stain on the state's ugly political history. 

We all know about Arizona's effort to enact its own immigration laws last year, but the lack of vision shared by the state’s leaders was first evident in 1885. Given the choice between being the site for a state’s mental hospital and a state university, Phoenix chose the hospital because it included a slightly larger allocation of funds, and Tucson, to the disappointment of its citizens, was saddled with the university. In 1972, when the Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta-led United Farm Workers (UFW) was at the apex of its efforts, Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature, supported by Governor “One-Eyed Jack” Williams was vigorously trying to prevent the unionization of farm workers. The legislature passed a bill that denied farmworkers the right to strike and boycott during the harvest season, effectively vitiating any organizing effort. Rather than meet with UFW representatives to discuss the legislation before it was signed, “One-Eyed Jack” ordered state troopers to bring him the bill and he signed it within an hour after passage. When UFW leaders protested, Williams remarked, “As far as I’m concerned, those people don’t exist.”

These examples pale in comparison with the state legislature’s efforts to make Mexican American courses illegal and the related threats to withhold funding from schools, including universities that allow organizations like El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) to exist on campus because they are perceived as encouraging “dissent from American values" or "based in whole or in part on race-based criteria." This law suggests the state’s Republican leadership seeks to emulate the model of Soviet leaders who rewrote history in an effort to create one official view of the of the nation and the state. It is hard to think of a more fundamental American value than the right to dissent. The effort to prohibit “dissent from American values” is a flagrant attack on what Arizona’s legislature claims to be defending.

After more than a century of bitter encounters, riots, killings and painful political conflict, Anglos and Mexican Americans in Texas realized in the 1970’s that the state’s economic and social future depended on their establishing a rapprochement. Now that conditions in Arizona have regressed to where they were in Texas prior to 1975, Arizona has replaced Texas as the worst place in America for Mexican Americans.

And after another horror over the weekend, the future offers little hope that this feeling will be a temporary status.

And after another horror over the weekend, the future offers little hope that this feeling will be a temporary status.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.