Recently Arizona seems determined to become the capital of Wingnuttia, south of Paranoid and slightly east of Mean. There’s the abolition of “multicultural and ethnic studies” in the public schools (actual policy here). Now teachers with “heavy accents” risk being fired. Even if they are native Spanish speakers who were hired for their bilingual ability to teach other Spanish speakers English. (Those of you who bat your eyelashes and maintain, “It’s all about teacher competency”, well, c’mon, we know what it’s really about. Is anyone targeting French teachers who don’t have perfect Parisian pronunciation?) Then, of course, there is that law that allows police to demand papers from anyone they “suspect” might be an illegal alien. No probable cause…oh, except for that pesky brown skin and accent thing. Probable cause has always been a tissue thin but important boundary. It’s so central to US law it bears repeating:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

In my understanding, and granted it’s been decades since my college Constitutional Law course, that means no one can stop me and demand my “papers” unless there is demonstrable proof that I’m breaking a law. The amount of melanin in skin is not proof of criminal actions.

And what is Arizona’s deal with probable cause? It can be as slight as a tail light out or coasting through a stop sign. So I’m still not seeing why it should be such a burden to keep it in place.

But better, more informed writers than I am are picking apart the wrong-headedness of Arizona’s recent actions. I come not to bury Arizona, but to praise it. At least the Arizona of my childhood.

The Tohono O’odham, previously and erroneously known as the Papago, elevated basketry to artwork. I learned about it from a Tohono O’odham classmate. Photo: Edward Curtis, 1905.

My Arizona was the, then, dusty little town of Tucson in the late Sixties. It was a place with barely 50 years of statehood and it still had the feel of The Wild West. You were just as likely to see a real Mustang in the hardware store parking lot as you were one of the Ford variety. Bolo tie wearing men never failed to tip their cowboy hats to my mother with a “Howdy Ma’am”. Several kids in my class claimed to have living grandfathers who had been lawmen and saloonkeepers.

But as much of an old fashioned cow town as Tucson seemed, it was way ahead of the curve on what is usually called [with a Limbaughian sneer] “multiculturalism”. It helped that I went to school with Hispanic kids, and a variety of Native American kids: Mescalero Apache, Tohono O’odham, Navaho, Pima and Hopi. Most of them had what the framers of the new Arizona school policy would call “heavy accents”. A good portion of them spoke languages other than English at home. Most of them came from families who had been in the area for centuries. There were even girls in prairie dresses and long braided hair who, I now realize, must have come from some sort of fundamentalist Mormon sect. As an Anglo kid from the middle class suburbs, I felt I’d left a tasteful earth-toned world and stepped into a Technicolor wonderland. Heck, even my teacher was an Israeli who had fought in the Six Days War. Talk about an accent!

Let me just insert here that I was NOT a sheltered kid. As the child of an Army officer, I’d already lived half a dozen places from Virginia to Alaska to New York and Kansas. My parents were always enthusiastic about exposing us to the culture, foods and sights of every new place we lived. But somehow as a Middle Class family, we always ended up in lily-white suburbs surrounded by other families of professionals. I’d arrived in Arizona from a segregated in-all-but-name Elementary school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. There were Black kids at the school. A handful of them. They had a separate teacher and classroom, a separate table in the lunchroom. They must have had a separate recess because I never saw them on the playground when we were on it. Or in the bathrooms, for that matter.

Again, let me assure you that I did know people of different colors. The Army was one of the first US institutions to desegregate and my father attended West Point and served with fellow officers who were Black. We played and were friends with their kids. Ethnic enclaves? I entered one every summer when I visited my paternal grandparents who lived in a Russian, Polish, Ukrainian neighborhood that might as well have been just south of Kiev. Eastern European languages were spoken on the streets and in the markets. Masses at the local Catholic Church were in Polish and Russian.

I went to school with kids with living relatives who remembered Pancho Villa. Talk about a history lesson.

But there was something special about that Arizona school. Everyone was proud of their heritage and encouraged to share it. I don’t know if this was stated school policy. Or if my teacher just had a hard time looking out at all those brown faces and the kids with medicine pouches around their necks and teaching American History as if people like them hadn’t been involved in it. Whatever the reason, the dreaded [cue Limbaughian sneer] multiculturalism ran rampant. In the lunchroom, the cooks hand rolled tortillas. Tamales, frijoles and Navajo fry bread appeared as often on the menu as hot dogs.

In show and tell, where we were encouraged to share from our backgrounds, I learned about the religious significance of Hopi Kachinas and their power from a boy whose father carved them. I learned how the exquisite Tohono O’odham basketry is made and the meaning of its designs. One kid told in hair-raising detail how a relative not too far removed rode with Pancho Villa and was involved in the Battle of Nogales. Another kid claimed he was descended from one of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry who were brought in as reinforcements in the battle. (It was a hard act for an Anglo to follow, but luckily I had some shell casings my Dad had picked up in the Korean War. Gave me a little playground cred.)

Arizona wake up! Even John Wayne was a fan of multiculturalism. He only married Hispanic women and he had a museum-quality collection of Hopi Kachinas.

So what was the effect of all this multiculturalism? First of all, no kid felt like a second class citizen. There were no brown faces relegated to separate lunch tables and classrooms.  I know the extreme Right likes to hint that multiculturalism and ethnic studies are, at best, some sort of entitlement program for the benefit of those who refuse to assimilate and, at worst, a hotbed of anti-Americanism. But most of the kids in my class were already living a multicultural existence. Many were of blended ancestry or lived in ethnically mixed neighborhoods.

So guess who got the most out of the program? Yup, the Anglo kid previously from the White Suburbs. Reading about history, different cultures and foods is one thing. Rubbing up against it every day is quite another. From being a studious kid interested in learning new things, I became a passionate omnivorous learner. I couldn’t get enough of hearing new words in different languages, talking with people who had backgrounds different than mine and discovering new ways that other people looked at the world. It was a turning point in my life. If knowledge is power, my Arizona gave me powerful tools for learning. And folks, ya can’t get that from a textbook. You need to hear the voices, walk in the moccasins and smell the frijoles, if you know what I’m saying.

So thanks, Arizona. What a gift you gave me. I weep for the Arizona school kids of today and the future who will not receive that gift. Those sheltered Anglo kids who will soon be barricaded in gated, ethnically cleansed communities free of the “contaminating” influence of other cultural attitudes. Those are your kids, Arizona lawmakers. You’re robbing ’em.

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