I’ve been meaning to write about my corner of the U.S. for a while now, but was finally prompted by the book Desert America: A Journey Through Our Most Divided Landscape, by Ruben Martinez. Besides being a well-written book (always important to me, as a writer) it helped me better understand my home region on a much deeper level and from new angles. I won’t try to outdo Martinez, but I can offer you a very introductory look at my home state of Arizona.
Weather: First, please be aware that our state’s climate is diverse, harsh, and dependent on altitude. Contrary to popular belief, it DOES snow here. White-out blizzard conditions and black ice are common winter occurrences, especially along the Interstate 40 corridor between Williams and Winslow. As you head “down the hill” (local speak for driving south on Interstate 17), you ease into the Sonoran Desert, which is typically at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. The central part of the state is home to the Phoenix metro area, collectively called “The Valley” as it is nestled among foothills and mountains. Here the temperatures are extreme: we have more than 100 days per year above 100 F (almost 38 C) and several weeks above 110 F (over 43 C). The daily temperature spread is likewise extreme. This morning, for example, it was about 34 F (1 C), but by early afternoon it was 74 F (23 C), a difference which can be confusing for travelers and new arrivals alike. No matter when you are here, or where you are staying, please be advised that the UV index is severe. And, keep in mind that just because our seasons don’t look like yours doesn’t mean that we don’t have any. Some parts of the state actually have five.
History: Many people assume “there is no history” out here, but our state is full of historical sites dating back centuries. With only a little bit of effort, you can view ancient Native American dwellings, ball courts, and canals; Spanish missions and presidios; U.S. Army territorial camps, forts, courthouses and prisons; and more. From the time that volcanoes erupted here, the area has been marked by upheaval and change. Civil War battles, Civil Rights battles, labor/mining battles, shifting empires and national boundaries, massive internal migration, wholesale relocation of indigenous populations to reservations, a perpetual boom/bust economy tied to real estate, roving internal Border Patrol stops and the resulting deportations… These are momentous events with national significance, clashes which go to the core of our identity as a country. A short list of political figures who have made their mark on our state include Coronado, Cochise, Geronimo, Sandra Day O’Connor, Cesar Chavez, Joe Arpaio, John McCain, Wyatt Earp, the Udall Family, Barry Goldwater, Janet Napolitano, and Gabrielle Giffords. Loved or loathed, many are larger-than-life; they reflect the reality of Arizona as a contested space.
Demographics: Despite our proximity to the border, Arizona is a majority white place. This is for several reasons. First, our economic growth has long been tied to real estate, and housing booms have largely been fed by waves of European Americans who relocate here from other parts of the country. Second, we have a pretty spotty record when it comes to building an inclusive interracial community; not only does fear of deportation lead to suspected under-reporting by undocumented residents, but the controversial law SB1070 has encouraged legal citizens to quit the state because of resulting harassment or concern for their undocumented families. Third, compared to other parts of the country, we have a very small black population, probably due to a combined lack of reason for them to come here (no big industry like the one that drew them to Detroit) and our bad reputation as a hostile place. Nevertheless, we are only about 57% White only (not also Hispanic), and the Hispanic population is over 30%. Moreover, almost 27% of the population speaks a language other than English at home, and about 15% is foreign-born (these are higher rates than the U.S. at large). There are also over 20 federally-recognized tribes, including the well-known Apache, Navajo, and Hopi. Although we have a reputation for being a retirement destination due to our seniors-only cities, we are actually fairly young, with about 25% of our population under 18.
