On the Ground in Arizona

I often forget that I'm brown.

"How can this be?" you're probably asking.

It's pretty simple: I've lived in Scottsdale, Arizona, most of my life and have a mix of Hispanic and non-Hispanic friends. I don't feel different from them—which is how it should be when you have a great group of friends. I don't really listen to Spanish music, and although I love a good plate of arroz con gandules, I'm not one to have a Puerto Rican flag in my rear view mirror. But when Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 on April 23, 2010, everything seemed to shift.

The law, which may go into effect in the next 90 days, makes it a crime to be in the state of Arizona as an illegal immigrant. It also allows law enforcement officers to request "proof of citizenship" from anyone they have a "reasonable suspicion" could be here illegally.

Can I really get arrested for being brown? Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write. Or think. Or…feel.

My non-Hispanic friends have been quick to assure me that I'm insane for worrying about this and that nothing of the sort would ever happen to me. After all, I'm a college-educated working professional who is an American-born citizen. My parents are also American-born citizens. In theory, OK, my friends are right: Even though I'm Puerto Rican, I'm not necessarily a target. Except SB 1070 leaves my "tan" open to questioning. And that's definitely not OK.  And it's quite frightening.

On the ground here in Arizona, it's been weird to see the media speak of my home as if they know it, as if they know us. I feel for those who are Hispanic and are worried about the hatred of others toward them. I feel for the people who are non-Hispanic and are worried they are now being stereotyped as "racist." I feel for everyone frustrated over the media perpetuating the issue, enabling it to spiral out of control. But mostly, I feel the new bill has roused up feelings in some that I never thought I'd witness. (On April 26, for example, swastikas made out of refried beans appeared on Arizona's state capitol windows. As one of my best friends put it, "It's like all the white supremacists came out of the woodwork.")

The weekend the bill passed, I went shopping as usual, and, for the first time in my entire life, I felt paranoid. Were people looking at me wondering if I was Mexican? Were they wondering if I was illegal? Were they categorizing me as “one of them” who should just go away?

Whatever people think, I won't carry a passport if my blonde friend doesn’t have to. It's part of my legal rights as an American citizen not to. And I freely admit that I honestly don't believe cops here will start questioning everyone with "brown skin." That's not the issue at hand; but rather the power this legislation gives to those who want to abuse it.

It may be 2010, but there are still law enforcement officers sexually harassing women or unfairly questioning, sometimes beating, African-Americans. This is no different; except instead of protecting citizens by law from those who want to take advantage, there is now a built-in loophole, an area left up to an officer's discretion of whether or not you may be "reasonably suspicious" based on your appearance.

Still, the irony in all this is that most of Arizona residents support the bill. Partly.