This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here.
Mexico and the Southwest
I set out by bus heading northwest from Mexico City. It was the late-summer rainy season; iron clouds hung low over a high and rolling green plateau. Though Mexico does not have the poisoned ugliness of the environmentally ravaged former Soviet Union or the bleak underdevelopment and deforestation of sub-Saharan Africa, the scene I viewed from the window was a familiar Third World one: cratered dirt roads leading off the main highway, overgrown and scruffy greenery, mounds of rotting garbage along the roadside, elevated pipes covered with black tape, cinder-block houses with rocks holding down their corrugated-metal roofs, clothes drying on sagging lines. Puddles were everywhere—the effect of a poor drainage system or none at all.
The route I followed was the one taken by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, a thirty-year-old Spanish nobleman who had come to Mexico in the wake of Cortez's conquest. That conquest, from 1519 to 1521, had been fraught with mangrove thickets, moldy cassava bread, human sacrifices, and macabre tropical grandeur. Cortez and his men comprehended little of what they saw, and were not especially curious. These crude zealots massacred Indians, built Christian altars where they had smashed idols, and went mad at the sight of gold, which covered the walls of Montezuma's palace and which they melted down for their own enrichment and to be shipped to Spain. Unlike the children of the European Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation who settled the east coast of what became the United States, Cortez and his men came to steal, not to work or build cities. Religious dogmatists who combined the worst of Spanish and Moorish culture, they lacked the habit of process, of investing years of labor to achieve material gain—the bourgeois mentality, in other words.
After eight hours the bus reached Guadalajara, and I was grateful for the opportunity to take a walk. Beyond Guadalajara's historic center I saw what a European might notice on a first visit to North America: the flattening out of the urban landscape, with wide streets creating intimidating distances between buildings. There were many fast-food outlets, each with a large parking lot. Even in the vastnesses I had visited in Central Asia, the roads were narrow and people traveled by public bus; and because many of the towns were walkable, there was a vivid sense of huddled-together community. Guadalajara was different. The American-car dealerships and service stations on the city's edge were not the marginalized places they might be in Europe but modern emporiums with snack bars and waiting rooms. On the yawning boulevards men with guns guarded the American Express office and banks. Black graffiti were scrawled over new pink-adobe houses. The empty and alienating vistas I have seen in some American cities I saw here, too, in the heart of Mexico, whose civilization is under attack from our automobile culture and our appetite for drugs.
“Son of a bitch.”
On went the casual, matter-of-fact dialogue of an American-made karate film being shown in the darkened bus. The passengers read the Spanish subtitles. The bus had left Guadalajara and was continuing northwest. When it slowed to a crawl in the town of Ixtlán del Rio, I opened the window curtains and saw dusty streets, broken sidewalks, and windows protected by metal bars; a man in worn and filthy clothes slowly cutting sugarcane; women with plastic buckets waiting in line for water; peeling posters advertising a bullfight; and men partly uniformed and carrying AK-47 assault rifles. On one corner was a white-tiled shrine holding busts of three early-twentieth-century revolutionaries: Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, and Emiliano Zapata. I knew that they had fought one another and that each had been assassinated.
Several hours later I got off at Tepic, a city of 240,000 people, and checked into the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra. American rock music blared from the lobby and down the corridors leading to my room. Later, in the hotel restaurant, half a dozen young men in jeans, T-shirts, and Nikes entered. Two of them carried Magnum revolvers, which they carefully placed on the chair cushions and then sat on. They ate a three-course meal without the slightest show of discomfort. Except for me, no one gave them a glance.
The neo-Gothic cathedral across the street was seemingly all that remained of traditional Mexico. Beyond it, stretching in a grid pattern all the way to the surrounding volcanoes, were boxy two- and three-story spray-painted buildings, many of them marred by graffiti. This was a treeless wilderness of broken signs, drooping electric wires, and hard right angles. The Old World had disappeared over the horizon—perhaps in the historic part of Guadalajara, 140 miles away, with its dignified mustard-yellow archways—and nothing but this architectural bleakness replaced it. Tepic was a town of the new, Third World Sunbelt, punctuated with the worst refuse of American capitalism.
“Compostela, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado?” I inquired at the hotel reception desk. One employee had heard of Compostela, none of Coronado. At the municipal tourist office, too, Coronado was unknown. When I told officials there that the little town of Compostela, forty minutes south of Tepic, was where Coronado, having arrived from Mexico City and Guadalajara, mustered his troops for the exploration of the north, they stared at me uncomprehendingly. “Who was he?” a woman asked in Spanish. She fished out a faded brochure whose one paragraph about Compostela did not mention the Spanish explorer. The past here seemed as blank as the urban landscape. Because so many Mexicans are of mixed Spanish and Indian origin, the attitude toward the Spanish conquerors who massacred Indians is highly ambivalent; like it or not, the Spanish are among America's founding fathers. Few Mexican streets are named for Cortez or Coronado, and relatively little is taught about them in Mexican schools. This denial of an important part of Mexico's past, in which one line of forebears murdered the other, both complicates and dilutes the meaning of a state that, although officially founded in 1821, grew from the Spanish conquest and the oligarchy it begot. To a great degree that oligarchy still rules, as suggested by the light skins of Mexico's upper class and the brown skins of Mexico's poor.
* * *
Culiacán, more than 250 miles northwest of Tepic, is the capital of the drug-rich coastal state of Sinaloa. Here Coronado resupplied his army before continuing north. Stepping off the bus, the other passengers and I passed through a metal detector to enter the station. But the policeman on duty was sipping coffee, not paying attention to anyone coming through. In the station more armed policemen were hanging about, as were many young males wearing silver-toed boots.
The temperature of the sidewalks of Culiacán must have been 100°: they baked. The smells of urine, frying tortillas, and salsa were sharp and overpowering. Many of the men sported tattoos and baseball caps facing backward. Then there were the pickups: Chevys and Dodge Rams with oversized wheels and high suspensions, fins, ornamental railings, and silver hood ornaments in the shapes of bulls and horses. The pickups were all freshly painted. Published reports on the narcotics trade make it obvious where the money to pay for these vehicles came from. The food stands were filthy, but near them I saw a hotel, the Executivo, with shiny marble in the lobby and credit-card stickers on the door. The gift shop in the lobby sold only key chains, baseball caps, and cheap plastic toys.
Most of the migrants, exports, and cocaine headed for the United States pass through Culiacán and the rest of Sinaloa. A city of 600,000, nicknamed “Little Chicago” in Mexican news reports, Culiacán is the Mexican Cali; it averages several drug-related murders daily. Local folk ballads like “White Load” and “Death of a Snitch” glorify drug kingpins. Nowhere else in the developing world have I seen so many handguns carried by men in civilian clothes.
The most popular religious site in Culiacán is a shrine dedicated to Jesús Malverde, a common criminal hanged in 1909, who is now known as “El Narcosanton”—the Big Narco Saint. Here drug lords come to pray for good fortune. The shrine is built of plate glass, white bathroom tiles, and corrugated sheet metal; it is covered in blue spray paint, tar, and cheap wallpaper, and the walls don't quite join the sheet-metal roof. The first time I walked past the shrine, which is crammed between two sandy parking lots and obscured by a taco stand, I mistook it for a gas station or an auto-parts shed. When I saw it a second time, I noticed three young men in tight jeans praying before the painted plastic statue of Jesús Malverde, while behind the shrine two men played a sad tune on a bass fiddle and a wheezing accordion. The plastic statue was surrounded by votive candles in red glasses. I bought an amulet containing a picture of the Narco Saint from an old woman. She dipped it in a sink of holy water and passed it over the face and black-painted hair of the statue before handing it to me for the equivalent of five dollars. Meanwhile, a stream of people—young toughs, old women, and children—stopped to pray. The local newspapers said that among the drug traffickers who pray here is Rafael Caro Quintero, who reportedly ordered the 1985 slaying of the American drug agent Enrique Camarena.
