I wrote this little vignette when I was doing my fieldwork in the Altar Valley in the summer of 2011. It never made it into any official type of writing, but it was one of those happy fieldwork moments for me, sitting alone, being somewhere at once familiar and strange, eating steak, listening, watching.
I am sitting in a restaurant that is dimly lit, with stone-carved walls and cowboy paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. Chandeliers made from wagon wheels, that sort of thing. As it is with most restaurants in rural Arizona cattle country, things aren’t entirely old-fashioned here, nor are things entirely new. This building was constructed at the turn of the 20th century and was used by early cattle traders as a watering hole, yet the fancy stereo system tacked up in the corner playing Top 40 hits points towards the establishment's modernity. This restaurant, though self-aware of its uniqueness, is far from a tourist trap. The people eating here tonight don’t seem to be gawking at the cow heads stuffed and mounted on the wall. There is no one snapping photos of the extensive pancake griddle collection that is displayed in the entryway with as much care as any museum exhibit. I seem to be the only non-local here, sitting at the Cow Palace on a Tuesday at 7:30 pm in late June.
The family next to me – grandma, grandpa, and two small grandkids, boys about the age of 5 and 7 – have just spent the last ten minutes discussing potatoes. Grandpa’s face is wrinkled and weathered. He is wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, and his white collared shirt looks freshly pressed. Grandma, heavy set and red cheeked, has her hair pinned up ornately with a silver clip, turquoise inlay. The family is situated in the middle of the restaurant, with paper napkins in all four of their laps. Their conversation about potatoes ranges from the tuber’s merits to its flaws. The boys claim they hate mashed potatoes, but are excited for their order of French Fries. “Your dad doesn’t like mashed potatoes either,” grandpa chuckles. “He used to say the same thing as you just did.” Hearing this, I think that traditions out here don’t just form around work practices and ideologies, but around more inane, daily things. Like food.
“I like potatoes every way I’ve ever tried them,” Grandma says. “Except the way Mindy used to make them.” Grandpa snickers, but the boys press for more. They jump on this detail about the former woman in their dad’s life, supposedly the woman he was married to before the boys’ mom came along.
“Why Mindy’s?” The youngest asked.
“What was wrong with her potatoes?”
They crave this information intently, as if it would unlock some mystery about the woman that means enough to be brought up at a family meal but not enough to have stuck around. I think back to when I was about these boys’ age, learning about the former woman in my own dad’s life. Back then, hearing about her was the first time I saw my parents not just as amorphous figures of ‘dad’ and ‘mom,’ but as people who made choices, people who have flaws and merits just like potatoes do. I lean forward, wanting to know more about Mindy, too.
The waitress emerges from the kitchen with a tray, three orders of chicken fried steak in tow – two orders with mashed potatoes, one order, split in two, with French Fries. As the steaks are being set down on their table, grandpa removes his cowboy hat. He picks up his fork and his knife, but Grandma shoots him a look. He sets them back down. Grandma, reaching over the table to cut the boys’ steak, puts an end to the subject so they can say grace.
“Mindy was a nice woman,” She says.
“A kind woman,” Grandpa echoes.
“She was a nice woman,” Grandma repeats. “She just couldn’t cook.”
Talk of potatoes and Mindy cease. The four of them say grace, heads bowed, and then they dig in. As they eat, from the speakers of the new stereo system in the corner of the Cow Palace on a Tuesday evening in June, Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” begins to play.
It was Christmas Day, 2013, and Gabe and I were driving south on I-19 towards Madera Canyon because we had heard there was snow left over from a storm a few days before. There were very few people on the road - I think it was 2pm - and like it always happens on the 25th of December, I felt an eerie sense of quiet. In my lifetime, I've rarely had this silence drowned out by relatives around a dining table or the sound of my own jaw chewing on ham and figgy pudding, familiar and full. Nor was this Christmas silence ever sacred to me, either by theological weight or the hushed reverence of newly fallen snow. Why was this silence eerie to me rather than peaceful? Why did it feel like I was holding my breath, rather than exhaling?
