For most of his life, Jeff Biggers has been on his way home. The author and activist has navigated multiple worlds to chronicle the forgotten Americas—the obscure, the misunderstood, or the proudly resistant communities in Appalachia and the southwestern border lands. As a politically inspired journalist in the tradition of folk historians like Studs Terkel, Biggers has unearthed nuggets of rebellion, even radicalism, in places that the media tend to write off as backwaters or mythologized clichés. In his new book, State Out of the Union, Biggers examines a region he’s been entangled in a “love-hate affair” with since boyhood.
In elucidating Arizona, Biggers sculpts a narrative of cultural and social conflict centered on a tumultuous struggle over immigration and racial politics. Looking beyond the headlines about the state’s various anti-immigrant policies, including the notorious “papers, please” SB 1070 law, Biggers finds strange continuity in Arizona’s evolution as an embodiment of the country’s contradictions. Though the face of Arizona is changing, alongside the nation’s diversifying demographics, the rifts of race, gender and age resonate with the state’s fraught history as the ultimate borderland—and as a muse for storytellers seeking crooked plot lines.
In this Q&A, Biggers, a longtime CultureStrike contributor, talks with editor Michelle Chen about the origins of the book and his meandering journeys in journalism and politics. (Note: Asian American Writers Workshop is hosting an event on Biggers’s new book on September 24 in New York City.)
Michelle Chen: What was the genesis of this book? What led you to Arizona?
Jeff Biggers: I’ve had a love-hate affair with Arizona since my family arrived in Tucson in 1970 in my Dad’s old ’60 Chevy, fleeing the demise of the Midwestern coal towns, intent on finding a new life in the “Sun Belt.” Within a short time, I found myself on a local TV program, discussing Arizona history as a school kid. I’ve never stopped investigating the state’s unique history. In 1991, after living out of the region for a decade, I did a “walkabout” and oral history project in the Sonoran Desert (borderlands), trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures. I’ve also lived on the other side of the US-Mexico border, which I chronicled in my book, In the Sierra Madre. Nearly forty years after my family’s arrival—and all of my immediate family still lives in Arizona—I was outraged by the rise of political interlopers and an extremist state legislature that passed Arizona’s punitive immigration law (the infamous SB 1070 “papers, please” law) in 2010, and then crafted a bill to outlaw Mexican American Studies in Tucson. As a cultural historian, that was the last straw for me; this wasn’t “my Arizona,” and I felt I needed to go home, recover some of the lost voices in the state’s history, and chronicle a new chapter over the civil rights showdown taking place today.
I think a lot of writers like myself, raised in Arizona, felt the same in 2010: What’s the matter with Arizona?
One of the first major fall-outs of SB 1070, and rightly so, was the characterization of Arizona as the “meth lab of democracy.” The media flooded viewers with images of gun-toting anti-immigrant extremists, including neo-Nazis, Tea Party yahoos and fringe political figures. Not that they don’t exist—from a historical point of view, however, these fringe elements in Arizona have come in waves as carpetbaggers and interlopers for over a century. But there is another side of Arizona, like any other state, that has fought back through extraordinary movements, campaigns and struggles and helped to shape the national liberal and conservative agendas.
Is this project sort of an extension of your previous work on Appalachian communities—trying to uncover the radical roots of rural or marginal parts of America and their present-day challenges?
I’ve written four other histories/memoir on Appalachia, northern Mexico, and my family’s own 200-year legacy in the coalfields of southern Illinois, among other theatre and oral history projects. All of these works were driven by my belief that many of the essential stories that have defined the American experience on the frontlines of cultural and political clashes have been left out or been marginalized in most history books. In Arizona, in particular, the history of resistance against cycles of anti-immigrant extremists and ruthless corporate barons and carpetbaggers is deep, but unknown. Arizona native Cesar Chavez’s “Si Se Puede” movement in the 1970s, for example, in defense of the labor and civil rights of migrant workers, emerged out of Phoenix and in response to similarly punitive state legislative acts. In that respect, I share Howard Zinn’s quest to examine “people’s history,” or what I term “the other Arizona.”
Describe how you went about doing your research. You weave together strands of history, politics, culture, and your own personal history (and ambivalent relationship) with the state. Was it hard to braid those elements into a single narrative, or did it unfold naturally?
Though I come from a newspaper family, my academic training is as an oral historian; I’m a storyteller by nature, and a literary critic and investigative journalist by trade. My exemplar, of course, is Studs Terkel, whose pioneering work deeply influenced me; even in his 90s, Studs was extremely helpful on advice for my book on Appalachia, which attempted to flip the long-standing stereotype of hillbillies on its head and explore the overlooked ways in which Appalachians have been at the forefront of national movements for civil rights and social justice. In Arizona, I spent a tremendous amount of time in the mode of an oral historian, collecting stories and voices often left out of the political debate. In State Out of the Union, I also drew on years of research on Arizona history, including my own oral history work in the 1990s, and wove together nearly two years of extensive interviews and frontline reporting. The past is our prologue, goes the expression: Arizona’s cycles of repression and resistance bear witness to that.
What are some of the moments or people you documented in this book that you see as emblematic of the political crisis in Arizona?
I spent a considerable amount of time investigating how Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and former state Senate president and Tea Party leader Russell Pearce manufactured an immigration crisis that never really existed. According to the most recent Department of Homeland Security reports, apprehension rates of undocumented immigrants are at their lowest since I arrived in 1970; an analysis of borderland data found that “rates of violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border have been falling for years—even before the U.S. security buildup.”
