Mike Powell’s column is about living in Arizona.
The wall along the Arizona-Mexico border. Photo: Cecilia Balli/PRI.
My friend Raul is thirty-six and until recently played in a band called the Electric Blankets. Raul works at a bar that I drink at all the time. I generally don’t talk to bartenders because I don’t want to get in their way, a trait I’ve always considered to be European but have been informed is just unfriendly. One night, Raul saw me at a party and he patted me on the back and that was that.
Raul lives here in Tucson on an expired green card. He was born in Tijuana and moved to Southern California when he was eleven. His family started a Mexican restaurant outside San Diego; it turned into two. As a teenager, Raul started going up to Los Angeles with a crew of kids to dance to hard house, a genre of music I was unfamiliar with until Raul told me about it. “DJ Irene,” he says. “DJ Trajic.” I listened to them later. It sounds like a pinball machine crossed with construction noise.
Raul married a friend when he was twenty-three and moved to Tucson shortly thereafter. The plan was to stay for eight months; that was eleven years ago. Raul watched the 2016 presidential election at his bar in a state of mounting anxiety. Tucson is a blue pocket in a mostly red state. The plan was to celebrate. “We had TVs, we had bands, we had guest speakers,” he says. By the end of the night, he was crying on his barstool, “not out of sadness or anger, but out of fear. It felt like the fucking twilight zone.”
Raul’s green card expired about a year ago. It’s his own fault, he says. It embarrasses him. “Being comfortable in the U.S. for so long, you’re kinda like, eh. You just let it go.” He worries about how the specter of misdemeanors—driving without a license, public intoxication—might affect his eventual citizenship but worry comes and goes. In the twenty-five years that he’s lived in the United States, he says, he’s never once experienced racism. Some people expect his band to be a little more Rock en Español, and some have called him José, but that’s about it. That sounds like racism to me, I say, but I am white, and this is my season to listen. And though the green-card reapplication is mostly a matter of money and paperwork, there is something unsettling about watching a grown man remember that his existence is conditional. As Raul puts it, “Now is the beginning of who knows.”
I spent election night tripping on LSD in a cabin in the middle of the woods, refreshing my phone. Like a lot of people, I was shocked, then scared, then shocked again. Unlike a lot of people, I was chemically available to believe in things that will probably never happen: free money, hover cars, equal rights for all. At least I had the Pleiades. Beauty is stupid but it really can turn a night around.
The next morning felt eerily normal. Driving back to Tuscon through the empty foothills in the pale yellow light I remembered that I do love America, albeit as skeptically as I love anything else. But I was glad my grandparents were dead, and remain unsure of how I will describe all this to my son, should he grow up to care.
The mood worsened as the day went on. Downtown was dead. Nobody seemed capable of eye contact. I went to a café and ordered two beers in quick succession from a girl with a crescent moon tattooed on her forehead who said that the first thing she did that morning was smoke as much weed as she could bear. Hundreds of Phoenix-area high school students left class in peaceful protests that continued through the weekend. Reports in the local paper used words like raw and grieving—not so much the language of protest as trauma. Certainly something had died or been wounded. A letter to the editor of the Arizona Republic suggested that if the students who were protesting were carrying Mexican flags, maybe “they should go back to Mexico,” ignoring the possibility that they were born here.
Things weren’t all bad: Arizona did vote to raise the minimum wage, and Joe Arpaio, the eighty-four-year-old Maricopa County sheriff and avatar for the state’s most xenophobic policing strategies, was voted out of office after nearly twenty-five years. Arpaio, famous for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear, is currently under federal prosecution for defying a court order to stop targeting Latinos but says he doesn’t mind the prospect of prison because he knows he’ll get three meals a day; the jails he runs only serve two.
Tucson is about seventy miles north of the border; on clear days and from certain mountains, you can see Mexico. I’ve been there a handful of times, once to buy muscle relaxants and three times to visit the beach at Kino Bay, where my wife was menaced by a stingray. We healed the wound with hot water and a glass of rum. Sitting in the parking lot of the Burger King just up the road from the border crossing, it’s hard to believe I am so close to another country; driving through the Border Patrol checkpoints around here, with their dogs and their guns, it’s hard to believe I’m in the United States. People know where they belong but governments decide where they go.
I am on the couch now, listening to DJ Irene, thinking about people I know and people I barely know, ricocheting between unreasonable sadness and unreasonable hope. It is only one of life’s miracles that such terrible music could touch me so deeply. When the polls closed and Trump claimed his mantle, a friend came up to Raul and offered to front him the money to have his green card renewed. “I care about you,” the friend said. “I want you in my life. I don’t want to see you go anywhere.” Ditto.
Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.
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