I was in the passenger seat as Gabe drove south. I looked out the window to my right, and saw the formidable Spectrum Plaza, a massive shopping center easily accessible by the interstate, situated off a major thoroughfare for the city of South Tucson. When I say massive, I mean it. Tucson is not a stranger to large shopping 'plazas,' but I dare say this one takes the cake. In Centrum Plaza there is, for your consuming pleasure, in alphabetical order:
Ross Dress For Less
Salon De Futur
The Home Depot
Apparently there are more stores, but according to google, those are the highlights. There's a movie theater too, a gas station; the possibility for consumption seems endless. I've stopped by Spectrum a few times, especially when I lived for a week in Amado (about 35 minutes down I-19) during my summer fieldwork with cattle ranchers in 2011. Besides the little towns of Green Valley and Sahuarita, Spectrum Plaza is the first beacon of a major city as one makes her way north from Mexico. If you had never been to the United States before, your entry on I-19 would go something like this: First a retirement community, then a casino, then a Spanish Mission, and then this, everything you could ever want.
But as we drove by on Christmas Day, out of my window I saw something rather spectacular: Pure, unadulterated absence. The structures were there, of course, in their big box glory, and the parking lots too. What wasn't there was people. Every store's designated parking lot was empty. There was the occasional camper van or RV parked in the far flung corners of the Home Depot and Ross, there were a few people at the gas station, as it was open for business. But in the several acre Spectrum Plaza campus, driving by at 75 miles per hour, I saw a gaping void. I saw Capitalism on its day off.
After we went to Madera Canyon and frolicked in the snow, I got home, packed up my tripod and camera, and headed back out, southbound to Spectrum Plaza. I stopped by the gas station at the north end of the Plaza and got some Sour Brite Crawlers, pulled into the farthest parking space in the Target lot, and waited until the sun dipped behind the structure so I could photograph the space. At some point a few teenagers, all riding new shiny scooters, flew by me, looking at me oddly, with my camera mounted on its tripod as I sat on the hood of my car eating gummy worms. I could hear the low-hum frequency of the interstate, but I could also hear birds chirping.
I started examining the white lines demarcating parking spaces - there was a jagged pattern to them, almost like a zipper. White teeth and black asphalt. There were oil stains like ink blots on the already dark pavement, greasy fingerprints of human presence when there was none. I tried to calculate how many cars had been in this lot just the day before, how much oil it took to get them there. There was trash strewn across the parking lot, left over from the mad rush the day before; water bottles and empty bags of cheetos. There were also rogue shopping carts parked haphazardly where, on any other day, cars would be. I imagined the people on parking lot clean-up duty, itching to get home the night before, late on Christmas Eve. I imagined that they did a half-ass job, ready for their day off, too. I wondered if they'd get in trouble for leaving carts unattended and trash not picked up, what value cleanliness and orderliness have in the liminal space of a parking lot, where nobody stays for long.
There's something about parking lots in general that generate a sense of disorientation. When people visit from bigger cities, who don't drive and rarely leave their urban centers, they notice with raised eyebrows the very expanse of parking lots, and that they are up front rather than behind the store. The forward-facing parking lot signals to us that a store values convenience over storefront aesthetic, that there is no danger in not being allowed in. It's funny to think about this shopping center being so close to the Mexican border - it's almost like our version of the Statue of Liberty. Almost every day of the year, her torch is lit and her arms are open, welcoming some modern version of the huddled masses. Here, there is a space for every man, woman, and child. The space is demarcated by white lines, and it ushers you towards the automatic doors. Welcome.
But on Christmas day, the torch was not lit. As I walked around the vacant lots of Spectrum Plaza, jumping from one white line to another as the sun set behind the buildings, I began thinking in earnest about my initial reaction to this unpleasant feeling of quiet I couldn't quite figure out. The longer I stayed, the more I recognized that an empty Spectrum Plaza was a physical manifestation of that eerie silence. Here was emptiness. A break.