Crass and brutal as the shrine is, it is real: the poor built it with their bare hands from junk, without planning or authorization, and then filled it with their emotions. The shrine rebukes established aesthetics with its spray paint and gas-station decor—signs of revolt. A hundred yards away is the massive ceramic-and-stone Government Palace of Sinaloa state, with manicured lawns and hundreds of white-collar workers. I saw less energy and spontaneity in that giant building than in the shrine, which could have fit inside just one of the palace's offices.
As in many of the towns I saw as I closed in on the U.S. border, in Culiacán even the newest poured-concrete and tinted-glass structures looked temporary. This is the New World: a land without limits, chronically impermanent, unprotected and unhindered by tradition. In such a vacuum wealth is easily—if too quickly and unequally—created, and drugs are only part of the reason. Sinaloa accounts for a third of Mexico's sesame-seed production and three quarters of its soybeans. American businesspeople opening factories crowd Sinaloa's hotels. Migrants from poorer Mexican provinces seek work in Sinaloa. The drug trade is just another business—another opportunity for those with ambition.
The community here was far from devastated by drugs. Children seemed to have the advantages of family life that many Americans of their age in inner cities do not. I was struck by the pervasiveness of uniformed schoolchildren with backpacks. As I walked along a sun-blasted street suffused with pink light, the cardboard of my notebook damp with sweat inside my pants pocket, I noticed a classroom of children through the rusted grillwork of a window in the brick schoolhouse, some raising their hands to answer the teacher's questions and some writing quietly in their exercise books. At a nearby candy store locals of several generations gathered to buy knickknacks, exchange gossip, and, in the case of the children, play games. In a transnational North America of ten or twenty years from now, will these children be competing with less competent, and less determined, Americans of their own generation?
Whereas Americans quickly notice the sleazy aspect of Mexico's border towns, they may be less aware that an aggressive middle class is burgeoning in cities like Culiacán, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. If central authority in Mexico continues to break down and more members of that middle class decide to head north, they will not face the same racial barriers that blacks do. In the municipal park of Culiacán, not fifty feet from where hoodlums with tattoos and beepers were having their silver-toed boots shined while they talked on cellular phones, I saw several neatly dressed teenage couples, holding hands, who looked straight out of Orange County or some other part of suburban California.
To pigeonhole Culiacán as a drug depot is to miss the point. The multibillion-dollar narcotics trade in Mexico is too vast to be dismissed as “illegal.” Even if legal business is growing and helping to create a solid middle class, the drug trade is the heart of the Mexican economy. It constitutes the principal economic fact of life for the southern part of North America at the turn of the twenty-first century—the subterranean aspect of North American free trade that does not require treaties or congressional approval. The narcotics trade indicates as much about the social fiber of the United States (where the market is) as about Mexico, where young men on the make are responding to consumer demand in ways that both challenge and further corrupt an already imploding political power structure. I walked around frequently at night in Culiacán, when the candles burned bright at the crowded shrine of El Narcosanton. Dangerous as Culiacán was by Mexican standards, it was safe by those of many American cities. For me, Mexico's Cali was also a civil society, whose growing middle class will increasingly be pursuing opportunities in the United States.
The Rusted Iron Curtain
What we call “the border” has always been a wild and unstable swath of desert, hundreds of miles wide—a region that the Aztecs, cruel as they were, could not control, that the Apaches brutalized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century raids, and where U.S. soldiers unsuccessfully chased the bandit revolutionary Pancho Villa.
My bus came around a low rise, and a long, narrow belt of factories and shanties stretched out almost to the horizon between brown hills studded with juniper and sagebrush. This was the border town of Nogales, a crowded warren of distempered stucco façades spray-painted with swastikas and graffiti, of broken plastic-and-neon signs, of garish wall drawings of the Flintstones and other television icons. Among the façades were the industrial maquiladora plants I had heard about—plants that attract blue-collar workers from throughout Mexico, who assemble American-made parts into products exported to the United States.
Not all the workers find jobs, and the migration has spawned shantytowns and violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, class conflict, and the breakup of families. Both rape and car accidents are more common in the north than in the rest of Mexico. More than 2,000 companies opened factories in this region from the late sixties to the mid-nineties, resulting in what the American Medical Association has labeled a “cesspool” of polluted air, contaminated groundwater and surface water, unsanitary waste dumps, and other health and environmental problems associated with uncontrolled urban growth. The abandonment of subsistence farming by workers in search of better-paying manufacturing jobs is a latter-day gold rush—ugly upheaval and bright promise—but on a vast scale and likely to be permanent.
Many of our microwave ovens, televisions, VCRs, toasters, toys, and everyday clothes are made by Mexican laborers in border towns like this one. They earn three to five dollars a day—not an hour but a day!—and as Charles Bowden, an expert and writer on Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, notes, they work in conditions that are often dangerous because of pollution and toxic chemicals. American consumers are now in a tight political and economic relationship with Third World workers. This close relationship is also oligarchic, and not much different from that between the citizens of ancient Athens or Rome and their slaves.
I checked into a hotel and then walked toward the border, where I watched two boys kick a soccer ball made of rags until one of them kicked the ball onto a scrap-metal roof. When the ball failed to roll back down, the boys walked away. I saw a group of teenagers with hair cut in punk styles and dyed primary colors, wearing expensive leather belts, winter ski hats, and summer shorts—anything they could get their hands on. Their expressions were untamed. A hundred yards from the border began a concentration of scrap-metal storefronts, offering every manner of souvenir and after-hours activity, including off-track betting. Here were crowds of destitute people reeking of alcohol. Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the fifth-century Goths “imbibed the vices, without imitating the arts and institutions, of civilised [Roman] society.” What I saw at the border is nothing new.
The actual border, on International Street, was at the time of my visit a twelve-foot-high, darkly rusted iron curtain, constructed by the American authorities from scraps of metal that the U.S. Army used in the Persian Gulf War. (It has since been partly replaced by a new wall.) Walking back from the border I saw the neat squares and rectangular roofs of houses high on the hills of the American side, where it was obvious that every joint fit and that every part was standardized, in contrast to the amateurish and inspired constructions all around me.
Though here, in the middle of a city, the border looked forbidding, out in the desert it ebbs to a few strands of barbed wire, which work to keep only cattle from migrating. Along the narrow Rio Grande in Texas, where there is no fence at all, or any natural obstruction, no mountain range or wide, surging river, the border is highly penetrable. The military radar used by U.S. border guards is like a penlight in a dark forest, as William Langewiesche has written (see “The Border,” May and June, 1992, Atlantic). An artificial, purely legal construct, the border has for several centuries been an unruly and politically ambiguous “brown zone” where civilizations—Spanish and Anglo, Athapaskan-speaking Indians from the Arctic and Aztecan Indians from southern Mexico—mingle.
The factors that have kept Mexico at bay—drug profits and the wages of illegal aliens—stem from the very activities that Washington claims it wants to stop. Without the drug trade and illegal migration the United States would face what it has always feared: a real revolution in Mexico and true chaos on the border. To deprive Mexico of its largest sources of income would hasten the collapse of its already weak central authority. Indeed, by supporting the Mexican economy, America's appetite for marijuana and cocaine protects against a further flood of immigrants from a contiguous, troubled, and ever more populous Third World country.
