Read more of our new series on American mythology, Rewriting the West.
The story of Arizona is rooted in fear. Its reputation, branded in the national consciousness, is one of intolerance and oppression of brown people. Arizona is where Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America, paraded prisoners in pink underwear in front of the clicking cameras. Video rolled and journalists scribbled down notes that described the scene, but hardly captured its horror.
For years, I wrote antiseptic stories about these men forced to wear pink, my outrage safely packed away in the interest of the prevailing notion of objectivity. The “immigration stories,” often tragic and heartbreaking, fit within a certain well-worn frame. I wrote stories about undocumented immigrants taking precautions in the event they were detained and deported, a daily threat in Maricopa County, the state’s most populous, where one in four residents has a skin like mine. There was a story from inside a warehouse full of migrant children who had crossed the border alone.
Such stories often followed a plotline of who does and doesn’t belong, an us-versus-them popularized by Arpaio and magnified by the President in ranting tweets speckled with typos, that impose a narrow, two-dimensional definition of citizenship in a multidimensional state. Arpaio’s discriminatory approach to law enforcement—a federal judge found that he and his deputies had targeted Latinos in traffic stops and crime-suppression operations—ruled county streets and jails, earning him a faithful following among fearful white voters, who kept him in office for twenty-four years and shaped the state’s political image. His legacy is built on the foundations of the abuse he allowed to fester among the sheriff’s deputies who worked in the jails and patrolled the streets, the many millions of taxpayer dollars paid out in settlements to lawsuits, and the lives he upended with his wanton approach to law enforcement.
I often tell my students about the power of words and how much they matter—how much the way we describe people defines them to the world, which is perhaps a writer’s most awesome responsibility. Through the words and pictures that we paint in people’s minds, we can construct alternate realities where one’s place in society’s stratified totem pole is determined by where they’re from, how they talk, and their hue. We can believe, for example, that Greeks and Romans were as white as the marble statues we see in the finest museums, even though archeologists and other scholars have proven that these were, in fact, originally tinged in vivid colors. In “The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture,” her article in the October 29 issue of The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes eloquently about the political and moral implications of what she calls “the cult of the unpainted sculpture” and the fallacy of “an unblemished lineage of white Western culture” stretching back centuries. She tells us that “bronzed skin was associated with the heroes who fought on battlefields and competed as athletes, naked, in amphitheaters.”
In Arizona, I see these bronzed heroes in the brown-skinned young immigrants whose personal narratives defy the notion that citizenship must apply exclusively to those who are born here or who are granted the privilege after meeting certain criteria. Their battlefields are the streets and the halls of power, where they speak of their cause as one that is worth embracing: that the lives they’ve lived in this country have value in and for this country, a country that they fully believe they are a part of. But to the federal agents who patrol the north side of the fence that demarcates territorial limits on the border, they are the “invaders” who must be returned to where they came from—and those who are like them must be kept on the other side.
In this present-day battlefield that is the border, troops stand at the ready and tear gas rains on impoverished women and children whom President Trump has declared a national-security threat. They are the counterpoint to the image of law and order conveyed by agents, soldiers, and armed vigilantes protecting the border, self-proclaimed patriots whose skin is white and who are thought to bleed red, white, and blue.
As a child, Abril Gallardo harvested tomatoes and grapes in the Mexican state of Baja California alongside her parents, whose daily labor was fueled by the dream of a better life for their children “en el otro lado”—on the other side. They crossed the border when Abril was twelve, in 2003. Three years later, voters in Arizona approved a proposition that barred undocumented college students from paying in-state tuition, an omen of what was to come. In 2010, Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law, giving law-enforcement officers the right to ask about the citizenship status of anyone they pulled over.
Abril’s parents, like so many others, receded into the shadows by keeping their status as undocumented immigrants hidden from all but their closest relatives and friends. They fought to stay invisible while still living a life that, on its surface, seemed very American: work, meetings at school, family dinners, Sundays at church.
