La Otra Arizona: There Was a Time When Water Ran from Faucets

It’s the proverbial gila monster in the room––that thing that everyone knows but nobody wants to talk about. The uncomfortable fact, in plain view: in our lifetime we will see vast water shortages in Arizona. The water is running out. But when exactly will sand flow from the faucet? Nobody can be sure, and many that study the issue have a vested interest in placing the date as far into the future as possible. Complex issues like the unreliability of desert water supplies aren’t a great selling point for real estate, and in a state whose primary industries are tied to constant population growth, common sense is often chided as alarmism.

The general consensus seems to be that after 2025, things are going to begin to get rough. While that date has a far-off, futuristic ring to it, 2025 is only 13 years away. As a recent report from Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy puts it, “Today there are a host of new challenges on the horizon—particularly the horizon after the mid-2020s.” The report, entitled Watering the Sun Corridor: Managing Choices in Arizona’s Megapolitan Area, continues:

… Climate change may further stress an already stretched water supply. Future variability may outstrip the storage systems built to manage the past. Agriculture may disappear. The return of rapid population growth will likely necessitate dramatic changes in lifestyle, particularly the lifestyle of desert dwellers at the high end of the socioeconomic ladder.

The “Sun Corridor” referred to in the report is the coming amalgamation of the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, expected to connect through three counties and across over 30,000 square miles, forming a megalopolis of nearly eight million people by 2030 and nine million just ten years later in 2040. That’s an 82.5% increase from the 2005 population of the same area, which was then just about five million––scared yet?

While the numbers may be frightening, it doesn’t make much sense to run and hide, to continue to bliss out in our ignorance. Rather, the numbers implore us to get curious––how did we get here? Does the water use in our neighborhoods really reflect our values? Are we content to continue to drive at full speed toward the impending dry desert cliff?

An immensely important exploration of these questions is found in Marc Reisner’s classic Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, which is something like the Fast Food Nation of the West’s water crisis. It is one of those books that should be on a required reading list for anyone interested in moving here from back east. They would quickly learn some important context regarding the Colorado River, one of the protagonists in the West’s water story:

One could almost say, then, that the history of the Colorado River contains a metaphor for our time. One could say that the age of great expectations was inaugurated at Hoover Dam––a fifty-year flowering of hopes when all things appeared possible. And one could say that, amid the salt-encrusted sands of the river’s dried-up delta, we began to founder on the Era of Limits.

The arrival of that Era should come as a surprise to no one. On a planet containing a closed global ecosystem, nothing can grow forever. All natural systems are interconnected through their uses of cyclical rhythms: expansion and contraction, inhalation and exhalation. Only humans have built a society based on the tenet that constant expansion is absolutely necessary for our species’ survival, and that any movement in the opposite direction implies crisis.

Therefore Arizona once again presents itself as a laboratory, a testing ground for what will later happen worldwide, when the fifty-year flowering of our linear system collides with a definite and circular reality. The hypothesis of infinite richness will eventually come face to face with the laws of scarcity––and we’ll have front row seats.

It isn’t any surprise that the guardians of the status quo would read all of this as fear-mongering. For anyone with a vested interest in our civilization’s current course, it is easier to press the gas pedal ever-harder, rather than pausing to consider other routes. Indeed, you be the judge: the more you find yourself alarmed at this analysis, the more likely that it is that you’re standing too close to the problem to be able to see a possible solution.

We could be scared, yes. Or we could decide that instead of clutching ever-harder onto The Way Things Are, we’ll spend that energy moving towards another possible scenario, one in which a single generation’s flowering of industry and ephemeral profit gives way to a generations-long birthing of a wider understanding of what it means to be human.

The impending water shortage is just another product of Arizona’s powerful Irony Industry, the sector dedicated to manufacturing potent juxtapositions and striking contrasts. In this case: the fastest-growing state in the nation is the state with the fewest water reserves. Creatures made of over 70% h2O have decided to use drinking water to flush their toilets. In one generation a desert civilization will use up aquifers that took eons to form, drop by drop percolating through the alluvial soil.

So yes, by all means please flush your toilet less and harvest the rainwater that runs off your roof. Tear up your lawn and embrace the strange and ancient native plants of our tierra. Learn any one of a dozen small habits that save thousands of gallons a year, but don’t think that these alone will avoid the “dramatic changes in lifestyle” coming to a city near you in the late 2020’s.

Do all those things, yes, but do more––help imagine La Otra Arizona, comprised of a culture that understands scarcity as natural and doesn’t expect the infinite. Otherwise, we’ll be left to tell our grandchildren stories that begin there once was a time when water flowed with the turn of a knob…

La Otra Arizona: Of Saguaros and Tumbleweeds

Originally published in The Noise, 2012.

