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I saved my most personal post for last. (That is me in the center of the photograph, by the way, in my first march during the grape boycotts of California in the early 1970s.)
I am joining (and asking you to join) a steadily growing list of writers who are publicly declaring a boycott of Arizona. Until that state reverses its policy of hatred and discrimination, I will not accept any invitations to speak or present at any literary event or venue within its borders. I will not even visit.
This was not an impulsive decision to make, since I have many close friends in the state, and I once called Arizona my home from 1994 to1997, while I was earning my MFA degree from Arizona State University. Those three years continue to live in my memory as a period of great contradictions, but with the signing of Senate Bill 1070, it has become abundantly clear that I was never welcomed in the first place.
I moved to Arizona as a 24-year-old with a dream to become a writer. My entire family had moved back to Mexico in 1992, and I had survived two years in California by myself. I was young, free, and making life-changing decisions on my own. I had been out of the closet during my college years, so I was surprised to encounter a rather conservative tone on campus (and in the somewhat bohemian city of Tempe). I accepted that, and moved on, convincing myself that what mattered was my education, not whether I could hold hands with another man in public.
What was harder to overlook was the time I was looking for an apartment. I called a number on a newspaper ad and the voice on the line asked me (after I said my name), if I was “a Mexican person.” I said yes, disarmed by the question, and went into denial-as-survival mode when I was told the unit was no longer available.
There was also the time I was at the supermarket, and I swear I heard a woman mutter “fucking Mex” under her breath when she had to maneuver her cart around me, me lost in thought as I considered my latest existential dilemma: bottled water, with or without bubbles?
Once I was walking home from the campus library, and a drunk stumbled out of a bar and started to berate me: “You spic faggot! I’m going to kick your ass, you spic! You faggot!” I didn’t fight back or respond. Not out of cowardice, but because I knew that the person who had plenty to lose in case I killed this bastard was me.
Some might say that those three isolated incidents are not bad odds: only one per year. But might those same people consider how many incidents of racial and homophobic hatred or violence they have dealt with within any three-year period?
Some might say that these three small moments cannot possibly match the number of positive interactions or good times I had during my time in Arizona. And I agree. But these three small moments are the most lucid, embedded whole into my memory banks like stingers continuously pumping poison.
You see, it’s not the same looking at the world though the eyes of a target–which is exactly what this bill is doing to people who look like me.
Let us not kid ourselves about what Arizona has presented itself to be. Wasn’t it one of the last hold-outs to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? And didn’t the state cave in after the NFL refused to hold the Super Bowl in a state that disregarded this important civil rights commemoration? If black athletes and their allies felt uncomfortable playing football in such a hostile environment, try showing up to a reading, knowing that you’ve got nothing but Mexican all over your face and that the people from your homeland must carry documentation or risk detention and deportation. (Hey, Arizona, if you object to this depiction of you, then change your ways.)
But in the end, it’s not even those things that anger me the most: it’s that out of fear, undocumented people will no longer seek out the police to report crimes, making them more vulnerable than they already are. It’s that it’s that much easier to victimize a population that has been labeled criminal, unwanted, and worthless.
Some might say that this is not about me, but about “illegal aliens.” I say to those people, I am the child of an “illegal alien,” and a place that would detain, demean and oppress my own mother is not a place for me.
So don’t tell me I’m overreacting. Don’t tell me that a college professor and a writer with my reputation would never be disrespected that way. I don’t carry my papers (diplomas, books) around with me either. And don’t tell me I’m punishing the innocent with this call to boycott. There are no innocents here. If this isn’t about me, it’s not about you, either. It’s about setting up a good old-fashioned protest because Arizona drew the line but it’s my choice not to cross. (If you want to prove that you are not full of racists then do what you didn’t do before, Arizona, and stop this nonsense.)
Already there are talks from policy-makers in Texas and Colorado to follow this heinous example of outright racism. Don’t tell me that a few years from now I will have to carry proof of citizenship when I travel through my own country. Don’t tell me not to be angry.
For all you New Yorkers, join me at the protest rally at Union Square this Saturday, May 1, International Workers’ Day. The battle cry will be: BOYCOTT ARIZONA!