Within this divided existence, Abril forged her own brand of citizenship. She joined an eclectic army of young Latinos—some of them also undocumented immigrants, and others US-born children of undocumented parents, not yet old enough to vote. Ahead of every election, the members of a grassroots group called Living United for Change in Arizona—or Lucha, the Spanish word for “fight”—knock on doors and tell their stories to people who are eligible to vote. They register new Latino voters and convince those who are already registered to vote by inspiring citizens with their stories, the stories of non-citizens.
“There are undocumented immigrants who say their opinions don’t matter because they can’t vote, but I tell them that’s not true,” Abril told me. “I have a voice and my voice is in the power I exercise as I mobilize my friends and my neighbors who are citizens.”
Abril rose from field organizer to leadership within Lucha over seven years. She has long, wavy, chestnut-brown hair that she wraps in a bun when she’s busy. It’s often in a bun. Her braces make Abril seem younger than her twenty-five years, but there is an intensity about her—in the way she laughs and also in the way she gazes at you when you talk, as if there is nothing else she would rather do than listen. She seems to be always searching for solutions.
People like Abril fit the definition of good citizens, yet are not American citizens in the eyes of the law. In life and practice, they transcend the neat divide between citizen and non-citizen. Their connection to this country is much more meaningful than any I’ve ever experienced because this is the place that has made them who they are, even as it has tried to exclude them. Though they weren’t born here, they are a product of all that the United States imagines itself to be: industrious, tenacious and brave. They operate from a place of civic power, mobilizing citizen surrogates to vote. Their surrogates believe, as they do, that citizenship is something that is shared; that the power of a single vote equals the power of effecting collective change, and that, undocumented or not, they are part of the collective.
On September 5, 2017, I went to the food workers’ union hall in Phoenix to watch the announcement by Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General at the time, that the Trump administration planned to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an Obama-era initiative that gives some young undocumented immigrants temporary permission to live and work in the United States. The room, shaped like a shoebox, was packed. There were at least fifteen long rows of plastic folding chairs arranged in front of a big screen that hung from one of the narrower walls. Every seat was taken. Television reporters stood opposite the screen and photographers crouched on the sidelines, optimally positioned to capture the crowd’s reaction.
I sat in the second row of chairs, behind a young DACA recipient wrapped in an American flag. He introduced himself as Emanuel Lopez, but said that he goes by “Manny” because “it’s a lot more simple.” It certainly sounds more “American”—something he is not, according to America’s immigration laws, as they stand. Manny was six months old when his mother brought him across the border. He is twenty now and works as a certified Spanish-English interpreter at a call center, translating for Disney sales representatives, Bank of America customer service agents, and 911 operators who can’t understand the emergency the callers on the other end of the line are trying to convey. He translates, by phone, for police officers who are out on the streets and unable to communicate with the people they are working to protect, or to arrest.
“What do you hear in these calls?” I asked.
Manny has a neatly trimmed beard that travels from ear to ear on a thin line. It hugs his jaw and connects to his lower lip through a wisp of dark brown hair. He wears his shirts tucked inside his pants at work, and snapback hats when he isn’t working. On the day we met, he had on a New England Patriots hat, which he said he liked because of the team’s colors: red, white, and blue. He told me that he couldn’t share details about the conversations he translates—“company policy.” What he could say, though, was that he often heard the voices of undocumented immigrants in these interactions, people who reminded him of his parents, and of his sisters, and of himself.
Sometimes, after he comes home from work, he loses himself online, reading the comments on the immigration stories that he comes across on his Facebook feed, where people talk about what it means to be a patriot and a real American.
“I remember seeing a lot of things, like, a real American is law-abiding. A real American, you know, goes to work, goes to school. A real American wakes up and does his part. And I remember thinking, if that’s what the description of an American is, why does that exclude me?”
Why does it? What is citizenship, anyway?
The official definition of citizenship has been shaped over time by a contingent of laws reflecting the ruling power’s acceptance—or not—of certain types of people, a choice largely informed by nationality and skin color. The Naturalization Act of 1790 required proof of good moral character and two years of residency in the country for naturalization, though the criteria applied only to a “free white person.” The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, annexed a large swath of northern Mexico to US territory and gave the Mexicans who lived there the choice to either stay or move south of the redrawn borders. Those who stayed were enticed with the promise of American citizenship and the same rights as any other US citizen; but through taxes, employment restrictions, and onerous proof-of-land-ownership needs, that promise went largely unrealized.