In the Sonoran Desert, no calendar is needed to know that May has turned to June, and that we face a long dry stretch before we can count on tasting the delicious monsoon rains. Across central and southern Arizona the season is marked by the blooming of the saguaro cactus, the plants covered with thousands of the white pedals of our state flower. While many other species such as the palo verde tree have already finished flowering and are set on conserving energy during the dry spell, others such as the saguaro and mesquite defy the conditions through intense displays of their libidos. In fact, the mesquite tree is known to bloom even more intensely during years of drought––creating extra seeds in case the adult plants die of thirst.

It is during their bloom that saguaros have the best chance of catching the attention of the jaded urbanites that live in their midst. Despite its willingness to pose for tourist cameras and to be used as the catch-all symbol of Arizona and indeed the entire southwestern United States, carnegiea gigantea is seldom considered by those who live with it everyday in Tucson and Phoenix.

This is the common fate of many plants-turned-symbols of our area. Consider also the tumbleweed, also known as russian thistle. Despite its ubiquitous appearances as an extra in Hollywood Westerns, the origin story and context of salsola tragus itself is rarely told. First a stowaway on ships carrying grain from eurasia, tragus appeared relatively recently on our continent, being first noticed in South Dakota in the 1880’s.

Though linked in our collective imagination, the saguaro and the tumbleweed are fundamentally different plants. Everything about the saguaro speaks to a certain permanence. Fifty-five years passed before the saguaros in the Tucson Mountains bloomed for the first time, and few sprouted arms before the age of 75. The oldest of these cacti are thought to be over 250 years old––though we wouldn’t know, since our number-counting science hasn’t been here that long.

And though there is no example of absolute permanence, the saguaro certainly lives on a timescale that is other than human. It is curious, then, that we so commonly anthropomorphize them, even at the most basic level: we call the stems arms, and the woody inner structure skeletons that are made of ribs. Across Tucson, every December, many cacti are seen wearing Santa Claus hats.

Even our poets frequently examine the saguaro as if it were human. Consider this excerpt from the poem “Saguaro” by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

If it takes you a hundred years to grow your first arm for how long do your feel the sensation of craving something new?

The Tohono O’odham––those humans who have known the saguaro the longest––know the plant as hash’an and also tell a story of its once being human. They hold the plant at the center of their culture, considering a new year to begin with the “Saguaro Harvest Moon” of late June or early July, when they traditionally live in temporary camps in the saguaro forests, gathering the ripened fruit with long poles fashioned from saguaro ribs.

Meanwhile the tumbleweed is a lesson in mobility, impermanence and rootlessness. Often growing two to four feet in a single season, the plants wait until their seeds are fully formed, and then purposely detach from their taproot, allowing the wind to roll their skeletons and distribute their seeds. Thus the plant is known as chamizo volador in Spanish and also as wind witch in English.

As European Americans moved into the Southwest, so did the tumbleweed. The relationship between “development” and the tumbleweed runs deep, since the plant’s seeds require disturbed ground in order to take root. And so they are most commonly seen in agricultural fields and along road shoulders. While the saguaro’s primary enemy today is real estate development, the tumbleweed must rejoice at the rumble of a bulldozer.

The thermometers jump and linger above 105º, the saguaro flowers ripen into fruit, and the tumbleweeds and backhoes roll on––another summer in Arizona. But which Arizona?  The land of tradition and myth symbolized by the saguaro, or the cheap land deals and boom-bust economic cycles where the tumbleweed thrives?

Though often presented side-by-side, these two symbols represent two differing visions for our state’s next 100 years––visions that will continue to be explored in future editions of La Otra Arizona. Until then, watch the blossoms burst and for Salsola Tragus, that

tierra-tragante, disturbante, compadre of dust.
Circle seed-spitter, tumbling thistle.
Salsola, que solo sale, sal sol que le quiere ver.

Stow-away in grain crop seeds.
Unsettling settler, wagon wheel automaton.

Gluttonous globalizer, coat-tailer of developer,
carpetbag colonializer, hugger of highway shoulder.
Plaque of bulldozer teeth, pubes of pavement.

Allergen, argonaut,
continental heir, thorned air,
wind witch, chamizo volador,
terreno violador, conquistador.

Eurasian mar-andante, noxious navigator,
Bering Strait shooter, Russian random thistle,
stock trope exploding across freeway grill.

Wagon trains, steamboats, railroads,
interstates, bus lines, sky harbors.

Telegraph, heliograph, telephone,
radio, broadband, satellite.

Salsola tragus, drifting along,
I know when night has gone
that a new world’s born at dawn.

––excerpted from The Sonoran Strange.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press: Tucson. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Turner, Frederick. Of Chiles, Cacti, and Fighting Cocks: Notes on the American West. Fulcrum Publishing: Golden, Colorado. 1990, 2004.