I began to understand that the eeriness of quiet was Late Capital doing its work. I say 'late' because capitalism has matured, and as it has grown up, those who pull its strings have done remarkably well at figuring us out. Capitalism has reached a stage - another step towards progress to some, a garish height before the fall to others - where it has gotten under our skin. Shuttered storefronts, vacant parking lots, empty highways all signal that there is one day we don't need it - it just so happens to be the day we spend weeks and months getting ourselves in debt to celebrate. Even unavailable, the stores I stood in front of on Christmas Day are needed. Capitalism has not only become a way to spend/earn/owe, it is now sewn into the very fabric of our physical and mental spaces, sewn into the order of things. Emptiness signals absence, which signals loss, which is antithetical to what Capitalism has come to mean - gain. Gain profit, gain efficiency, gain trust, gain. On its day off, I realized that Late Capital was telling us that he was taking a nap. But he's the kind of sleeper that keeps one eye open.
I snapped a few photos, but as it got darker, I noticed that a few cars had started appearing, circling slowly around the perimeter of the lots. They would pass each other, flashing their lights. Occasionally, a car would pull up to another car, close enough that their passengers could reach out to one another, and after a few seconds, they would separate, peel out. I recognized this as a series of drug deals, which I was watching from a distance. I was observing the creep of another kind of capital, taking place in the shadows, an entrepreneurial spirit temporarily occupying the den of the sleeping giant. One driver must have not appreciated my presence - he circled closer and closer to me, slowly. His lurch was menacing, I did not feel welcome. As I got the hint, for the first time since I pulled into the shopping center I did not feel that eerie feeling. The emptiness was being filled by those morally excluded from legitimate commerce, the space had taken on another shape, and it was not arms spread wide, beckoning. Just for the night, in the empty quiet of Christmas, Spectrum Plaza was open, but not to me. If I was previously holding my breath, now, I exhaled.
As I drove home, the first two lines of the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty rang in my head. Give me your tired, your poor // Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. My hour spent in an empty parking lot on Christmas Day, 2013 taught me one thing: Late Capital must learn to breathe.
Hey there. My name is Lindsey, and I’m an anthropologist in Tucson.
At first I thought that it may not be worth it to write an email, because if a school administrator had already made the decision to ignore the voice of a student, he probably secretly feels guilty about doing so, and as a sort of compensation for this unchecked guilt, he would just delete the emails that come to him, so he wouldn’t have to deal with it. But then I thought, “you know what? I need to have more faith than that in our educational system.”
So really, my main point isn’t that a “cowboys vs. indians” day is overtly offensive, actually racist, and obviously uncomfortable to at least one student (probably more). That point will be made by others in your inbox, and should be your main takeaway from this unfortunate experience. What I am trying to express, as a fellow expander-of-minds, is that it makes me fear for your school’s integrity, and the integrity of our educational system writ large. In essence, it scares me a little bit.
You’ve received some emails, I imagine, which eloquently state the reasons why essentializing a whole vast assemblage of cultures/real people/histories/experiences into a binary of “cowboy” and “indian” is super ignorant and offensive. I agree with all of what has undoubtedly been said, and will not add to it. I can offer only a quote to support their claims here, which is, “Racism is not in your intent. Your intent is immaterial in how racist your actions are. This isn’t about you BEING a racist. It’s about you DOING A THING that is racist. Your intent doesn’t change it. Your ignorance of its meaning doesn’t change it. It’s got nothing to do with you as a person and everything to do with the meaning of your action in the context of sociocultural history.” Read that, think about it. It was written in regards to dressing up as an “indian” for halloween. It’s relevant, I think.
