Just days before the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona’s former superintendent of public instruction, Tom Horne, invoked an eleventh-hour ruling and declared Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program in violation of a new Arizona law that bans any curriculum promoting ethnic solidarity or the overthrow of the government.
In effect, Horne, a Canadian-born son of Jewish refugees who fled Poland during the Holocaust, outlawed the celebration of one of Arizona’s most enduring and important voices: Mexican-American leader Cesar Chavez, who famously led the United Farm Workers under the banner that "nonviolence is the only weapon that is compassionate and recognizes each person’s value." After Horne announced his decision, his popularity surged among right-wing anti-immigrants across the country; he even resigned from the Arizona board of the Anti-Defamation League after the organization found that the charges leveled against the program were baseless.
In the past few years, episodes like this have typified news coverage of Arizona, prompting furious debate among the nation’s politicians and pundits, and inviting laugh lines from late-night personalities like Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who dubbed the state "the meth lab of democracy." But while Horne and fellow anti-immigrant demagogues like Governor Jan Brewer (transplanted from California) and Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio (from Massachusetts) tend to dominate the headlines, the truth is that Arizona is also home to a resilient base of progressive and liberal leaders, who have worked tirelessly to rescue the state from radical right-wing interlopers and political carpetbaggers over the past century.
The battle to transcend the headline-grabbing exploits of the right wing in Arizona has proven to be a formidable task for Arizona’s liberal ranks. But in the aftermath of the shooting, the nation has been reintroduced to "the other Arizona," a truer reflection of the borderlands’ multicultural and progressive politics–not the worst but the best the state has to offer. The state is not only a bastion of gun-toting, hate-filled sensationalism, as we are seeing. It is also the home of Congressional intern and University of Arizona student Daniel Hernandez, who rushed to aid his beloved boss and friend, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, just after she was shot; and 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who wrestled away a magazine from alleged shooter Jared Loughner moments earlier. It is a place where 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green was encouraged to nourish her interest in democracy, and where a packed crowd of thousands gathered to hear President Obama honor Green and the other victims and herald a new national effort at civility.
“I know everyone in the country thinks World War III is going on in Arizona,” said Peter Rhee, the trauma surgeon at Tucson’s University Medical Center who is attending to Giffords, “but it’s probably still the nicest place I can think of to live."
Within hours of the shooting, vigils and tributes had spread from the hospital to religious institutions and theaters to the capitol in Phoenix, bringing together a state often depicted as divided. On Sunday, reflecting on a vigil held at the historic Rialto Theatre in downtown Tucson, where Giffords had frequented concerts, noted rock musician Joey Burns of Calexico told National Public Radio: "The theater canceled its prior event and just kind of opened the door to the people…. And so, a lot of musicians came up, performed. Some people got up and spoke. People lit candles. It was a very touching and moving occasion."