Phoenix had institutional racism in its DNA, long before Sheriff Joe


As the American West opened up to non-Latino white settlers, avid traveler and journalist Richard Hinton wrote a popular guide to Arizona for potential newcomers.

“The Hand-Book to Arizona: Its Resources, History, Towns, Mines, Ruins and Scenery” was published three decades after the United States won the US-Mexican War, acquiring most of what would become Arizona and putting the Mexicans there on a dangerous path. Additionally, Hinton’s Guide came out just 13 years after southern Arizona and the rest of the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War.

These two pivotal events in Arizona history, along with the fact that many of the state’s Indigenous nations were either massacred, died of disease, or confined to “reservations,” were wrong. only shape the politics and prejudices of Arizona that endure. to this day, but also embolden generations of heroes who were ready to resist them.

In the mid-1870s, Phoenix was an adobe village.  It's downtown Washington Street.

And such prejudices were clearly on Hinton’s mind in 1878, when he warned would-be settlers against “Mexicans.”

He described them as “fairly primitive” with a “continuous fashion”.

Hinton used the catch-all term “Mexicans” to identify American citizens of Mexican descent as well as Mexican immigrants. The label has been adopted by many non-Latino whites to identify generations of Mexican immigrants and American citizens who have called themselves Hispanic, Mexican-American, Chicano / a, Latino / a, or Latinx.

Early Phoenix was heavily influenced by the Old South

When Hinton published his guidebook, Phoenix was a small farming community founded by a former Confederate soldier. It is believed that the colony, now a city, owes its name to the mythical bird that rises from its ashes. After all, the first Phoenixes were built on the ruins of native communities.

But the word “Phoenix” is also a post-Civil War code word for a Southern revival, writes Edmund Drago in his book “Confederate Phoenix: Rebel Children and Their Families in South Carolina”.

And given the discriminatory policies that have ruled Maricopa County for over a century, including the police, I can’t help but wonder if the early settlers named Phoenix after the code word in place of the bird. The influence of the Old South is undeniable in early Phoenix.

For years, local zoning restrictions have forced most people of color to live in overcrowded and isolated neighborhoods. And while the Mexican workforce largely built the city and nourished the profitable farmlands that surrounded it, “Mexicans” were routinely stereotyped by the local media in a way that reflected the sentiments of the city.

“The ‘treacherous oilers’ were particularly denounced by the local press, which gave considerable prominence to their violent exploits,” writes Bradford Luckingham in “Minorities in Phoenix: A Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860- 1992. “

The Arizona Republican, the ancestor of this newspaper, portrayed “Mexicans” as brawling drunkards and thieves who disturb white women.

It is not at all surprising that “Mexicans” were sometimes lynched in early Phoenix.

There was so much more that made life difficult for “Mexicans” in historic Arizona. A state law on miscegenation has banned the marriage of whites to most people of color, including those with visible features of native DNA. A voter suppression law that required literacy tests. Unfair wages. Illegal deportations of Mexican American citizens to Mexico.

Joe Arpaio has become the patriarch of xenophobes

Alfredo Gutierrez’s father, Samuel, an Arizona-born American citizen, was illegally deported to Mexico in the 1930s. Samuel eventually returned to Arizona and became a labor activist in Miami, a mining town in Arizona.

Gutierrez as a child saw firsthand what resistance to civil rights violations could accomplish.

Thanks to the movement his father joined, “Mexicans” were eventually paid the same wages as whites in the mines. Schools and swimming pools have been desegregated.

This childhood experience shaped Gutierrez’s lifelong commitment to social justice.

Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona senator, speaks at the South Mountain Community College Performing Arts Center in Phoenix, Arizona, March 31, 2016.

Mentored by Cesar Chavez, Gutierrez was elected to the Arizona Senate at the age of 26 and quickly became the majority leader. Gutierrez told me that legendary Republican power broker Burton Barr once told him, “You are one of the smartest Mexicans I have ever met.”