There were, over the years, other attempts at manipulating the meaning of citizenship. For example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first US law to ban immigration based on race and nationality, wasn’t repealed until 1943. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, declared that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” But the debate over birthright citizenship is as alive as ever these days.
I wrote for years for the New York Times, home to all the real news that’s fit to print, covering countless immigration stories that kept me wondering about the malleability of citizenship. Because some immigrants don’t have it—but, like Manny and Abril, they fulfill their civic duties better than a lot of native-born Americans I know. Others do, but must contend with the discourse in certain political and journalistic circles, where “immigrant” has become synonymous with “illegal immigrant”—a power-and-control subterfuge aimed at negating their worth.
I continue to write, for the Times and other publications, and I teach writing too, in English, #notmymothertongue. When the police pull me over, I am unafraid. Citizenship is my shield. It is the ability to walk away from a traffic stop clean, like the American flag Manny carried on his back. But I don’t think I could wrap myself in the Stars and Stripes. I am an American citizen by marriage, but I’m not sure if American is the citizenship I carry inside. I have thought a lot about the privilege of that citizenship, and the uncomfortable situations I continue to encounter in spite of it, like the day an Anglo-Saxon man walked up to me as I spoke in Spanish on the phone outside a Starbucks and demanded, “Speak English.” (“I speak four languages” was all I could say to him.)
A few years ago, I attended a defense course, or “curso de defensa” in Spanish, for undocumented immigrants. I took notes, ruminating on the comfortable safety that my status as a citizen bestowed upon me. In it, participants learned to prepare for deportation by filling out affidavits naming a person to care for their money, their business, and their American children, whose citizenship is defined by its limits: it cannot protect their families. One of the people there, a father of three named Miguel Guerra, who owned a house and car repair shop, told me, “Preparing for the worst is our best defense.”
Situations such as this have been blamed on Arpaio, and then on Trump and the racism he has mainstreamed. But the roots go much deeper. They start with the formation of statehood and citizenship in the Southwest.
In 1865, the US Army encamped in the area that is now Central Arizona to defend the Anglo pioneers from indigenous peoples hell-bent on protecting the land that was theirs and foreigners who were trying to stake their claim in the new country. Indigenous communities had been in the Southwest since Pre-Columbian times. The Army, by comparison, was only a recent arrival. Arizona was still a United States territory, and it was during those territorial years, said Christine Marin, a historian, archivist, and professor emerita at Arizona State University, that language was weaponized to carve distinct lines of separation in the nascent Southwest region. The soldiers and settlers, who were white, described Native Americans as “hostile,” “the enemy,” and “always on the rampage.”
The Mexicans who migrated north in the late nineteenth century joined the Mexicans who were already here and, together, they helped develop the Arizona Territory and State. Their knowledge of and work on the land propelled the farms they owned and were employed by along the Salt River Valley, bringing livelihood to the barren expanse of desert in and around Phoenix.
In time, more jobs emerged—on the fields and also on ranches, railroads, and in the copper, silver and gold mines speckled throughout the new state. More Mexicans started coming north, pushed out by the hardships that had befallen their country since the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and lured by the prospect of a better life in a place that needed them. (Arizona became a state in 1912.)
The opportunities of the American Southwest and the idea of whom the ideal citizens of Arizona might be were on display in a full-page advertisement by the Chamber of Commerce of Phoenix that appeared in a 1920 directory for Phoenix and the Salt River Valley. The ad promoted the area as some sort of white Shangri-La in the desert—“three hundred-twenty-five days of sunshine,” “oranges that ripen in November,” and “a climate that doctors all over the country recommend.” Phoenix, the ad says, “is a modern town of forty thousand people, and the best kind of people, too. A very small percentage of Mexicans, negroes or foreigners.”