The unpalatable truth about Mexico is its intractability—the intractability of an ancient “hydraulic” civilization, like Egypt's, China's, and India's, in which the need to build great water and earth works (Mexico has both canal systems and pyramids) led to a vast, bureaucratic tyranny. Centuries of what Karl Marx called “oriental despotism” have imprinted the political culture, despite the influence of a great democratic civilization to the north. And it is not clear that our influence on Mexico is beneficial. Our appetite for drugs may be turning this ancient non-Western civilization into an amoral yet dynamic beast of the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, integration proceeds irreversibly. Vectors of binationhood have emerged between Phoenix and Guaymas, Tucson and Los Mochis, Dallas and Chihuahua City, in which prosperous Mexicans and Americans commute back and forth by air. North America's geographic destiny may be no longer east to west but one in which the arbitrary lines separating us from Mexico and Canada disappear, even as relations between the East Coast and Europe, the West Coast and Asia, and the Southwest and Mexico all intensify. Is our border with Mexico like the Great Wall of China—a barrier built in the desert to keep out Turkic tribesmen which, as Gibbon wrote, held “a conspicuous place in the map of the world” but “never contributed to the safety” of the Chinese?
I had crossed the Berlin Wall several times during the Communist era. I had crossed the border from Iraq to Iran illegally, with Kurdish rebels. I had crossed from Jordan to Israel and from Pakistan to India in the 1970s, and from Greek Cyprus to Turkish Cyprus in the 1980s. In 1983, coming from Damascus, I had walked up to within a few yards of the first Israeli soldier in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights. But never in my life had I experienced such a sudden transition as when I crossed from Nogales, Sonora, to Nogales, Arizona.
Surrounded by beggars on the broken sidewalk of Mexican Nogales, I stared at Old Glory snapping in the breeze over two white McDonald's-like arches, which marked the international crossing point. Cars waited in inspection lanes. To the left of the car lanes was the pedestrian crossing point, in a small building constructed by the U.S. government. Merely by touching the door handle one entered a new physical world.
The solidly constructed handle with its high-quality metal, the clean glass, and the precise manner in which the room's ceramic tiles were fitted—each the same millimetric distance from the next—seemed a marvel to me after the chaos of Mexican construction. There were only two other people in the room: an immigration official, who checked identification documents before their owners passed through a metal detector; and a customs official, who stood by the luggage x-ray machine. They were both quiet. In government enclosures of that size in Mexico and other places in the Third World, I remembered crowds of officials and hangers-on engaged in animated discussion while sipping tea or coffee. Looking at the car lanes, I saw how few people there were to garrison the border station and yet how efficiently it ran.
I gave the immigration official my U.S. passport. She glanced up at me and asked how long I had been in Mexico. I told her several weeks. She asked, “Why so long?” I explained that I was a journalist. She handed back my passport. With her eyes she motioned me through the metal detector. The customs official did not ask me to put my rucksack through the machine. U.S. Customs works on “profiles,” and I evidently did not look suspect. Less than sixty seconds after walking through the glass doors on the Mexico side, I entered the United States.
The billboards, sidewalks, traffic markers, telephone cables, and so on all appeared straight, and all the curves and angles uniform. The standardization made for a cold and alienating landscape after what I had grown used to in Mexico. The store logos were made of expensive polymers rather than cheap plastic. I heard no metal rattling in the wind. The cars were the same makes I had seen in Mexico, but oh,were they different: no chewed-up, rusted bodies, no cracked windshields held together by black tape, no good-luck charms hanging inside the windshields, no noise from broken mufflers.
The taxi I entered had shock absorbers. The neutral-gray upholstery was not ripped or shredded. The meter printed out receipts. As I sank into the soft upholstery for the ride to the hotel, I felt as though I had entered a protective, ordered bubble—not just the taxi but this whole new place.
The Plaza Hotel in Nogales, Sonora, and the Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona, both charged $50 for a single room. But the Mexican hotel, only two years old, was already falling apart—doors didn't close properly, paint was cracking, walls were beginning to stain. The American hotel was a quarter century old and in excellent condition, from the fresh paint to the latest-model fixtures. The air-conditioning was quiet, not clanking loudly as in the hotel across the border. There was no mold or peeling paint in the swimming pool outside my window. The tap water was potable. Was the developed world, I wondered, defined not by its riches but by maintenance?
As I walked around Nogales, Arizona, I saw a way of doing things, different from Mexico's, that had created material wealth. This was not a matter of Anglo culture per se, since 95 percent of the population of Nogales, Arizona, is Spanish-speaking and of Mexican descent. Rather, it was a matter of the national culture of the United States, which that day in Nogales seemed to me sufficiently robust to absorb other races, ethnicities, and languages without losing its distinctiveness.
The people I saw on the street were in most instances speaking Spanish, but they might as well have been speaking English. Whether it was the quality of their clothes, the purposeful stride that indicated they were going somewhere rather than just hanging out, the absence of hand movements when they talked, or the impersonal and mechanical friendliness of their voices when I asked directions, they seemed to me thoroughly modern compared with the Spanish-speakers over in Sonora. The sterility, dullness, and predictability I observed on the American side of the border—every building part in its place—were signs of economic efficiency.
Though the term “ambos Nogales” (“both Nogaleses”) asserts a common identity, the differences between the two towns are basic. Nogales, Arizona, has only 21,000 residents, a fairly precise figure; nobody in Nogales, Sonora, has any idea how many people live there—the official figure is 138,000, but I heard unofficial ones as high as 300,000. Here the streets were quiet and spotless, with far fewer people and cars than in Mexico. Distances, as a consequence, seemed vast. Taxis did not prowl the streets, and thus I was truly stranded without a car. I had reached a part of the earth where business is not conducted in public, so street life was sparse.
When the English and other Northern European settlers with their bourgeois values swept across this mainly uninhabited land, they swept away the past; technology and the use of capital have determined everything since. Because subsequent immigrants sought opportunity, the effect of periodic waves of immigration has been to erase the past again and again, replacing one technology with another. Economic efficiency, as these streets in Nogales, Arizona, proclaimed, is everything in America. Liberals may warn against social Darwinism, but the replacement of obsolete technology and the jobs and social patterns that go with it are what our history has always been about, and immigrants want it that way. For them it means liberation: the chance to succeed or fail, and to be judged purely on their talents and energy and good fortune.
In Mexico the post offices looked as if they had just been vacated, with papers askew and furniture missing. In Nogales, Arizona, the Spanish voices in the post office were the last thing I noticed; what struck me immediately was the evenly stacked printed forms, the big wall clock that worked, the bulletin board with community advertisements in neat columns, the people waiting quietly in line, and a policeman standing slightly hunched over in the corner, carefully going through his paperwork, unlike the leering, swaggering policemen I had seen in Mexico.
The silent streets of Nogales, Arizona, with their display of noncoercive order and industriousness, cast the United States in a different light not only from Mexico but from many of the other countries I had seen in my travels. Nogales, Arizona, demonstrated just how insulated America has been—thus far, at least.
Tucson North and South
Interstate 19 from Nogales to Tucson is a typical American four-lane highway, with luminous metallic signs and landscaped roadsides and without the mud puddles and trails of garbage that begin an inch from the road in Mexico. My bus passed through Green Valley, a high-income retirement community with Spanish archways and upscale mini-malls. Still fresh from Mexico, I gawked at the prosperity. I thought of the tens of millions of poor people just on the other side of the iron curtain thirty minutes to the south—so much younger than the population on this side of the border. In Mexico 40 percent of the population is under fifteen, whereas in this part of Arizona the median age is thirty-three and rising. If the history of migration is a guide, borders like this one, not based on geographic barriers, may slow and interrupt great movements of humanity but ultimately will not stop them.