Beginning in the mid-2000s, Gutierrez became one of many leaders of a Latino-led resistance who resisted the powerful politician who became Arizona’s patriarch of modern xenophobes – the Maricopa County Sheriff. Joe Arpaio.

The son of an immigrant, Arpaio for several years in the mid to late 2000s drove immigrants to Maricopa County. “You are chasing the illegals. I’m not afraid to say it, ”he once said. “And you chase them and lock them up.”

His extensive immigration-themed traffic sweeps have done much more than that. They have trapped American citizens and instigated terror in Latino neighborhoods. Arpaio also enforced new state laws designed to criminalize and deport unauthorized immigrants.

Arpaio, who has always maintained that he is neither racist nor xenophobic, was nonetheless extremely popular with those on his predominantly white base who viewed “Mexicans” in the same way as Richard Hinton et al. had seen them decades ago.

A new generation fought against these influences

Activist Lydia Guzman addresses Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a forum on March 11, 2015.

Given Arizona’s history, most of those who joined the resistance in Arpaio took his actions personally.

The resistance was made up of thousands of heroes and heroines who stood on the shoulders of former activists like Cesar Chavez and Samuel Gutierrez.

And while Central Americans, Indigenous people, and non-Latino allies participated in the resistance against Arpaio, most of its members were “Mexicans.”

Lydia Guzman reunited families with loved ones caught in the Arpaio raids. She brought together plaintiffs for a case in federal court in which a judge found that Arpaio and his deputies had indeed engaged in unconstitutional police activities.

Guzman also set up a hotline which was the only place some thought they could turn to for social services and advocacy. And she assisted the US Department of Justice in its investigations into Arpaio’s civil rights. Her activism consumed her so much that she lost her home to foreclosure and her husband to divorce.

But she never gave up, and in the end she triumphed.

Phoenix Deputy Mayor Carlos Garcia speaks at a press conference on May 13, 2021.

Carlos Garcia, now vice-mayor of the city of Phoenix, was born in Sonora and spent much of his childhood as an undocumented immigrant in Arizona.

He became an activist in college and flourished as a young leader of the human rights movement in Puente. This group of young immigrant activists and citizens played a key role in the resistance as they carried out courageous street actions that forced the public not to ignore the impact of discriminatory police on the Latino community in Maricopa County.

Thanks to the tireless and long work of several years of this resistance, Arpaio is no longer in power. And Arizona’s constitutionally summary state immigration laws have for the most part been overturned or stopped by the courts.

The same ailments remain, but the resistance persists

But the influence of the Old South still remains in Arizona. Many see it in the Maricopa County ballot count and voter suppression efforts in the Arizona Capitol. Others see it in progress police discriminating against people of color in Maricopa County.

The resistance still stands up to these forces and serves as a model for those who want to stop what is tearing the nation apart – civil rights violations, institutionalized white supremacy, xenophobia and voter suppression.

In short, the same evils that were rooted in territorial Arizona when Richard Hinton wrote his guidebook still exist today. Still, there is a chance that they can be brought under control in this era of demographic change and the movement towards racial reckoning.

There is a way for almost everyone to get involved in social justice. The movement to stop Arpaio and Arizona’s immigration laws was made up of ordinary people. Day laborers and politicians. Hotel maids and lawyers. University students and engineers. Undocumented immigrants and US citizens. The people of color and their white allies.

They fought for their civil rights in the streets, in voting booths, in the public square, in the halls of Congress and in the courts.

They didn’t give up. They lost some battles and won others, but they kept going.

And in the end, they were and are on the right side of the story.

Terry Greene Sterling is three-time Virg Hill Journalist of the Year. She is co-author of a new non-fiction book, “Driving in Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Against Latino Resistance“, which tells Arizona stories from both sides of a battle for civil rights and American identity in a time of changing demographics. On Twitter: @tgsterling.

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