Dr. Marin’s father, Lupe Trujillo Marin, was still a baby when he arrived from Torreón, Coahuila, Mexico, in 1921. Mexican migration had intensified, but so had the institutional resistance to it. The Mexicans moving north clashed with westbound Anglos, who were already calling themselves “Americans,” a name they had appropriated as their own and turned into a seal of legitimacy for the inhabitants of this expanding country. To be American meant to be un-Mexican, un-negro, un-foreigner.
Dr. Marin told me that there were many educated and well-established Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest in the early years of statehood—all of whom called themselves Mexicanos, or simply Mexicans, she said. Her father attended public schools outside of Phoenix. Once he graduated, he served for a year in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, a work-relief program that employed millions of young men—US citizens and otherwise—to plant trees and build trails and shelters in more than 800 national parks during the Great Depression. This was his first chance at serving a country that was the only country he had ever known, but was not yet his country. It was not until World War II came along and he was inducted into the Army that Lupe—short for Guadalupe; he was named after Mexico’s patron saint—was allowed to become an American citizen.
By then, Anglos had used the newspapers they owned to successfully shape a narrative of other-ness grounded on a gradient of skin color: the darker its shade, the less desirable its bearer. In La Raza: Mexicans in the United States Census, scholars Brian Gratton and Emily Klancher Merchant cite a piece by the New York Times from October 13, 1929, arguing that Mexican immigration might well lead “to a new ‘race’ problem,” since “those who enter are largely Indian in blood, with only a veneer of Spanish culture.” According to Dr. Marin, what emerged was “a portrait of the Mexicano already being painted as a villain. The Mexicano is the troublemaker, the one who doesn’t respect law and order, the one who refuses to become Americanized.”
That perception would shape minds and political persuasions in Arizona, a state where lines of racial and ethnic demarcation are clearly defined.
These minds and persuasions were also moved by fear. In the 1990s, federal agents cracked down on illegal border crossings through California, pushing migrants toward the most treacherous journey through the Arizona desert. Ranchers whose property abuts Mexico complained about migrants stomping on, damaging, and littering their land. In border cities, the police got busy fielding calls about migrants trampling through backyards, knocking on doors in the middle of the night to beg for food, and stealing clothes that had been left to dry outside.
It’s true that illegal border crossings had been on the rise since the 1990s. By 2004, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers most of the roughly 370-mile border between Arizona and Mexico, had become the agency’s busiest, logging more apprehensions than any other sector in the country. Captain Eben Bratcher of the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, on the westernmost end of the border in Arizona, told me that unauthorized immigrants used to rush at the line at once by the hundreds, knowing that federal agents couldn’t catch them all.
But that was then. The billions of dollars that have been spent on fencing and surveillance technology put a brake on the mass migration of Mexicans looking for work in the United States. These days, it is mothers, fathers, and unaccompanied children fleeing violence and abject poverty in Central America who are keeping border agents busy. Though the number of migrant apprehensions along the Southwest border stood at roughly 400,000 last fiscal year—well below its historic high of 1.6 million in fiscal 2000—the number of migrants seeking asylum increased to almost 93,000 from about 10,000 in 2000, according to official statistics.
Lost in the debate over immigration and border security, though, is the fact that about one-half of all undocumented immigrants are in the country illegally because they overstayed their visas, and not because they snuck across the border. But it is the imagery of the “bad immigrant,” the criminal, the scary “illegal,” that has captured the imagination of many of the people who vote. In Arizona, it fueled a controversial repertoire of legal restrictions endorsed by an Anglo electorate who had moved here from cold corners of the country not just because of the sunshine and fertile lands. For a century, they have been lured by the promise that this was a place where they could live among their own, in communities where there was nary a brown person in sight. They believed that this is what the Southwest was meant to be.
First, voters approved Proposition 200, also known as “Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act,” in 2004, requiring evidence of citizenship for every person who registers to vote. In 2006, they passed Proposition 300, called “Public Program Eligibility Act,” demanding that state and local agencies verify the immigration status of anyone applying for state-funded services such as child care, adult education programs, and in-state tuition and financial aid for public colleges.
