New Internationalist

The Other America - Tucson or not Tucson

Issue 351

Nowhere is entirely typical of the United States, and nowhere less so than the American archetypes themselves – Hollywood, Washington DC and Wall Street. So how about Tucson, Arizona? David Ransom tells a tale of two very different cities in one.

All photos: David Ransom
All photos: David Ransom

High summer is a bad time to live in a desert so hot, so dry, so beautiful it takes your burning breath away. Wildfires have been tearing through the mountain forests. The rare figure you can spot on the streets of the Tucson Central Business District is likely to be destitute or staggering through the 110-degree heat from one air-conditioned capsule to the next.

Yet people are flocking here. A settlement of 7,000 less than a century ago, the city had swollen to 863,000 by the last count in 2000 and had grown by more than a quarter in the previous decade alone1 The newcomers are mostly white pensioners in pursuit of golf courses and relatively cheap ‘gated communities’. But a substantial part of the population is also ‘indigenous’ – not only ‘American Indian’ (at five per cent of the total, the same as ‘Black American’) but ‘Hispanic’ (more than a quarter).

Tucson has not so much grown as sprawled to a bloated 40 miles across – and the city is rapidly running out of basics, like drinking water. Squads of SUVs (sports utility vehicles) advance like tanks across the expanding city grid. Buses are as elusive as the coyote.

...this patch of Mother Earth literally bristles with military paraphernalia. Quite why, or where the threat to Tucson’s migrant pensioners might come from no-one can say

Sixty miles due south is Mexico. Not so long ago Tucson – like the whole of the Southwest, including Texas and California – actually was Mexico. But the US Government invaded the country in 1846 and unceremoniously grabbed half of it. Arizona became the 43rd State of the Union only in 1912, little more than a long lifetime ago. Perhaps partly as a result, the white-immigrant majority seems to favour an assertive form of political expression. In 1964 Barry Goldwater, Senator for Arizona from 1953 to 1987, was the most reactionary Republican presidential nominee in the party’s history – which takes some doing. Current Senator John McCain describes himself as ‘an early foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution’.

Arizona is, after all, part of the legendary Wild West. Tombstone, site of the gunfight at the OK Coral in 1881, lies halfway between Tucson and the Mexican border. Today it is a heritage centre where closet cowboys don fancy dress and fire blanks from six-shooters in the name of tourism and charity.

But, not far away, is its modern-day equivalent – the vast Fort Huachuca military-intelligence and satellite-communications base. Along the border with Mexico are the Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range and the Yuma Proving Ground. Tucson itself has the Davis-Monthan airbase right at its heart. Ranks of mothballed B52 bombers, jet fighters, tank-busters, great pyramids of military junk, litter roadsides like the corpses of monstrous insects. More F16 jet fighters than civilian airliners seem to use the international airport which has an exclusive Military Lounge – and there is a dedicated military TV channel. Close by is the sprawling Raytheon plant which makes missiles like the ones dropped most recently on Afghanistan. Raytheon shares with the University of Arizona in Tucson a lucrative chunk of the Son of Star Wars missile-defence development programme. Robert E Walkup, Mayor of Tucson, is a former senior executive of the Hughes Aircraft Company, later swallowed by Raytheon. Concrete-hooded bunkers for nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles ring the city. Just to the north is Biosphere 2 which mimics how humans might fare if they ever felt the need to flee to another planet altogether.

Segregation Tucson-style

The indigenous Hispanic community still distrusts its white neighbors – Karina Ioffee explains why.

The plethora of Hispanic cultural venues and historic barrios (neighborhoods) is one reason why Hispanic magazine thinks Tucson is a great place to be Latino – one of the Top-10 ‘Best Places for Hispanics in the US’. This may be good for tourism, but deep lines still separate the Hispanic community from its white neighbors.

In the South Side homes are built closer together and are more run-down. There is a dog in every yard, laying low amid junk cars that haven’t been driven for years. The sidewalks are filled with people carrying groceries or waiting for a bus – an unusual sight in Tucson. This is an area known for cheap rents and crime; for teenage gangs and young mothers; for long welfare lines and poor medical services.

In the last decade the Hispanic population of Arizona has surged. Today, 36 per cent of Arizonans aged under 18 are Hispanic. But most of them lack education or training for high-skilled jobs so wind up in low-end service jobs, continuing the cycle of poverty from generation to generation.

‘The belief of many is that you can go ahead and try,’ says Amanda Ramos, who was born and raised in Tucson, ‘but the world is still going to burn you.’

In the 1950s and 1960s children were not allowed to speak Spanish in school and were severely reprimanded for it, recalls Dora Estela Dalton from her own experience. She’s also been mistaken for a Mexican immigrant and told to ‘go back to your country’.

‘They come in, put up their border that separates families and force a different language on them, and then they tell me to leave?’ she says in disgust.

You can still buy fresh pan dulce (sweet bread) every morning in the barrios and see family and friends as they gather on the front porch to talk in the evenings. But the South Side is also riddled with drugs, high unemployment, domestic violence and alcoholism. In the 1970s the bulldozers moved in, razing entire neighborhoods to make way for highways, parks and community centers.