La Otra Arizona: SB1070 and the Chinese Exclusion Act

Part four of La Otra Arizona series.

This month the Supreme Court is expected to take on Arizona’s SB1070, the now-infamous immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer in 2010. As with any Supreme Court case, SB1070 has traveled a long road of litigation to get to this point: decisions by lower courts, injunctions, appeals, etc. Now we’re headed toward the final decision––perhaps.

The court’s ruling will be on what is essentially a technicality, a question of states’ rights. Does each state in the Union have the right to set its own immigration policy, or is that the sole purview of the federal government, as the constitution seems to assert? Many across the nation await the Court’s answer to that question, as 1070-style legislation has been enacted in other states such as Alabama and “self deportation” becomes an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.

However, debating such a complex situation as immigration in such a narrow manner omits some crucial background to the question. What got us to this point, anyway? What has been Arizona’s relationship to immigrants for the 159 years since becoming a US territory in 1853? What groups were considered to be immigrants, and which groups were given a free pass to homestead wherever they liked? While there isn’t space here to fully explore those questions, much can be learned from one example given to us by Arizona history.

The first villains in the tale of Arizona’s “immigration problem” weren’t Mexican, they were Chinese. Tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants arrived to the western United States in the last half of the nineteenth century, coming mostly from the area near Canton in the coastal region of the Guandong Province. They came across the Pacific because of economics––crushing poverty in their homeland and the lure of seemingly endless jobs in the US, building the transcontinental railroads, working in mines, restaurants and laundries.

By the 1870’s, after the they had finished building the first national transportation system in the US, these workers continued to face the anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping through the young United States. This xenophobia was codified by such laws as the Page Act of 1875, which was an attempt to stop Chinese prostitutes from entering the country. Since most Chinese women were assumed to work as prostitutes, the law effectively barred almost all Chinese women from legal entry to the US. This legislative impulse culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred entry to all except those who worked in a few professions.

However, there existed a loophole: while Chinese were prevented from arriving from China to the US directly, they could still legally arrive via Mexico. Even after the loophole was closed in 1884, the southern US border continued to be a popular point of entry. Indeed, the Chinese were the first group to be denied legal entry to the US based solely on their nationality––they were the country’s first “illegal immigrants.”

Once anything is declared illegal, enforcement can’t be far behind. The modern US Border Patrol has its roots in the “Chinese Inspectors” first appointed in 1891.

The Anti-Chinese movement in Arizona predated the federal legislation, however. An 1869 headline in Prescott read “MORE CHINAMEN––Three more Chinamen arrived here during the week, and have gone to work. There are now four of them which is quite enough.” Nevertheless, their population continued to grow, in 1879 the same paper declared “Prescott has about 75 or 80 Chinamen, which is 75 or 80 too many. Now is a good time to get rid of them.”

Racist editorials in Arizonan newspapers have a long history indeed. In the 1880’s the Tombstone Epitaph, whose editor and former Apache Indian agent John Clum also organized an Anti-Chinese League to “rid the town of evil.” An aspiring politician, Clum was an early example of an attempt to curry xenophobia into support for a political campaign. In 2003 another Tombstone newspaper was carrying anti-immigrant headlines, such as “Enough is Enough! A Public Call to Arms!” but this time the villains were Mexican and the editor was Chris Simcox, founder of a Minuteman-related group.

This Arizonan pattern isn’t hard to pick out. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer and Senator John McCain have all used fear of an immigrant invasion to help them win elections in recent years. Sex sells, but fear wins elections.

Whatever decision the Supreme Court makes on 1070, Arizona will still be forced to address the fact that we live in a border state that belonged to another country just a few generations ago. Framing immigration as a “problem to be solved” is a symptom of historical nearsightedness, and only serves politicians on the campaign trail and businesspeople in the board room.

In the wider context of immigration in Arizona, 1070 is just one thread in a much larger tapestry. If we want to deal with this reality, we’ll work towards understanding immigration as a complex web of issues interwoven with the individual experiences of intelligent and capable human beings. No state or federal law is going to “solve” this––it’s up to us to reimagine what it means to live in a border state entering its second century. It is exciting and unavoidable work.

For further reading:

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands.

Luckingham, Bradford. Minorities in Phoenix a Profile of Mexican American, Chinese American, and African American Communities, 1860-1992.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans and Anglos in Arizona.

Sheridan, Thomas. Arizona: A History.