Those are the facts. But they are meaningless for politicians like Pearce, who has based his entire career on harboring fear of immigrants and a so-called “invasion” and takeover of the American way of life as a way of justifying state’s rights legislation. Part of a fringe 10th amendment movement, Pearce believes we are not citizens of the United States, but citizens of the “sovereign states.” In the spring of 2010, lagging behind in her gubernatorial race, Gov. Jan Brewer embraced Pearce’s SB 1070 fervor when a rancher was tragically shot in the borderlands. Her ratings soared, she became a national figure, and despite the facts on immigration and crime, Brewer has effectively ridden the “brown scare” wave to challenge President Obama and federal authority on issues of health care, guns, environmental regulations and even incandescent light bulbs.
Did anything surprise you or upend your expectations going into the reporting?
The historic recall of Pearce was one of the biggest overlooked national news stories last year. I covered the story closely for Salon, The Huffington Post, and The Nation. In many respects, Arizona’s extremist Republicans have drawn the line in the sand for the national party—and the platform for Republican president Mitt Romney—and made SB 1070 the litmus test for immigration policies. Romney, in fact, has relied heavily on one of the true architects of SB 1070, Kansas lawmaker and attorney Kris Kobach, who worked with former Sen. Pearce to promulgate the concept of “attrition through enforcement,” which Romney has completely embraced. The historic recall of Pearce, the self-declared “Tea Party President” and legislative force behind SB 1070—the first time ever in American history for a state Senate president to be recalled—reflected the political power of a new bipartisan movement that is fed up with such extremist policies and ready to take their organizational momentum into electoral politics.
Remember: Arizona is one of fifteen swing states that could ultimately tip toward President Obama thanks to Latino voter turnout, especially where the margin of victory often hangs on one to three percentage points; the projected 8.7 percent increase in Latino voters has emerged as the crucial factor for Obama’s re-election.
Last year, when the political controversy exploded over Mexican American Studies in Tucson public schools, what did you learn from your reporting on the issue that revealed the ideological or political motivations behind the crackdown? Was it about targeting Latino or immigrant populations, or was it reflective of more general inequities and mismanagement of public education in the state?
As a product of the Tucson Unified School District (and Amphi schools), I’ve been closely following the Mexican American Studies crisis for years. In many respects, Arizona’s somewhat bizarre “Ethnic Studies” law was the flip side of SB 1070, and an intentional attack on the deeply rooted Mexican American/Chicano communities in Tucson; any teaching of Mexican American history and literature was deemed as “subversive” by the Tea Party legislators like Pearce and current Attorney General Tom Horne, despite the fact that the nationally acclaimed program turned out higher levels of test scores and graduates in underserved areas. I broke the story on Salon (and have continued to provide behind the scenes coverage) on the Tucson school district’s confiscation of the books—in front of the children, in some schools—which exploded into a national scandal and prompted a movement by virtually every major academic, educational, publishing, librarian and civil rights group to denounce Tucson for its censorship and violations of intellectual freedom. While the Mexican American Studies program remains in limbo, awaiting a federal court decision, it has played a major role in the national discussion on role of culture and politics in our schools.
Many people outside Arizona may look at its political system as a conservative backwater, and, in some ways, an anachronism in its rejection of immigration reform, reproductive rights, civil rights and even the slightest hint of federal intrusion on “states’ rights.” But a central theme of your book seems to be the “Arizonification of America.” In the end, do you think that’s what is happening to the US? Is Arizona an exception, or is it typical in ways that we may not recognize? Are we all Arizona?
For people in affected communities in Arizona—and in immigrant communities across the nation—the SCOTUS decision on SB 1070 was a “Pyrrhic victory” that still granted the most odious provision of Arizona’s controversial law—the “show me your papers” requirement by law enforcement agencies. While that provision is already being challenged in the courts, a greater battle led by Arizona’s anti-immigrant and state’s rights stalwarts has played an even more troubling role in the court of public opinion. In essence: the “Arizonification of America” still translates into a denial of immigrant contributions to our economy and communities, and the disturbing trend to criminalize every aspect of undocumented life—and these trends still dominate much of our national debate today.
Draconian efforts that even touched the lives of children and health care in Alabama and Georgia, for example, immediately followed Arizona’s legislative initiatives; the New Hampshire legislature passed a similar resolution on the eve of the Supreme Court hearing. On a broader level, the Obama administration’s record level of deportations—more than 1.1 million during his term—and use of the Secure Communities enforcement policy, effectively employed elements of Arizona’s punitive approach across the nation.
Talk about your own personal evolution over the course of researching and reporting for this book. In a way, it was a return to your roots. Did you come away with some sort of resolution about how your own family fits into the state’s complex history as both embedded in, and outside of, the idea of the American republic?
For all its flaws and foibles and fights, Arizona remains a singular land for me. “The desert has gone a-begging for a word of praise these years,” John Van Dyke wrote in 1901. “It has never had a sacred poet; it has in me only a lover.” Nathan Allen, the wise O’odham poet who served as my guide in the 1990s, taught me to address folks in the same way, visitors and transplants: Sup un thun thuth mumth e tha da. I’m so glad you have come.
With extremists like Pearce gone, Sheriff Arpaio on his way out, and the clock ticking on Gov. Brewer’s states’ rights agenda, I look forward to the day when we can say: Welcome to Arizona Libre.
Read more about Jeff Biggers, his work, and his book tour at jeffrbiggers.com.