Many Tucsonans still lead entirely Hispanic lives. They speak little English and cannot vote because they have not applied for citizenship. Others are afraid to get their papers in order, register to vote or stick out in any way because they don’t want attention from the Government. Some are just too tired to care.

This kind of segregation may be self-imposed – but it is also the result of decades and centuries of injustice. They’ve been burned not once or twice, but time and time again. The hardest part – forgiving while not forgetting, and then moving on – remains for the future.

Karina Ioffee is a reporter with the Arizona Star, based in Tucson.

As if to precipitate that day, this patch of Mother Earth literally bristles with military paraphernalia. Quite why, or where the threat to Tucson’s migrant pensioners might come from no-one can say.

The other Tucson

There is, however, another Tucson. The Sanctuary Movement was created here 20 years ago. An alliance of faith-based groups decided to offer protection to refugees fleeing repression invariably sponsored by the US Government in Central America. The migrants are still coming but today they are fleeing the economic effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement. A Samaritan Patrol combs the desert for people in distress, though it has been prevented from doing as it would wish and leaving stores of water at strategic points.

A terrible human tragedy is unfolding here. Between 100,000 and 250,000 migrants are thought to cross the Tucson sector of the border every year, most of them heading on for family or friends in California, Chicago or New York. By the end of July this year more than a hundred of them had died crossing the desert so far – already breaking the annual record set last year.

Two young activists, Chris Ford and Jennifer Allen, work for the Southwest Alliance to Resist Militarization (SWARM).2 For the past 20 years, they say, the death toll has risen in step with an accelerating military build-up on the border. The Border Patrol is now bigger than the FBI; its freewheeling

local agents are periodically accused – and sometimes even convicted – of drug trafficking and murder. Walls, roads and surveillance devices have wrought havoc on the fragile desert environment. They are intended to direct migrants towards the most desolate and dangerous crossing points. Vigilante groups from Texas and California with names like ‘American Patrol’, ‘Voices for Citizens Together’ and ‘Ranch Rescue’ patrol the border on the look-out for unwanted foreigners. ‘War on crime. War on drugs. War on immigrants,’ laments Jennifer Allen. ‘And now, of course, war on terrorism.’

The issue is no mere sideshow in Tucson. It is felt deeply across the population. But this is not a wealthy city and its long-term residents have little clout. Wages are low. One worker in eighteen is employed by a ‘temp’ agency; one in twenty-five in the tele-service (call-centre) industry. Employers routinely threaten to call in the Immigration and Naturalization Service if they complain. And Arizona is one of five ‘Right To Work’ States in the US. This does not mean what it suggests. The ‘right to work’ trumps the right to organize, so trade unions can legally be denied an effective voice. Exploitation hides behind fear.

No deterence

But that is not enough to deter the likes of Amanda Sapir and Maritza Broce. They work for the Southern Arizona Alliance for Economic Justice.3 Their job is to bridge the yawning gap between isolated, sometimes ‘undocumented’, often female, workers and the sluggish, hard-pressed, traditional labour movement. This ‘social unionism’ is supported by a large number of local community and faith-based groups.

Here we are, young women in our 20s, all being able to do this work,’ says Maritza, cheerfully. ‘It’s just so amazing, such an honour.’

She has just been talking to a machinist making missiles in the Raytheon plant. ‘A very progressive man,’ she says. ‘He tells me, every day he’s building these weapons of huge devastation. He said: “I cannot wait for the day that instead of building these bombs we’re building playground equipment for children. That’s what I want to be doing. That’s what I want to be building.” And then he told me about a little bit of sabotage that sometimes happens. You know, very delicate, very costly equipment can sometimes get dropped….’

Military and border policy leak into every aspect of Tucson life. José Matus is a member of the Yaqui tribe of Native Americans. He is a moving spirit in the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras (Indigenous Alliance Without Borders).4 ‘When border policy was made, we were invisible,’ he says. The Tohono O’odham native community straddles the border. Like the Yaqui and half-a-dozen other indigenous groups they need unhindered access to their elders and relatives on both sides of the border to maintain their ceremonies and language. Because of border ‘security’ that is now nearly impossible.

But it is not being taken lying down. ‘It’s a political border that simply should not be there,’ says Richard Moore, director of the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice.5 His purpose, he says, is to ‘put the US Government and transnational corporations on notice that it will not be business as usual’. The routine abuse of Indian land and poor communities in order to dump toxic waste or locate polluting industries simply has to come to an end.

Environmental issues are also uppermost in the minds of two friends, Pat Birnie and Rose Augustine. Pat embraces a bewildering variety of causes.6 Every month she attends a demonstration outside Raytheon.

A replica missile is mounted on the roof of her little Japanese car, together with the words: ‘Star Wars – $60 billion hoax.’

Rose is a great-grandmother whose family moved north in 1910 when her grandfather was killed during the Mexican Revolution.7 She takes the three of us on a tour of the South Side – Tucson’s Hispanic quarter.