So why are you doing this? Is it that you honestly didn’t even realize the intent of the event, and are guilty of just “doing a thing”? If that’s the case, that freaks me out, big time. You are supposed to think deeper than this. You, and those around you who make decisions as educational leaders, should be thinking about intention AND practice. You should turn your critical lens, which you probably honed in some form of education beyond high school, towards the improvement and betterment of young minds, and through that daily process, yourselves. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect any level of education to be a site of self-awareness, meta-thinking, and knowledge production that makes everyone involved a little bit better citizens of humanity.
I don’t want to be wrong in this. I don’t want to hear that this is just high school, so these performances of structural violence and power can go unchecked. I refuse to believe that. So I ask that you, like, really thinkabout it. Who are “indians?” Who are “cowboys”? What does using “vs” accomplish other than a reiteration of an exclusionary and historically inaccurate oppositional system? What else could you do that would make your students think, rather than just participate in the structures of oppression that bind each of them, all of us?
I wrote my master’s thesis on the modern day work practices of cowboys and ranchers in southern Arizona. As such, I can think of a few different ideas that are way more thought-provoking than what you came up with. Maybe as an alternative to “cowboys vs indians,” you can have a Cowboys vs. the Urban Industrial Complex day, because that’s a) more relevant, b) more historically accurate (if you remember that cowboys are people too, you could talk with them about their long productive history with both native and hispanic ranchers), and c) more educational and less fucking racist, because you’re like, a school. Let me know if you need a guest speaker.
I hope your day was a productive one, filled with a realization, maybe, that as an institution of learning, this event is a good place to start.
"I had rented a truck when a previous ranch road dented the undercarriage of my small sedan. I hadn’t requested a truck, per se, but when I drove to my destination for the oral history I had scheduled, I was thankful for the vehicle I was equipped with. The monsoons had started, creating ditches in the eight mile dirt road that would have been impossible to cross otherwise. On the drive, I saw a group of cows wading in one of the larger puddles. The creatures seemed to not come across vehicles often – even creeping by at 5 miles per hour startled them, and they stared at me with wide, brown eyes as I drove past. After crossing a high ridge that provided a view south to the Mexico border and west to Baboquivari peak, I crossed one last cattle guard to find a small bunkhouse nestled in a bank of mesquite trees. When I pulled up to Buck’s house, he had just pulled up in an old pick up truck from the opposite direction. I stepped out of my car to introduce myself, but introductions proved unnecessary. Buck immediately informed me that he had thought about calling and cancelling our interview, but because he had initially agreed, he couldn’t go back on his word. He opened the door to his house and directed me towards the kitchen. The table was set with four place settings, and in the middle of the table sat a big bowl of ruby red apples. There was some sort of chili or stew simmering on the stove, but despite the aroma of the stew and the table prepared to dine, nothing was offered to me except a brief period of time to talk, before Buck had to be back out on the range. As we took our seats across the table from each other, I explained my project with him and gained his consent, only after he heard more about the project and confirmed my intentions. Buck’s insistence on not particularly wanting to talk, though he resolved to do it, was striking if not somewhat refreshing. His reticence belied his vast knowledge of the desert, and the ins and outs of ranching more broadly. He had determined, though, that his role on this ranch was not as a talker but as a worker – a ‘cowboy wrangler’ who took his job seriously, and took it alone."
- An example of the introduction to my little short stories on each of the ranchers and cowboys I interviewed this summer. After this opening paragraph setting the scene, the rest of the story essentially sums up the interview I did with whichever informant, focusing on the aspects they described as making up their daily work and what I consider the making of their social status - how they do things, and what that means for their self worth and value in the ranching community. After I do each of these stories (I picked 13 of the best), I will lay them out in front of me and start making connections. Who mentioned solitude as a key aspect of ranching? Who got what technology (helicopter roundups, ATVs) first, or who eschews technology all together? Who breaks horses, and who does paperwork? How does each aspect of ranch work break down standard notions of class (wealth, education, mobility), or reinforce them? How do these individuals see themselves as workers, as community members, as Arizonans?