A pitiless gray cluster of sun-beaten escarpments—the Santa Catalina Mountains to the north, the Tucson Mountains to the west, and the Rincon Mountains to the east—announced Tucson. With a population of 465,000, Tucson is larger than Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati. Eighty-five percent of Arizonans live either in greater Tucson or in greater Phoenix. By the middle of the next century 98 percent of Arizonans will live in just four cities: Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Yuma. (Greater Tucson already has a population of 817,000.) The Arizona pattern suggests what is happening throughout the West, as small towns die and suburbs around big cities grow by an acre an hour. Despite its mythic grandeur, the West is actually the most urbanized part of the United States.
After the Second World War the “Sunbelt” phenomenon, made possible by the spread of air-conditioning, led to a land boom in Tucson. The city's population grew from 35,000 in 1940 to 212,000 in 1960. In the 1980s and 1990s, as the communications revolution took off, Tucson's warm and scenic desert location became especially appealing. The population, which grew by 26 percent in the 1970s, has risen by an additional 34 percent since, according to city officials. Many who live here do business with regional or even global clienteles—in the Catalina foothills in north Tucson an elite conducts daily business electronically with other continents. Other newcomers are prosperous retirees with independent incomes. Thus the local economy has not kept pace with the population, and now there are two Tucsons. Aside from the University of Arizona—somewhat of a social and economic island—and boom-and-bust military-aircraft industries, little is here except low-paying service jobs and a millionaire elite that acquired its wealth by sitting on real estate rather than producing anything.
My bus entered a gridwork of dead space: mile upon yawning mile of strip malls with no edifice more than two stories high, each with a parking lot: Arby's Roast Beef, Yokohama Rice Bowl, Lube Pit, Jack in the Box, Denny's, Exxon, Discount Tire, Quik Mart, McDonald's, Whataburger, Foodmart, Dunkin' Donuts, Bank One, Taco Bell, and on and on. There was an ordered repetition: every few miles another Yokohama Rice Bowl, another Arby's and Bank One. What seemed an unending sameness was a series of interconnected shopping centers serving individual neighborhoods, often cookie-cutter subdivisions of single-level, cheaply framed Sheetrock houses: “three houses to an acre, ticky-tacky junk,” according to a local planner.
I tried to remember the sequence of the bus's ninety-degree turns, but soon lost all sense of direction, since nothing seemed to change—as if I were inside the circuitry of a computer chip. Later, when I picked up a rental car and looked briefly at a city map, I saw that except in the hilly northern suburbs, there were no winding streets to confuse me. The city is a military-style, 200-square-mile cantonment whose central thoroughfare—named Speedway—is a multi-lane highway. Tucson appeared truly futuristic, a deliberate pod—a kind of self-enclosed, technologically sophisticated community that may well be more closely connected to similar ones in Asia than to neighboring towns. Partly because of the surrounding mountains and clean air, Tucson still evinces a Wild West quaintness. Nearby greater Phoenix is four times as large. Its growth faces no natural limits, and it has some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
What little there was to Tucson's downtown was near the bus station: a few empty streets with brick-fronted stores selling T-shirts, Native American and Indian-subcontinent fabrics, leather-and-chain apparel, some traditional clothes, and trite western-landscape paintings. Much of the merchandise had a faded hippie look. Some of the stores were closed, opening only on weekend nights, when the streets fill with students from the university, though they have little disposable income. Roy Drachman, who has lived in Tucson for all of his ninety years and has been one of the city's leading real-estate developers since the Second World War, told me that although he leads an active life, he hasn't been downtown in years. “There are no good restaurants or anything worthwhile, and I wouldn't feel safe there at night.”
Tucson is an oasis culture located in the desert along the Rillito and Santa Cruz Rivers—shallow, dry washes that fill with gushing brown water after a heavy rain. It is a city of nomads, both rich and poor, in which much of the population struggles at subsistence level. “Tucson is generally a minimum-wage town,” Charles Bowden, who has written nine books about the Southwest, told me. “It has the American equivalent of a maquiladora economy.”
It is said that many of the people who live in Tucson have come here just to be left alone. Involvement in local politics is abysmal, with a voter turnout of 25 to 30 percent in off-year elections—one of the lowest in the United States. Relatively few people are on the streets. There are few sidewalks, and almost no taxis. It is a city of beepers, car phones, and private security systems. The impression of many people here is that the local business elite is disappearing as an increasing number of Tucson's retail outlets give way to chain stores. The crime index is the ninth highest among large U.S. cities, after Tampa, Miami, St. Louis, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Newark, Baltimore, and Kansas City. There is almost no urban planning.
“In many neighborhoods people don't stay long enough to build community ties,” Tom Sheridan, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, told me. “It is a Sunbelt phenomenon of people in transit. Still, neighborhood associations are more vibrant in Tucson than in Phoenix, where seven out of ten newcomers leave sooner or later.” The West is the most mobile region in the nation (followed by the South), with a fifth of all households having moved in the previous year. In Tucson almost 30 percent of households have lived in their homes less than fifteen months, about 60 percent less than five years.
“Since 1980 there has been a real decline in community life,” Molly McKasson, a Tucson city councilwoman, told me. “Despite the massive growth and development of the 1980s, the median household income here declined by eight percent, the unemployment rate rose by twenty-eight percent, the number of people living in poverty increased by sixty-eight percent, and we are close to being a renter economy: almost fifty percent of people here rent rather than own their homes.”
The median household income in Tucson is $21,748, whereas it was $26,655 in 1970 (in the same dollars). The median income for a single woman with children is $14,595. More than a third of Tucson households earn less than $15,000. “Do you realize how low these numbers are?” McKasson asked me. “These women can't afford day care; their kids are left alone during the day. And these are the people above poverty! All the stress indicators are up. There is an increase in transiency, in single motherhood, in renters, in child abuse, in juvenile crime.” Most of McKasson's figures are slightly below the national average. The social crisis affects the black, white, and Mexican communities to similar degrees.
The Southwest is full of such oases: low-wage, one-story encampments containing a high proportion of drifters and broken families. The drug-arrest rate is higher in the West than anywhere else in the country.
* * *
Whereas north Tucson is mainly white, Tucson's “South Side” is mainly Mexican (with both legal and illegal immigrants), and crime-ridden. Arturo Carillo Strong, a retired Tucson policeman and federal undercover agent, gave me a tour of the South Side one morning. (Strong recently died.)
“Over there,” Strong said, pointing to some stately brick ranch houses with iron fences, “you see your drug money at work. Just look at that fancy wrought-iron fence—you know it was paid for by drugs by the amount of wrought iron in the construction.” Strong's tour began in Barrio Centro and continued into Barrio Hollywood and El Rio. I was struck by the sterility of the South Side. Nothing indicated that this was a dangerous area in which most of Tucson's seventy-five known gangs operate. When Strong told me about the drive-by shootings and the crack houses, I was truly surprised: I saw well-maintained tract houses with metal or asphalt roofs and white-painted brick; some even had gardens of bougainvillea and oleander, despite the arid desert soil. The only hints of working-class poverty were old pickups and the occasional sagging clothesline. “The parents or the grandparents are okay, but some of the kids are bad,” Strong explained. “The grandparents tend the garden and make repairs—that's why it looks nice.”
We passed a lovely landscaped park with cypress trees. “It's full of drug dealers at night,” Strong said. “They have whistlers—guys who hang out at the corner and whistle if they see someone strange approaching.”