South Side calamities

As we drive she points to one calamity after another. An empty space where once stood a chemical plant that leaked toxic fumes and came close to suffocating one of Rose’s grandchildren. A beryllium plant where at least 18 workers have already contracted the incurable chronic beryllium disease – there are six schools within a mile of its smokestack.8 We pass the Raytheon facility and the menacing concrete capes of a nuclear bunker on the left; a ‘landfill’ on the right which rises from the desert like a passable imitation of Ayres Rock (Uluru) in Australia. Rose suspects that buried quite deliberately beneath it is another toxic dump. The latest news, she says, is that nuclear-bomb makers Sandia National Laboratories are on their way to Tucson from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The routine abuse of Indian land and poor communities in order to dump toxic waste or locate polluting industries simply has to come to an end

I notice that she is becoming upset. ‘Usually I try to deal with one thing at a time,’ she says. ‘Seeing it all at once is a bit disturbing.’

And this is not the worst of it. In the 1980s residents of the South Side, Rose among them, became alarmed by the rising number of cancers and nerve disorders. In the face of official inertia, public meetings attracted as many as 9,000 local residents. Deadly trichloroethylene (TCE) had leaked into the aquifers under a large chunk of the South Side. It came from what was then the Hughes missile facility. And so all the wells had to be sealed. A federal ‘Superfund’ clean-up will continue for at least 20 years – or until George W Bush’s cuts in environmental funds bring it to a premature close.

We sit down to talk in the children’s section of the city public library. It occurs to me that Rose, Pat and their friends are having to do what any self-respecting government would be doing as a matter of course – protecting the lives and health of its citizens. The US Government is anxious to emphasize this function when it comes to bombing other people or invading other countries – but very much less active, it seems, at home.

This is a military town,’ says Rose. ‘Mr Bush has done everything to destroy all the environmental laws that protect the water, air, everything for human beings to live on this planet. He’s taken everything away from us that we’ve worked so hard for. Hour after hour, day after day, working, working, working, making things happen. And this man comes and destroys everything.

I just don’t know how to reach the people. Maybe it’s too late. I see it in my grandkids. They’re working a couple of jobs to make ends meet, to feed their families. When they have a day off they sure don’t want to go to a meeting and hear about the nasties of life. Attending a meeting, for them, is a luxury. It’s all quite deliberate, you know. So long as the people are kept busy, the government can do anything it wants.’

I live in a mobile-home community of grey-hairs,’ says Pat. ‘So I go: “Yeah! All this potential! The couch potatoes will be glad to have something to do with their time.” Forget it! “I’ve had my stress,” they tell me. “I’m here to play golf and to play cards. Go away!”’

I’ve seen that with people who come from other states,’ adds Rose. ‘It makes me angry. They’re taking up our cemetery space. So I get to thinking, why don’t they just start putting them in the golf course when they die, instead of taking our cemeteries?’

Waking up

It must suit someone for the place to be swamped by white pensioners, while young people with brown skins are left to die in the desert. But Jennifer Allen at SWARM, who knows Rose well, is more sanguine. She is part of a new generation of young Americans. Last year she was in Durban, South Africa, for the UN conference on racism. But it was the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 that changed the way she and her friends now think.

People woke up after Seattle,’ she says. ‘Lots of excitement and a lot of new alliances were built as a result. There is more grassroots organizing happening, led in our case by the community that lives along the border with Mexico. We’ve been going out and knocking on doors and talking with folks about their opinions, about the Border Patrol. Are they targeting youth? Do you feel like they’re corrupt? Do they racially profile? Do you know people who’ve been harassed? Have you filed a complaint? And people are answering: “Yes. And I want to do something about it.”

What should be happening is the building of a broader movement, led by the people who are being affected, calling for systemic change, for social change that brings a lot more justice to everyone. The first step is getting folks a space where they can lift their voice.’

That step is already being taken. In fact, thousands of Tucsonans have started to raise their voices in tune with the rolling thunder…

  1. US Census Bureau, 2000 census figures for Pima County, which covers the main Tucson conurbation.
  2. http://www.resistmilitarization.org/
  3. http://www.saaej.org/
  4. http://www.derechoshumanosaz.net/
  5. http://www.igc.org/envjustice/
  6. Pat supports the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom
  7. You can contact Rose’s organization, Tucsonans for A Clean Environment, at: Raugus1049@aol.com
  8. There is mounting worldwide concern about the long-term impact on human health of the dust from beryllium, a substance used in military hardware, cars, dental work, cell phones, computers and sports equipment. Contact the Beryllium Support Group, http://www.beryllium.org/

Lost & found

Pancho Medina makes extraordinary ‘found’ works of art from discarded objects. His installation (below) is a tribute to the ‘undocumented aliens’ who pass through, and sometimes die in, the desert. It is, he told me, the result of just two hours spent searching in the desert for objects left behind: articles of clothing, bags and, hanging just to the right of the cross, a half-filled child’s water bottle. Pancho works with Teatro Rasquacho, which can be contacted at: rasquacho@aol.com

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The Other America - Tucson or not Tucson

Leave your comment