Then came Senate Bill 1070, the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” in 2010, whose effective purpose was to force undocumented immigrants out of the state by making it hard for them to live and work in Arizona. The law’s passage spurred street protests, boycotts, and a lawsuit filed by none other than the United States, on grounds that the law infringed on federal powers. The lawsuit made its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld its most controversial provision, allowing the police to inquire on citizenship status of people they stopped for traffic infractions or other violations, but struck down most of its other elements.
The opinion came down shortly after I had moved from New York to Arizona to take over as Phoenix bureau chief for the Times. I remember hearing supporters justify the law—they were frustrated by the lack of progress in Washington over illegal immigration and anxious about their futures. Arizona was in the throes of a deep recession caused by a crash in the housing market, a pillar of its economy, and a lot of people worried that they might lose out on being hired because some “illegal” would take the job for half the pay.
Underneath it all was a desperate struggle for power. Most demographers project the end of Anglo supremacy in the state. Today, the share of the Arizona population that is Latino is approaching what it was a century ago. By 2030, Latinos will be the largest ethnic group in the state. Already in Maricopa County, more than two thousand Latinos turn eighteen every month and become eligible to vote, according to the Morrison Institute for Latino Public Policy at Arizona State. It’s safe to say that many of them are part of what I call the Arpaio generation, a politicized group of young people who have grown up waiting for payback time—and the ability to assert their citizenship and civic rights.
“Even if the Republican Party takes a new approach to immigration, what’s being said today is going to be affecting elections ten, fifteen years from now,” the institute’s director, Joseph Garcia, told me. “If the talk that you hear is that your aunt, your neighbor, your nana, your older brother or sister are at the risk of being deported, there’s nothing political about it. It’s a very real thing, and these new voters, they don’t forget.”
Though the definition of “minority” will soon mean “white,” the caste system that whites have imposed—reinforced with racist distinctions of “legal” and “illegal,” citizen and non-citizen—persists against a rising movement of empowerment.
In the 2018 midterm election, voters in Legislative District 30 in West Phoenix elected Raquel Terán, an activist born to Mexican parents on the Arizona side of the border. A day before the official results were in, a notorious anti-immigrant activist with a history of challenging the citizenship of Latino elected officials sued Terán in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging that she was not a US citizen. In court, Terán’s lawyer presented a certified copy of her birth certificate. Terán wiped tears as the activist repeatedly called her an “anchor baby.” The judge dismissed the suit.
“It’s not right to place the burden on me yet again to answer questions about my citizenship, about my loyalty to this country, about my Americanness. It’s not fair to put me on the ‘other.’ I am an American,” Terán told reporters. “This is another example of the anti-immigrant climate in our state and in our country that seeks to exclude people like me rather than include us.”
She added, “We love this country. I love you. Why don’t you love us?”
My citizenship and my Americanness have always been tied to a person, not a place. I moved to Boston from Brazil for graduate school in 1998, carrying a single suitcase and plans to go back soon after graduation. But my plans changed. In 2000, I married Mike. He made the United States feel like home to me.
Mike was a white boy from a blue-collar town in the heart of Massachusetts, the son of a nurse and gas meter reader who grew up sheltered by the monochromatic safety of a small community. He was curious, though, in a way that his parents and childhood friends never seemed to be—always looking for a new experience, and always engaged in the answers you gave to his questions, all of it in the interest of learning about you and from you.
I also learned about him and from him, not so much because I asked questions, but because living his life experiences was part of our marriage. He took me to high school football games on Thanksgiving, Fourth of July barbecues at his best friend’s house, and Memorial Day parades where our niece tossed a baton as the marching band played patriotic songs. I cheered at touchdowns; laughed at stories that involved people I’d never met, from a past I hadn’t shared; and pretended to sing along to lyrics I didn’t know. It felt, at times, as if I were engaged in some kind of anthropological study and that the people around me—his family, which became my family—were the subjects whose behavior I had come to analyze and interpret. I was also very aware that I was most often the only brown person around.