In another park Strong pointed to some homeless people. “The police provide a number of one-way bus tickets to these people, to get them to San Diego, where they will be San Diego's problem. The police and social-service departments do that sort of thing. Forget solutions—just keep criminal activity at a reasonable level in your jurisdiction.”
We passed through a section of town where restored adobe houses were undergoing gentrification by yuppies. I noticed a handmade sign: WE NEED AFFORDABLE HOUSING—NOT $1,800-A-MONTH RENTS. IF YOU PEOPLE WANT NEW YORK-STYLE LOFTS, WHY DON'T YOU MOVE TO NEW YORK?
I saw evidence of class resentment, violence, and a social vacuum. Yet Strong's cynicism did not persuade me that Tucson was in danger. I knew that for the prosperous inhabitants of the Catalina foothills, where I was staying, the South Side simply did not exist.
We entered a section of town composed of tire shops, auto-transmission stores, and Mexican restaurants. “Tire shops have traditionally been fronts for drug deals, or for laundering illegal cash,” Strong said. “Arrest all the drug dealers and the retail economy of Tucson's South Side goes bust.” The clumsy architecture and the graffiti made me feel that I was back in northern Mexico—a perception that strengthened when Strong and I entered El Indio restaurant, a local hangout, formerly a beauty salon. Here Strong introduced me to Alex Villa, a “semi-retired” local gang leader.
Villa said that he was semi-retired because his younger brother had taken over the leadership of the gang. “But two rival gangs still want my head as a trophy on the wall.” Villa weighed nearly 300 pounds, I thought. His head was completely shaved, and he had a black goatee. His sunglasses rested on a bulge at the back of his neck, making him look as if he had two faces. Around his neck was a gold necklace with a pendant of Jesus Christ the Fisherman of Souls. “Who else is going to keep me alive?” Villa said when I commented on it.
“What's a gang?” I asked him.
Villa stared at me, very hard. After a moment of silence he said, “A gang enforces order from chaos. A gang is about pride and respect, while mafias are all about business. Only if a gang achieves a certain level of organization can it become a mafia. In Tucson, gangs are more territorial than ethnic. For instance, there are often some blacks and whites in Mexican gangs. Black-dominated gangs tend to be more fluid, though, with less loyalty and more ‘flippers.’ The Phoenix gangs are allied with the [Los Angeles-based] Crips and Bloods, while the gangs here are independent of—yet still influenced by—the L.A. gangs.
“The schools have made things worse. In high school, in the Mexican areas we were taught about Latino history and pride, while the blacks were taught about black history and pride. What the teachers never emphasized was respect for each other's cultures, or how to think like an American. My sophomore year blacks and Mexicans had a full-fledged riot.”
“What about your old gang?”
“It's a subcell of what had been a larger gang.” Villa went on, talking about gang “empires” and “territories,” including one controlled by Yaqui Indians—“tough little guys whose territory was surrounded, yet they were able to hold off other groups.”
“You don't talk like you look,” I remarked. Villa again stared at me hard, and then said, “You cannot believe how easy it is to be trapped by your surroundings, how the world beyond the South Side of Tucson is not real. When I was in criminal court, I listened—really, for the first time—to how educated people speak. That's when I realized how dumb I sounded. Thanks for the compliment. I'm still working on myself.”
Villa told me that he reads often in libraries. “I've learned to start sentences without saying ‘You know.’” He had arrived on time for our lunch—but for gang members it is a matter of pride to arrive late, to let the other fellow wait. I suspected that he was truly retired.
Villa had served a total of sixteen months, in a juvenile prison and in what he called an adult facility, for assault and battery. “In the adult facility I learned how to hot-wire cars, get through home alarm systems, and make silencers,” he said. He told me about “night crawlers”—gang lookouts who flash Bic cigarette lighters to indicate Tucson street corners where cocaine is for sale. I was also told by people in the area that cops are protected by gang members if “they let a certain amount of crime happen.”
Villa is a third-generation Mexican-American, born December 30, 1969. “I was a tax deduction,” he joked. His now deceased father was a roofer, his mother a medical assistant. “Because of my size, I was a natural leader in junior high school. Gangs are the most copycat of subcultures. It used to be zoot suits; now it's tattoos. When I was thirteen, I got a tattoo”—he pulled up his T-shirt and showed me a big tattoo, which read CHICANO—“so the other kids had to get a tattoo also.” Villa continued, broadening the picture. “If you chicken out when it comes to committing a murder, all your friends from your entire life in the neighborhood will reject you—it's like excommunication. Tell me, what law or punishment could be worse than that, especially since none of the hard-core gang members expect to live beyond twenty-one?”
According to Alex Villa, the real Mexican-U.S. border runs between south and north Tucson. “The South Side is the Old World. In the Old World if a car passed by floating on air, people would fear it, then worship it. In the New World they would dissect it to see how it works. In the Old World, even with the worst poverty, there is an extended family which provides stability. But in the New World, if there is no economy, there is no culture either, no family, nothing to hold people together. Just look at the poor whites and blacks. For South Side Mexicans to go into north Tucson for work is a death march. They hate north Tucson and envy it at the same time. South Side Mexicans have no idea of gradually accumulating wealth. What they know from their own experience is ‘If I could only sell a bunch of keys [kilos of cocaine], I could move to north Tucson.’ To think in terms of education and hard work as a way into north Tucson is, in fact, to buy into America. I know almost nobody in south Tucson who has bought into America.”
“What about the war against drugs?” I asked.
“There's no sign of it in south Tucson. Coke and heroin are on the rise, weed's the staple diet. I see more guys with exotic cars and beepers, whispering on cellular phones while the cops do nothing. Maybe the only way to cut the power of the gangs is to legalize drugs—at least marijuana. Then the gangs would have much less money to buy guns.”
* * *
Tucson’s crime-plagued South Side is composed of the “working poor.” Official poverty levels are meaningless. In fact, from a fifth to a quarter of all Americans depend on incomes that cannot realistically provide for the basic necessities; and white males make up the largest group of employed heads of households living in or near poverty—a fact that partly explains the resurgence of militias. Bruce and Corinna Chadwick, who live in Tucson's South Side in a predominantly black and Mexican area, are members of the part of the white population that can be counted among the working poor. Bruce is a supervisor in an automobile-parts store, Corinna a store cashier. Neither finished high school. In their late twenties, with three children, they have a combined gross income of $35,000 a year. Although that is higher than the Tucson household average of $21,748, the Chadwicks are barely managing to tread water economically.
I pulled my car up to the Chadwicks' tract house with its bare-dirt yard, enclosed by a fence and protected by a loud buzzer and two guard dogs. Bruce came to greet me. I noticed that a black-iron-grille door had been installed over the original one. Inside I saw a spotlessly clean, frugal house, with flowers stuck in a plastic 7-Eleven cup on the kitchen table. Bruce and Corinna were both heavyset. Bruce had dark hair, a neat moustache, and wire-rimmed glasses; Corinna had long red hair and red fingernails. They were sipping Cokes. It was mid-morning, and their three children were at school—a magnet school in a better neighborhood, where Corinna had managed to enroll them. “I attended school in this neighborhood, and I don't want my kids exposed to the same things I was,” she said. Bruce and Corinna are intelligent people who made, economically speaking, a mistake: they married before finishing high school and quickly had children.