Land of Contradictions: Just as we often have both the coldest and hottest temperature in the nation, we are marked by social and political contradictions. For example, Phoenix participated in the scourge of Indian Schools, but was then the first city to desegregate. We widely celebrate Cinqo de Mayo (many erroneously believe it is Mexican Independence Day, so hey, why not?), but have banned Mexican American studies in our schools. We have a reputation for being anti-government (we don’t participate in Daylight Savings because why should the government tell us what time it is?) but the state was literally built by U.S. government funding and intervention, from the army rounding up indigenous people to make land available for lucrative ranching and mining, to the construction of Lake Powell and the Central Arizona Canal Project, to the presence of large military bases and outposts. And, despite having some of the top research centers in the world, we have a very strong anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual vein. Perhaps the greatest dichotomy is between rich and poor: between 2008 & 2010, we had the second-highest income inequality in the nation. So, those who visit or move here will undoubtedly encounter certain aspects of life that seem incongruent with other aspects. That’s because what you see are not pairings, but, according to Martinez, “saw-toothed eruptions, the crumpled metal of a collision” (p. 196)
Arizona has to be experienced to be understood, and even then, you may not get beneath the surface. Indeed, there is so much on the surface – from the Grand Canyon to the world-famous resorts to Spring Training – that few people ever feel the inclination to go deeper. Yet, even if it is not your intention to immerse yourself in our culture, keep in mind the following, as it will help you better navigate your time here, at least when interacting with the mainstream.
We tend to stand up straight, give a firm handshake, look people square in the eye and smile warmly when meeting someone for the first time. Friends will often (but not always) hug when departing. We speak directly and plainly, using words that an average high school student could easily understand. Fancy vocabulary impresses no one, but will likely alienate your listener not only because you are trying to show off, but because you actually think that big words are the way to do it. If we have something to say, we will say it, but with some anxiety around direct confrontation compared to, say, New Yorkers.
We are casual, but not consistently so. People wear everything from jeans to cocktail dresses to go to the same evening theater show, and it’s totally normal. The same goes for weddings, religious services, and educational ceremonies. Flip flops and shorts are staples. I have to laugh when I read snarky complaints each summer from the Northeast about how people need to get some real shoes. When it gets to the high 90s F (35 C) as early as February and is sometimes still that hot in November, these are most certainly considered “real shoes.”
We are staunchly individualistic – perhaps even more than the rest of the country (which may explain our utter incomprehension about how laws impacting everyone who is not white could possibly seen as attacking an entire group). We have very little solidarity, but believe in relying on ourselves and ourselves alone to improve our socioeconomic lot in life. And with a transient population with shallow roots (many arrived after 2005), our lack of long-term community reinforces this view.
We are not especially ambitious overachievers. While people tend to want the American Dream and work hard for it, we do not have the kind of work culture that California or New York have (and we have the lower salaries to prove it). Education for education’s sake is utterly bizarre, as one’s career should be practical. Yet, devoting one’s life to work is seen as a bit pathetic, too. Wouldn’t you rather be shopping, riding an ATV, camping, or visiting California?
And yet, time is money. We are extremely impatient. If the food does not arrive, or the doctor does not call us back, we will “go check” that we haven’t been forgotten. And woe to anyone who gets in our way while driving. If someone gives you the middle finger, they were mad at you for driving too slow (which was probably still above the speed limit, but still too slow for their liking). Please note: you should always obey traffic laws! Most of the people I know here have speeding tickets, so do not assume that law enforcement is lax. At the same time, we do have a fair amount of road rage, so it is unwise to just get out of the way.
We love to complain. Loudly and often. Proudly, even. We complain about work, our families, our pets, our neighbors, our car, our school programs… you name it. It is not because we are truly unhappy, but rather as a way to bond, as in “let me tell you what’s been going wrong with my life so we can empathize about how weird/ crappy things are sometimes!” It is an equalizer, a way to assure each other that none of us is special, as well as a way to make each other laugh. And we love to laugh – at strictly average films and television, at stand-up comedians, and at each other’s wittily-recounted stories about whatever.
We are also generous. Not politically, but to institutions and communities. It is very common for employers to sponsor fundraisers for local groups, for parents to volunteer at their children’s schools, and for lay persons to volunteer at their houses of faith or worship. Many people also donate money and items to charity – a task made even more appealing through generous tax credits and deduction incentives which either result in a refund or reduce one’s overall tax obligation.
I could go on, but this is already a long (but hopefully interesting) blog about my home state. It’s totally unlike Vermont, Florida, and Nebraska – sometimes infuriating, sometimes captivating, but always my first home. And if you let it – if you see beyond the image of the Western movie – the real place, raw and flawed, may just make its way into your heart.