We opened up different sides of America to each other and exposed one another to different types of Americans. In doing so, we calibrated our perceptions and deconstructed stereotypes. He pushed me to apply for citizenship as soon as I qualified. I did so in 2005, just as we had noticed a shift in the tone of the discussions around immigration in Washington. Not that the animosity was anything new, but I don’t think either of us had been fully attuned to it until we became meaningful to each other.
In Arizona, our family trips included visits to the border city of Nogales. Mike and our daughter, Flora, stayed on the US side, browsing the aisles in the 99-cent stores and walking up and down hills along the border fence that separates neighboring countries, before concertina wire made it look like prison walls. I reported from a migrant shelter on the other side, in Mexico, where people who had just been deported ate a breakfast of scrambled eggs, salsa, and tortillas with people who were waiting for the right moment to try to get across.
In the evening, Mike, Flora, and I sat in the darkness outside the casita we had rented at a ranch in Rio Rico, Arizona, looking at the carpet of stars above.
Arizona grew on Mike and I. We felt that we were closer to the essence of this country here than we had ever been because the struggles over diversity unfold out in the open in Arizona, where demographic changes are palpable and irreversible. As a journalist, I felt like a spectator, or perhaps a reviewer registering her impressions about the performance she was watching. But the show was real life and Mike and I knew we were more than just bearing witness to the transformation. We, as a mixed family raising a bilingual child at home, were part of the transformation. And so I quit my job at the Times. Together, Mike and I decided that we’d let our roots grow in Arizona.
“Very proud of you for making a bold new change,” he wrote to me on July 21, 2017, my forty-fourth birthday. “Hoping we get to spend more time together now.”
That same year, on October 2, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Thirty days later, he died, at the age of forty-six.
So here I am, an American citizen by way of marriage, unmoored without the person who anchored me.
I’ve taken to asking some folks I know, when the opportunity arises, what citizenship means to them. It is in part sheer curiosity—are they as conflicted as I am? It is also a research of sorts. Maybe I’ll find in theirs a definition that suits me. Maybe I’ll spot land ahead, and a dock, and I’ll steer my ship that way.
When I asked Dr. Marin to define citizenship, she paused for a moment. No one had ever asked her that question, she said. Then, she gave an answer that surprised me because it didn’t revolve around her connection to this country. Rather, it was about what made her a part of this state.
“Arizona to me is citizenship, and it’s always changing, always developing, this word, or this idea, or this concept of citizenship, and I’m always fighting for it,” she said. “I’m always mindful of my role and my moral responsibility to write a fair story and live by the example of the Mexicano contribution to the history of our state.”
I’m not exactly sure what my role or moral responsibility as an American citizen are in this new life of mine. I look at my daughter, who toggles comfortably from English to Portuguese to the Spanish she has learned from her Mexican nanny here and see the future of this country—her country and maybe someday mine, too. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for the person I’ve become in these twenty years in the United States, but I’m still in search for the deep emotional connection that grounds you to a place, the type of connection that my daughter has, and that Abril has, and that Manny has. That search, dormant while Mike was here, is now fully awake and demanding my attention.
A few weeks after we’d met, Manny visited me at work. He was about the same age as most of my students and looked like a lot of them too. He was dressed casually, in jeans and a Polo shirt, but I sensed a discomfort in him, the painful awareness that looking as if you’re a part of something doesn’t make you a part of something.
Manny didn’t go to college because he couldn’t afford to pay the higher tuition rates that are charged to undocumented immigrants in Arizona.
“Being an immigrant doesn’t mean that you’re a bad person,” he told me, fidgeting on the same chair where my students sit when they stop by to discuss their latest story. People are “misinformed,” he said. “I know I do contribute to society because when I’m at work, I help a lot of people,” he said. I think about some of the really hard calls I’ve had and I tell myself, yes, I’m helping people—and when I’m helping them, no one cares if I’m not a citizen.”
But in my eyes, he is a citizen, and a good citizen. Because being a citizen, ultimately, is having the unfettered belief that this is the country under your skin. This is the place that gives you purpose. This is where you belong.
This piece, part of our Rewriting the West series, is made possible by a generous grant from the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.