To get this house, built by Habitat for Humanity and valued at $48,000, the Chadwicks had to invest several hundred “sweat-equity hours” building other Habitat houses, go through a battery of long interviews and a credit check, and provide a $600 down payment. “It's taken me eight years,” Bruce said, “to get a job that is somewhat decent. I'm not stupid, but I'm not the smartest guy in the world, and this house is a big step up from where we lived before.”
Bruce and Corinna spent six years in a mobile-home park near the Tucson airport before moving here. “What was the mobile-home park like?” I asked.
They smiled knowingly. Bruce said, “It was a real interesting experience, I can tell you. By the time we left, all of the people living there when we moved in had gone.” Corinna added, “We saw the place gradually change, and always for the worse. The place was full of children without guidance.”
Here are some of the stories Bruce and Corinna told me about the trailer park:
A child tried repeatedly to stab one of the Chadwicks' children with a screwdriver. Corinna phoned the police, who told her that they “could do nothing because the perpetrator was under age.” Nevertheless, the police lectured the mother of the offending child. “It went in one ear and out the other,” Bruce said.
Another child was left alone in the driver's seat of a truck with the engine on. The child shifted gears and rammed a trailer.
One night Corinna saw a group of men with automatic rifles outside a neighbor's trailer. One of them said, “Okay, guys, let's hit it.” They then assaulted the trailer. The men were undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents. At night Bruce and Corinna frequently saw helicopters shining spotlights on one or another of the trailers. “There was a lot of drug activity,” Bruce explained.
A next-door neighbor, six months behind in the rent, rigged the wiring system to blow up his trailer. His attempt failed. After he was evicted, an electrician discovered the plot in the course of an inspection.
“The insides of many of these trailers were unspeakable,” Bruce told me. “The park was full of people who were constantly drunk and dirty. There were single men with sons and girlfriends—few real families. There were single moms on welfare even though their men lived with them—a lot of welfare scams, yes. And there were always the loud arguments. I'll never forget the night that a man and a woman screamed at each other until dawn, when they started breaking windows. Once a neighbor became so drunk that he crawled up into a fetal position. The police took him away and he had to have his stomach pumped.”
Bruce thought that the social dysfunction he had described could have been reduced by government aid. Corinna shook her head no and said, “A lot of people we've encountered can't be helped.”
* * *
The Catalina foothills, which look down upon the city from the north, are covered by winding streets with NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH signs; the comfortable villas that line them often have red-tiled roofs, electronic security systems, and extensive gardens of wiry mesquite, yucca trees, and cholla cacti, with their networks of dangerously spiny right-angled arms. Towering over this vegetation and providing many a villa with a distinctive character are saguaro cacti, some of them as tall as thirty feet and weighing up to ten tons, some of them older than the American republic.
Stuart Hameroff, a medical scientist at the University of Arizona, lives in the Catalina foothills. He told me, “I never could have come as far as I have in my research had I lived on the East Coast, or even in a place like San Francisco. Those places are too cluttered, too vertical, with too many physical and cultural distractions. I need the desert and the absence of anything to look at in order to think clearly—and, more important, to think abstractly about the brain.” In a nondescript little office on the University of Arizona campus Hameroff maintains a Web site for scientists from several continents to exchange information about the biochemistry of consciousness. The office is as forgettable as the tract houses of the working poor. No imposing ivy-covered walls or neoclassical buildings are required for this ongoing, worldwide scientific work, nothing to suggest urbanity: just a computer and a telephone jack.
David K. Taylor, a planning-program coordinator for the City of Tucson, also lives in the foothills. Taylor, a demographer, helped me to understand the past and future social geography of Tucson, and of the United States, too.
I sat beside Taylor's grand piano, under a high white ceiling. “Where you are now could be Santa Fe, Palm Beach, or Long Island,” he said. “My neighbors are Pakistani doctors, Silicon Valley types, ingenious local entrepreneurs, wealthy Lebanese, Chinese. They have their computers, their links with friends throughout the globe, and a patina of Spanish culture via the street names of this neighborhood and the villa architecture, and they call it a lifestyle. Of course, these people are the only future Tucson has. You lure—you bribe—high-tech firms to relocate here with those high-paying jobs in order to attract more people like my neighbors to Tucson, because experience indicates that most of the poor, even with training, will never be qualified for such jobs.” I had heard these exact sentiments in St. Louis and other cities.
Taylor continued, “The local government's promotion of tourism and the Tucson convention site will bring mainly low-paying service jobs to the area. Tourist promotion is usually necessary to generate corporate moves. So if we want those high-tech firms, we will have to emphasize tourism.”
Taylor showed me two graphs that suggest an increasingly bifurcated future for Pima County, where Tucson is situated. The 1979 graph showed a tidy bell curve (or, as Taylor put it, a “one-hump camel”), with the rich and the poor at the bottom edges and the middle class forming the rise in the middle. The 1989 graph showed a “two-hump camel,” with the rich and the poor forming humps at the edges, at the expense of middle-income groups. In that year, nationally, 22.8 percent of the population lived in households whose income could not “realistically” provide for basic necessities, even as the numbers of the rich and the upper-middle class grew—a trend that has continued throughout the 1990s.
“In Tucson,” Taylor went on, “there are a large number of inexpensive tract houses thrown up hastily in the fifties, sixties, and early seventies which are now falling apart. Soon their repair costs will not make economic sense. Some of their owners will be able to afford more-expensive homes in neighborhoods with good schools, farther out in the desert, while many more will slip through the cracks, going broke on repairs or drifting to bad sections of town.” Throughout the country, Taylor said, the decay of cheap housing from the first decades after the Second World War is causing the same problem: further eroding the “middle-middle” class, even as the working poor and the upper-middle class become increasingly isolated from each other geographically. In Tucson the high cost of bringing water and other services to the edge of the desert abets this trend, since it is chiefly the well-off who can afford to live in the new outlying suburbs.
Taylor summed up Tucson's history: “Two hundred and fifty years ago the population here was a hundred percent Native American. Next it became ninety-five percent Spanish. When Santa Anna sold southern Arizona cheap to Jefferson Davis, you saw the first and only integration of cultures here, because the Anglo males who came west had to marry Mexican women, or at the very least partially assimilate with the reigning Mexican culture in order to do business. But the coming of the railroad and then the automobile redivided the city into a poor Spanish-speaking section, with some blacks, south of the railroad tracks, and a wealthier Anglo one to the north and east. Now class barriers are further deepening cultural and racial ones.” So instead of a unified, Spanish-built, Roman-style garrison, as it was in the eighteenth century, Tucson is becoming several garrisons, where each house is more isolated from the others than ever before. “Tucson has only twenty-five hundred persons per square mile," Taylor said. “We're less dense than at any moment in the past two hundred years. And who knows what the limits of growth here are? Of course, we're not as bad as Phoenix, where the motto seems to be More development is better, and too much is just right.”
“Meanwhile,” Taylor said, “the Anglo population keeps dropping. Anglos are sixty-eight percent of the Tucson area's population; in 2050 we'll be forty percent, while the percentage of Hispanics will rise from twenty-four percent to forty percent. The future means integration with Sonora. Why, Sonora will just be southern Arizona, and Chihuahua south Texas! Guaymas might be Tucson's main port. Tucson's economy already extends a thousand miles into Mexico.”
“Will the American Southwest merge completely with northern Mexico?” I asked.
“Not completely,” Taylor said. “There will be a big Asian element here too. The Southwest will move toward both Latin America and the Pacific, in terms of trade and people. The young work force that will subsidize the Social Security payments for our aging Baby Boomers will have to come not just from south of the border but also from the densely populated, industrializing, low-crime societies of the Third World—places like East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, where life is much worse than in America but talent and individual initiative are high. Racially, we'll look like a combination of Mexico and Hawaii. Tucson will reflect that trend.”
