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Letter to Birmingham


Dear Birmingham,

I write this to you from Tucson, Arizona, from a state synonymous with dehumanization and racial profiling, from a land of fear and hate. Birmingham, I think you know what I speak of. But don’t think I am alluding to your past; also today.

HB 56, the bill that your state legislature recently passed and that your governor signed, is being touted as the toughest anti-immigrant bill in the country, one that was affirmed by a U.S. District judge this September. This measure requires school officials to act as immigration agents and permits police officers to detain people without bail, based merely on suspicion of being in the country illegally. That it has fomented hate and caused panic and fear was the point, wasn’t it?

You might be wondering why someone from Arizona would be writing to a Southern city or state capitol? The answer is simple; Birmingham represents memory; it is etched into the psyche of the nation. It is also seared into Tucson’s memory, not just because many of us from the U.S. Southwest also lived through the civil rights era, but also because on May 3 of this year, one of our elders in our community was arrested for attempting to read the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King Jr. This occurred during a school board meeting, this in the midst of a hostile anti-Mexican, anti-Indigenous and anti-immigrant atmosphere in this state.

Here we have our own Bull Conner; Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the same Sheriff who unapologetically proclaimed on CNN that it was an honor to be compared with the KKK (11/12/07). Here, we also have Tom Horne, former state schools superintendent, who has long invoked the memory of MLK Jr., in his six-year effort to eliminate Ethnic Studies. He claims that doing so would constitute the fulfillment of MLK’s Dream. His successor, John Huppenthal, campaigned on the promise to “Stop ‘La Raza’. ” That is his dream. Against all evidence, he is conducting a modern-day Inquisition into Tucson’s Mexican American Studies K-12 department, attempting to prove its maize-based curriculum is anti-American.

In Tucson, our struggle is not simply about the right of our students to learn Mexican American history, language and culture, but even more so, our struggle here is about the right of everyone to be treated as full human beings. Indeed, this is something that you, Birmingham, know all too well. Last month signaled your grand return to the world stage of dehumanization; it’s as if you had been waiting some 50 years to breathe uninhibited, able once again to exhale the fumes of racial supremacy. This is something you haven’t been able to do since the courts and the civil rights movement forced you to cease your legalized discrimination against  African Americans. But your fight is not really with brown people; it’s just about enforcing the law, right?

Please note that in Arizona, we don’t refer to dehumanizing measures that violate the rights of human beings as laws. Yet, this is beyond how we characterize this new bigotry; we are conscious that Mexicans in many parts of the country are viewed and treated as less than human. The following quote by Otto Santa Ana, in Brown Tide Rising, explains this bias:  “Only humans have human rights.” I am certain that African Americans in the South understand this well.

Here, we have heard your governor, Robert Bentley, brag about the toughness of HB 56. Truthfully, there’s a bit of racial nostalgia and wistfulness communicated in his voice, projecting the sublime and whispered wish: “If we could only also apply these laws to our Black population too.” Am I mistaken, or is he not the same governor who in January proclaimed that only people who believe in Jesus Christ are his brothers and sisters.

As such, I don’t have to wonder what he thinks of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Jews. But forgive me if this causes me to question whether he considers African Americans, American Indians, Arab Americans and Mexicans as his true brothers and sisters too. As long as they are “legal”?

Birmingham, is this how you wish to be known and remembered? As a place that in the 21st century openly and legally dehumanizes its brown populations?

Birmingham, do you think the world actually believes you when you say you have nothing against brown people, Mexicans or immigrants – that your only beef is with “illegal aliens?” Do you think your ability to discern is credible? Isn’t that like dehumanizing African Americans, but hiding behind “states rights.” Wasn’t slavery and segregation legal in your state, in this country?

So Birmingham, yes, please lecture us on “the rule of law.” And keep listening to your governor, because we here in Arizona are certainly paying close attention. Here are his words in reaction to the judge’s ruling: “…this fight is just beginning… I will continue to fight at every turn to defend this law against any and all challenges.”

Don’t know what you hear, but eerily, we hear echoes of George Wallace: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”

Birmingham, your state legislature and your governor have once again brought “disgrace upon your state.” We know the objective is to take HB 56 to the Supreme Court. And let’s not mince words; we know that ethnic cleansing is not an unintended consequence. Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Here, we thank your civil and human rights organizations and your religious community. Please continue to fight. Our memory is long. Yes, we remember the 1950s and 1960s… but we also remember the Trail of Tears.  Please do not permit a new one on your soil. After all, the brown men, women and children subject to this new draconian measure… they are our brothers and sisters… as they are yours.


Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

Roberto Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at:



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