Arizona's Anglo insecurity

It's easy to assume that Arizona has become the epicenter in the battle against illegal immigration primarily because it has one of the highest percentages of undocumented migrants of any state in the union. But that's just half the story behind the fear many white Arizonans evidently feel.

Arizona is something of a transient culture. "Post-ethnic" white transplants drove its population growth — particularly in recent decades — newcomers who had long since passed through the crucible of suburbanization and left behind the "home country" identities of their forebears. The leap by these Midwesterners or Californians to Arizona was another step beyond that.

What they found when they arrived (mostly to the hot emptiness of Phoenix), was not much in the way of Anglo culture. Earlier migrations didn't spring from the kind of foundational events, like California's Gold Rush or Texas' Alamo heroics, that made for distinctive Americana. And instead of truly engaging whatever was there, they adopted a veneer of real and imagined local color.

By the late 20th century, white Arizonans had perfected a style critics dubbed "Taco Deco," "Mariachi Moderne" or simply "Refried Architecture" — that faux Spanish colonial architecture with arches, tiles and the bougainvillea climbing everywhere (Southern California has its share too). According to Phoenix architecture critic Lawrence Cheek, in the Valley of the Sun, "The farther you move away from the Hispanic neighborhoods of central and south Phoenix, the more refried architecture you see. The style has been coopted not by the people who could legitimately claim it as their heritage — they tend toward Middle American tract homes — but by itinerant gringos in search of a heritage. ..."

Faux American Indian culture is another part of the Arizona aesthetic. I know a fancy spa in Scottsdale that has a tepee in the back where a shaman leads meditation sessions. (Never mind that tepees were used by Plains Indians far from the Southwest.) In some parts of town, you can't shake a stick without hitting mass-produced Kachina dolls, wrought-iron Kokopellis welded by hippie sculptors, and Indian jewelry that isn't made by Indians.

None of this should be mistaken for genuine cross-pollination or healthy race relations. On the one hand, it demonstrates the Anglo newcomers' desire to acquire the trappings of ethnicity. On the other, it suggests how comfortable they are commodifying and consuming less influential cultures.

And make no mistake, the coming of Anglos meant the delegitimizing of other cultures in the Arizona Territory. In the early 1900s, during Arizona's struggle for statehood, its representatives had to prove to Washington that it was, in essence, white enough to enter the union.

Because of the large presence of non-Anglos, Indiana Sen. Albert Beveridge, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, argued that the federal government should view Arizona as it would an overseas possession. To avoid its becoming like "the Negro section of the South," he wanted Arizona to be managed the same way as the Philippines.

To counter such bias, proponents of statehood assured Washington that Anglo transplants dominated the territory politically and culturally. In 1902, congressional delegate Mark Smith declared that what made Arizona different from — read: more worthy than — New Mexico was that most people in the territory were non-natives: They came "fully grown from the different states of the union."

When it was time to write a constitution, this logic was made explicit, and non-Anglos were relegated to second-class status. The struggle for statehood had honed a clear notion of what constituted the preferred Arizonan. As historian Eric V. Meeks has written, "Racial inequality was not simply an unfortunate corollary to full statehood; it was built into the very identity of Arizona from its inception."

The echoes of that resound in the state's adoption of a "present your papers" law, as well as its ban of voluntary K-12 ethnic studies. It's hard not to see the whole outburst as a simple expression of white cultural insecurity. And 98 years after the territory became a state, the nasty campaign against illegal immigrants suggests that Anglo Arizonans' identity is still driven less by who they are than by who they are not.

Gregory Rodriguez is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him e-mail at

Share This Story