Tucson is American history on fast-forward. A century ago there was little here but desert and a few dusty streets. Now there is a vast pod of suburbs differentiated by income, on the verge of becoming the hub of a transitional region extending deep into Mexico, at the same time that drugs from Mexico feed the lawlessness that plagues the South Side of the city. While Tucson becomes increasingly connected to the outside world through immigration and electronic communication, its people are increasingly isolated from one another, the houses farther and farther apart, the public spaces empty. To me, the city's terrain seemed to say, Leave me alone.
I wanted to sample true American loneliness—the extremes of individualism. So I left Tucson and headed back south.
After driving more than a mile on dirt tracks in the desert, I descended a steep and rutted hillside to reach Jeff Smith's house, where I was met by a growling dog. Smith came out in his wheelchair. “Don't worry about your car,” he said. “I'll tow you with my pickup if you can't make it back up that hill.”
I was now only twenty-eight miles from the border, far from the nearest paved road, between the towns of Sonoita and Patagonia. Smith's closest neighbor was almost a mile away, and Smith, who is paralyzed from the chest down because of a motorcycle accident, was feuding with him. Smith led me into his two-story adobe house, fitted with a specially designed elevator for his wheelchair, which he built with the help of a few Mexican illegals. He was around fifty, gray-haired, and wearing jeans. “A screaming liberal,” his friend Emil Franzi, a political operative in Tucson, told me when we were discussing interesting Tucsonans.
“Unfortunately,” Smith said, “while my fellow liberals on the East and West Coasts are very good on the First and Fourth Amendments—free speech and worship, and protection against ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’—liberals look down on those rights and amendments that they don't use, like the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.” He put deliberate stress on the numbers, “First,” “Fourth,” and “Second”; the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were clearly living, sacred documents to him, as the Old Testament is to Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. Rather than a liberal, Smith, who owns thirty guns, was, like many others I met in the Southwest, a spirited libertarian who feels that the government has no right to ban abortions, semi-automatic assault rifles, or perhaps even marijuana.
I asked him, “Do we really need semi-automatics?”
Smith said, “Chechnya proves that you need semis to prevent tyranny, because with an armed populace a tyrannical central government will be forced to fight door to door.”
“But the United States government is not like the Russian one.”
“One day it could become just as tyrannical. It would happen gradually, by stealth. Don't say it can't happen! Would you rather be free or merely safe? That's the question Americans have to answer. Bill Clinton and Janet Reno need to understand the natural state of human freedom.”
“But you will always need a strong federal government,” I said. “Just look at the land dispute between the Hopis and the Navajos in northern Arizona. It is the federal government that to this day keeps the peace between many Indian tribes.”
“If the federal government collapsed,” Smith responded, “the Navajos might just kill the Hopis. Then, after an unstable period, the Navajos would assimilate into the general society. The world wouldn't come to an end. We think we need a federal government, but do we really?”
The morning wore on. Smith made coffee, and talked about “large, bloody cataclysms” that could “bring down the Electoral College”; about how “the South Side of Tucson might make war on the Catalina foothills, an idea that might originate from some TV show.” Smith, like many Democratic environmentalists but unlike Republican business types, is against growth. “I almost hope for an environmental catastrophe, so people will start leaving Tucson and stop building more homes. If it takes thirty years for the area to recover, what's the harm in the long run?”
Smith and I were sitting in the mathematical purity of his white-walled adobe house. Through his living-room window I could see a hillside of tall, coarse gramma grass and mesquite trees. Smith lives alone amid this meditative, prismlike beauty. His house is in a valley where radio transmissions are problematic. Like many people in rural America who live far from a big town, he has his own well. He goes only twice a week to his mailbox, more than a mile away on the nearest paved road. It occurred to me that Smith's political absolutes and abstractions regarding issues like semi-automatic rifles and the power of the federal government arise to no small extent out of sheer physical isolation. The continent's very emptiness, along with its overpowering natural forces—floods, twisters, hurricanes—for which Europe offers no equivalent, confers a pioneer spirit that loses relevance in an age of advanced technology. The last frontiersmen like Smith are, perforce, somewhat absurd.
I remembered what John E. Pintek, the sheriff of Cochise County, on Arizona's border with Mexico, had told me about militiamen: “These are people who can barely speak without profanities—like ‘Why the fuck should I vote?’ ... . Besides being uneducated, they often have records of petty crime which prevent them from getting decent jobs. If they are not on welfare or unemployment insurance, they work as night clerks at convenience stores and, as they will tell you, ‘defend the U.S.A. on weekends.’ With social change so dramatic, there are just more and more losers out there.”
Jeff Smith is no militiaman. He is far too well educated and cosmopolitan for that. He makes a living as a writer for a weekly alternative newspaper. But just imagine the state of mind of an uneducated, or badly educated, white male who is full of resentment and without social graces—“a fat lard-ass with pimples,” as Pintek had put it to me—living in Smith's kind of isolation.
Smith's friend Franzi had told me in Tucson, “Look, I'm a First Amendment guy anda gun nut. I'm a member of the NRA, I go to gun shows on weekends, and I don't know any of these militia people! Where are they? These guys must live in the middle of nowhere. They don't vote, they're completely beyond the ‘process.’ They think the NRA is too left-wing. ... In the days of the military draft, when there was no mystique attached to carrying a gun and wearing a uniform, these guys didn't exist.”
* * *
Emil Franzi runs election campaigns, mainly for Republicans, at the state-legislature and county-sheriff level. He is a small-time Ed Rollins, who also happens to own sixty guns and 3,000 opera records. Franzi supports both the National Rifle Association and National Public Radio. He and Jeff Smith might well share a motto: The less the government is able to accomplish the better. Thank God for gridlock; James Madison spent his life inventing it.
I first met Franzi in the cramped cubicle of a Tucson AM station on election night, November 7, 1995. The station had the low-rent, fly-by-night quality of local radio stations throughout America: the furniture and equipment looked as though they had been dumped there by a moving company the day before and might be repossessed the next morning if the ratings dropped. Franzi's voice was loud, conspiratorial, friendly, as if we had known each other all our lives. Formalities aren't necessary in the Southwest. Because so many people who settle here come without friends or family, and housing is so widely separated, when people do meet they connect quickly.
“Have you noticed something about this place—about Tucson and Arizona, I mean? Have you looked around?” Franzi shouted a few inches from my face. Then his voice descended into a low, exasperated hiss: “It's a fucking desert—over seven hundred thousand people surrounded by a desert! And they still want to build, build. Where's the water going to come from? You tell me.”
Franzi was not exaggerating. Any place with less than twenty inches of rainfall a year—a category that includes almost all of the American West—will sustain a human population only with difficulty, and places like Tucson, with an average annual rainfall of eleven inches, and Phoenix and El Paso, which average about eight inches of rain a year, are perhaps not places to inhabit at all, as Marc Reisner, an expert on water resources in the West, writes in Cadillac Desert. Tucson is the largest city in the United States that is dependent entirely on groundwater, so its underground aquifers are being steadily depleted. The most contentious issue on the Tucson ballot that November had to do with water. The dispute centered on Colorado River water transported to the city in a zigzagging, man-made river, uphill from the California border and across the bleakest patch of the Sonoran Desert, at a cost of billions of dollars, in a scheme called the Central Arizona Project (CAP). But after all this expense CAP water turned out to be problematic. It was hard and caused corrosion in pipes to loosen, with the result that the water looked brownish and people thought it made them ill. Many people wanted to ban CAP water from Tucson and continue to use only the water from underground aquifers. Proponents argued, however, that CAP water was more affordable, that its quality could be improved by treatment with chemicals, and that it would ensure Tucson enough water for the next century.
