By Adam Gettinger-Brizuela
“Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., February, 1960
I’m thinking about what it would be like to take a little vacation in Arizona. It’s not as oppressively hot this time of year, and maybe it’s time I lifted my personal boycott of our oppressively racist neighbor. Of course, that decision could be made for me, even here in punitively progressive California. Thanks to a recent decision by the conservatively-impacted U.S. Supreme Court, the State of Arizona has been found to be perfectly justified in mandating that its regular cops, not just the Border Patrol, demand that anyone they talk to prove they are legal residents of this country. Although they can technically ask anyone, is anyone seriously suggesting that they won’t profile the people who look like me? The open racism in Arizona has encouraged anti-Mexican sentiment all over the U.S. with several states crafting and enacting copycat legislation, and a palpable sense of animosity growing, including here in California.
Last week, I was driving north on 1-15, enjoying the countryside on a beautiful sunny rain-swept weekday morning, when I observed an armed, four-wheel drive border patrol unit parked next to the freeway. I thought it was a little odd but I was unconcerned. I was born in this country and I have only been harassed by the Fatherland Security a few times in my life.
A few miles up the road, I saw a strobe of blue lights and saw that another Border Patrol truck was stopping a man. As I drove by I saw the man’s face, stricken, terrified, as he pulled over. His was a face I have seen many times in old black & white pictures: the faces of people who are being arrested or rounded up, often for being of the wrong race at the wrong time. I thought to myself, “but what had he DONE?”
Other than being brown like me, driving an older car and being dressed plainly, it appeared that the man had done nothing. I could be wrong. He could have been a cannibal serial killer with a warrant for his arrest, boldly driving his own registered car, but I doubt it. My first instinct was to pull over and observe the stop. I even prepared myself to explain to the officers that I was merely exercising my rights as a citizen to observe that no abuse was taking place. I knew that they wouldn’t like it and that it could be risky. Then it occurred to me that I had to be at an important commitment in a few hours. What if I were taken into custody for “obstructing justice”? For all I knew, I could get busted for possessing drugs (not that I would ever dream of accusing our frontier guardians of planting dope on a pesky, nosey, do-gooder citizen to neutralize his credibility.) After all, I wasn’t out to deliberately commit high treason, like those militants that leave water in the desert. (It takes rabid commie radicals to take action so that innocent people don’t die in a nightmare of thirst while seeking the American dream.)
Anyway, the truth is that I chickened out. I had someplace important to be. I couldn’t let the fact that someone might be getting jacked up for looking very much like my late Uncle Manolo make me miss my cue or be late and quedar mal. I was several miles down the road when I realized that I was really disappointed in at myself. Then it occurred to me that we as a people, Chicanos, Mexicanos, Latinos — we are the same Raza whatever we are called — are all being intimidated into accepting a vulgar and egregious level of discriminatory treatment.
A few weeks ago I was discussing the increasingly open hatred being displayed toward us in Arizona with a friend and mentor of mine recently. An African American of some stature in his community, and beyond, he listened intently and sympathetically to me. I told him that I had refused for years to attend a regional conference that I would really love to experience because it is held in Yuma. I can’t bring myself to spend a penny in Arizona while they are so officially set on making it “Mexicanisherein” there. I’m sure the majority of the European Americans who live in Arizona are not haters that want their state “Mexican-free” but they continue to elect nasty, vicious, ignorant people like Gov. Jan Brewer, Congressman Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, none of whom attempt to disguise their revulsion for us as a people. That these amoral politicians cloak in their racism in the guise of “securing the border” does nothing to mitigate that they are fomenting blatant mistrust of all our gente. With their elected leaders displaying their naked prejudice, many Arizonans have descended into bigotry, even armed vigilantism, direct descendants of the murderous Texas Rangers and Ku Klux Klan.
I told my friend how, even as a child, I admired the African American civil rights activists, some of them children themselves, who were willing to put their entire lives on hold, and at risk, to change the way their people were being viewed and treated. “Fill up the jails,” was one the finest and bravest ideas ever put forward by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was three years old when he said that, and my parents were already deeply committed to the ideals that Dr. King elucidated. They lived their principles, long before it was “cool,” in El Cajon, to do so.
When thousands of American “Negroes” from all over the United States of America demonstrated the courage of their convictions by going into the South to break the segregation laws, they effectively broke the segregationist will. The bizarre incongruity of seeing teenagers arrested and dragged out of diners for asking to buy orange or grape Nehi sodas had an impact on the consciousness of the entire world. Thank you, television, for showing how ugly racism is, and how evilly-clownish people look trying to enforce segregation. And thank you, beautiful Black America, for setting a courageous moral example forever. Thank you for paving the way for all people of color, for women, for gay, lesbian and bisexual people, for everyone in America and the world that had been pushed to the margin and forced to accept being “less than.”
I wonder what has become of that spirit. I wonder why we Chicanos and Mexicanos, in our millions, stand by while our people are being harassed and intimidated in Arizona and beyond. I am ashamed that I drove away without checking the situation out the other day. How long will we keep driving by, pretending not to see, to keep our jobs and our lives unmolested, while people who look like us get stopped, questioned, humiliated and arrested for looking like us?
Maybe it’s time to start taking those vacations to Arizona. Maybe our college kids should do Spring Break there and enjoy the hospitality of Sheriff Arpaio and his Arizona storm troopers. We have our own Bull Connor right next door in the present, and he is not hearing from us. For us the challenge is not the South, but Arizona to the east — and within our own hearts. I was born in San Diego, but I honestly feel, as so elegantly phrased by Dr. Vincent Harding, like “a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” I want my passport to reflect the America that is yet to be. The promise of that future country will not be fulfilled without action.
I hope I will not find but make the time and summon the nerve to take a drive to the east and see if I get arrested for “looking illegal.” I understand that I can be stopped and asked about my citizenship at any time. So, what if I refuse to answer, or even to speak English, which is my right? If having a Spanish surname and bearing the features of my Yaqui ancestors gets me arrested, I will be honored to write my next editorial from an Arizona jail.
¿Por qué no llenamos las carceles de Arizona — para que vean quiénes somos?