La Otra Arizona: Natives, Transplants and Those Who Came Before

Are you a native Arizonan? Were your grandparents natives? As centennial celebrations continue in Arizona, this word keeps coming up––native––but not in the way that one would expect.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Arizona, the word native is more frequently used to describe people born here, rather than people who have indigenous roots in the area. After all, the majority of our population has arrived only in the last few decades, attracted by the sunshine and cheap land. These transplants––as they’re frequently called by natives––are simply not from here.

The word history comes to us via Latin from the Greek historia, meaning “finding out, narrative.” History is the story we tell ourselves, and in telling the story, the words we choose do matter. Though technically correct, this use of native in Arizona is laced with irony––even the oldest Anglo families in Arizona haven’t lived here more than 150 years, a mere blink of the eye in the long unfolding of the human story. Celebration of the centennial is by nature an Anglo affair, as it observes the anniversary of the enshrinement their right to this territory. Though ceremonial nods are given to the “diverse people of Arizona,” an honest discussion of race and class is avoided at all cost  by those officiating the celebrations.

And for good reason: once it is contrasted with the indigenous tradition in Arizona, 100 years is suddenly exposed as being an incredibly short amount of time.

We can begin to understand this fact by looking at any of the indigenous groups in Arizona, but the most dramatic example of the longevity of human presence here is given to us by the Hohokam.

Not that they called themselves Hohokam. As with so many other groups––Navajo and Apache among them––the name we use for the Hohokam was put upon them by a people who came later, or were outside their culture. In this case, hohokam comes from an O’odham word frequently translated as “those who came before,” alluding to their long presence here.

How long? Uninterrupted for at least 1,000 years, beginning at the latest in AD 450. The highly-developed culture thrived along the Gila River, especially where it meets the Salt in what is today known as the Phoenix Basin. They are known as desert agriculturalists and master irrigators, distributing water from the river through canals as large as ten feet wide, fifteen feet deep and twenty-two miles long, with a precise slope of eight feet per mile. In total, the Hohokam carved more than four hundred miles of canals using wooden digging sticks and without the aid of animals.

There is also evidence that the Hohokam were expert geneticists, developing plants well-suited to their needs and well-adapted to the harsh desert climate. Populations of a particular species of agave cactus, agave murpheyi, have only been found near sites of ancient indigenous occupation, and are so similar that they are suspected to be a single genetic clone. Along with agave delamateri, this domesticated plant was cultivated from modern Caborca, Sonora all the way to New River, Arizona. The Hohokam pit-roasted the agaves, using them for food, fiber and probably other uses unknown to us.

With more than 70,000 acres of land under cultivation in the Salt River Valley alone, the Hohokam rarely lacked food, and evidence suggests that they rarely hunted or even ate meat. This food security allowed them to pursue other endeavors––like building the first sky scrapers in Arizona, such as at the famous site in Casa Grande. Its ruins still visible today, the Great House was a four-story adobe structure, perhaps used for astronomy and ceremony.

The Hohokam also had close cultural and commercial ties to other mesoamerican civilizations. Like their southern neighbors, the Hohokam placed great importance on the ritual ball game, which was played throughout Las Américas; they constructed courts for the game across the lands that they occupied.

At its peak, the Hohokam population in what is now Arizona reached as high as 400,000 people. The state wouldn’t again reach that many inhabitants until 1928. There are many theories as to why the culture dissolved around AD 1400. Some point to decreased availability of water due to climate change, or perhaps salt buildup due to over-irrigation. Others believe that European diseases such as measles and smallpox may have arrived before the Europeans themselves did, transmitted ahead of the conquistadores by indigenous traders moving along millennial trading routes. The diseases decimated the population here as elsewhere in Las Américas.

The effectiveness of the Hohokam canals in irrigating the rich alluvial soil of the Basin was still obvious more than four hundred years later when Anglo first arrived and began to clean out and restore the waterways for their own farming. Their first crops were used to feed the soldiers stationed at the new Fort McDowell, founded in 1865 to help secure the the territory seized from Mexico after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48.

The modern city of Phoenix is of course named after the bird of Egyptian mythology who immolates itself at the end of its life, and whose offspring rise from the ashes. Europeans thought the name fitting, since their city was “rising from the ashes” of a failed civilization.

However, where some saw only emptiness and ashes, a legacy exists. The organization that has made modern Phoenix possible, the Salt River Project, was founded on the appropriation of indigenous technology, the Hohokam canals. And the decedents of the Hohokam continue to live in the state to this day.

And so they give us another gift––the chance to put the triumphant centennial celebrations in a context of their millennial civilization, and to rethink just exactly who deserves to call themselves a native Arizonan, and who is merely a transplant, grasping for roots.

For further reading:

Phillips, Steven J., Wentworth Comus, Patricia, eds. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. 2000.

Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. 1986, 1993.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History, Rev. ed. 2012.

Wagoner, Jay J. Early Arizona: Prehistory to Civil War. 1975.