“Who's really supporting CAP water and who is against it?” I asked Franzi.
“Basically, a vote in favor of CAP water is a vote that says, Don't fuck with development, since if we're forced to depend on aquifer water, there's just not going to be enough water for Tucson to keep expanding. Me, I'm a no-growther. I don't want the dirt road leading to my house ever to be paved. I don't want one more building to be built in Tucson. We're already too big. We're in a desert!”
The no-growthers won that night. CAP water lost. But that did not satisfy Franzi. On the air live in the studio, he told the talk-show host John C. Scott that “Tucson voters are the stupidest voters in the country,” because they had defeated CAP water but re-elected the same Democratic Party politicians who had promoted it. Scott agreed. Earlier that day Scott had told his audience that he himself had voted “down the line” Republican. These Tucson radio commentators were criticizing both the voters and the politicians that election night. The voters phoned in and had their say too. Sitting inside the dark ten-foot-by-ten-foot recording room, lined with foam and stacked to the ceiling with equipment, listening to callers scream at Scott and Franzi and hearing Scott and Franzi answer back, I knew that such places had become the high altars of American democracy. This was local politics, and the issue at hand was water: life and death.
Yet only one out of four eligible voters had voted—about the same turnout as in the Haitian election held the following month. The voices crackling over the speakers represented only a minute subculture obsessed with politics. Less than five percent of adult Americans engage in any kind of political activity, aside from voting.
* * *
Other than the policy and media types in Washington, the state capitals, and town halls, the United States is politically apathetic. After spending much of my life observing traditional and highly politicized cultures in the Third World and the Balkans, which have been sundered by ideological and ethnic obsessions (and boasting, by the way, high voter turnouts), I found such apathy refreshing when I returned to the United States—at first. Apathy, after all, can mean that things are fine. In America it is testimony to the fact that the basic questions—What should the system of government be? Where should the borders be? Which ethnic groups, if any, should control what regions?—have been more or less resolved. What is often argued about—gun control, abortion—is thus of secondary importance. Despite what some believe, ethnic identity has yet to destabilize American politics, because ethnicity is largely divorced from territory (except in the case of Native Americans), as it is not in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. And because what is argued about is likelier to be secondary than something to fight or die for, democracy has evolved as the lowest common denominator of practical wisdom for a nation of individuals, most of whom prefer to be left alone to make money.
Not only has politics been secondary for most Americans but so, typically, has leadership. From the early nineteenth century onward the nation prospered despite long sequences of mediocre Presidents. Periods of great growth—the second half of the nineteenth century, for example—were accompanied by mediocre Administrations. Only in wartime did it truly matter who the President was. (Indeed, in peacetime the chairman of the Federal Reserve may affect the lives of many more citizens than the President does.)
But this relative political vacuum—a sort of peaceful and productive anarchy—always presumed, among other things, abundant prosperity and resources, so that little governing authority was necessary to organize the scramble for wealth. The large-scale settlement of the West following the Civil War cramped this freedom a bit. Nature itself ordained government help and supervision, because the lands west of the 100th meridian (which runs through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) receive, for the most part, less than twenty inches of rain annually—the minimum required not only to sustain a human population but also for agriculture without irrigation. Land had to be surveyed, parceled out, and regulated, and great water projects begun, which required vast bureaucratic institutions (the Reclamation Service, the Geological Survey, the Forest Service, and so forth). These, together with great growth in both the population and the economy in the latter part of the nineteenth century, contributed to the big federal government that people like Smith and Franzi now fear. Indeed, had the United States been settled from west to east rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on the well-watered eastern slopes of the Appalachians in the eighteenth century, and a mild form of hydraulic civilization—highly centralized and authoritarian regimes, like those that built the great water and earth works in India, China, and Mexico—might have arisen here.
But the claims of the militia movement and other libertarians notwithstanding, government intrusion has remained limited. Once land and water were parceled out, people were free to do what they wanted, to succeed beyond their wildest hopes or fail beyond their worst nightmares. And the discovery, mapping, and exploitation of aquifers in the first half of the twentieth century has further postponed the day of reckoning for humankind and nature in the West. But that day is coming. In 1928 Arizona's population reached 400,000, the largest it had been since the apex of the Hohokam Indian culture of the thirteenth century. Now more than 800,000 people live in greater Tucson alone, and four million in Arizona, a tenfold increase in seventy years—in a desert, no less. Referring to the Central Arizona Project, Marc Reisner writes, “Despite one of the most spellbinding and expensive waterworks of all time, Arizonans from now until eternity will be forced to do what their Hohokam ancestors did: pray for rain.” Especially as Arizonans have decided—at least in Tucson—that CAP water is not good enough for them, and thus their only choice is to continue to deplete the aquifers.
What the voter turnout actually suggested is that the vast majority of Tucson-area residents were unconcerned about this and other communal issues. As the hollowing-out of downtown also shows, the social and communal fabric appears to be fraying at the very moment in southwestern history when it is needed in the oncoming battle for water. The transnational, mestizo-Polynesian Tucson of the future—one of twenty-first-century North America's economic junctions for the world's most talented individuals—will require the opposite of individualism. It will need communalism merely to survive.
Gary Snyder, an ecologist and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, warns, “This is an age of limits.” But Roy Drachman, the Tucson real-estate developer who helped to build the Sunbelt, thinks that people here will pay little attention to such warnings. Sitting in his low-ceilinged office next to a parking lot and a restaurant, Drachman told me, “There are no limits. We will eat up more and more space out into the desert, and there will be more and more loneliness, and consequently more and more need for friendships. At first there won't be a water shortage, though. The price of water will just go up and the quality will go down. Then we'll see.”
Maybe Drachman is right. Maybe the Southwest can buy itself more time. Maybe, as some visionary engineers think, the Southwest's salvation will come ultimately from that shivery vastness of wet, green sponge to the north: Canada. In this scenario a network of new dams, reservoirs, and tunnels would supply water from the Yukon and British Columbia to the Mexican border, while a giant canal would bring desalinized Hudson Bay water from Quebec to the American Midwest, and supertankers would carry glacial water from the British Columbian coast to southern California—all to support an enlarged network of post-urban, multi-ethnic pods pulsing with economic activity.
Places like Phoenix and Tucson straddle the divide between bold, futuristic dreams and apocalypse. The coupling I encountered of adrenaline-charged friendliness with extreme apathy and antigovernment views suggested a no less intense loneliness, emphasizing the need for community while at the same time threatening it.
There is also the threat posed by 92 million Mexicans whose border is an hour's drive south of Tucson. During the Mexican Revolution and its attendant civil wars, from 1910 to 1922, more than 10 percent of Mexico's population of 13 million fled to the United States. Now, as Mexico's population climbs past 100 million, imagine the level of militarization and domination from Washington that would be required to control a comparable flood of refugees, were Mexico's central government to devolve into a weak tributary-state system.
In Tucson I wondered if America might need a new, more candid myth than that of the rugged individualism that settled the West. In truth, this region could never have been tamed successfully without big-government intervention and the creation of bureaucracies—just what rugged individualists like Jeff Smith hate. As for America's future, if there is to be justice for anyone, the gradual, ongoing increase in both the size and the complexity of our population (which in the next fifty years is likely to grow by half, to 390 million) will eventually require regulatory tyranny—the governing of everything from water use to credit-card fraud. But what will individualists do then?
This is part one of a two-part series. Read part two here
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