I’m currently studying abroad in Flagstaff, Arizona – the fourth snowiest and the eighth sunniest city in the US. And being here has afforded me the opportunity to meet people from many varied backgrounds; we’re in the San Francisco peaks and an hour from the Grand Canyon, some of the most spiritual sites for many of the Southwest’s native peoples. Flagstaff is an original Route 66 town and has the Santa Fe rail line, both bringing in people from all over the country and the world. And it’s in Arizona: a Spanish state and the last contiguous state admitted to the US (48th, in 1912) it has a large Mexican population, and almost perfectly straight edges. Often in America, when we think of diversity, we think of borders, and I can attest that there are many of those here.
It’s one of the “four corners,” the name for the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico together, as they all meet at the intersection of two straight lines. There’s a lot of straight lines in North America. These are manufactured landscapes, modern borders. From what I’ve learnt of the local history, there were never any sort of borders out here – both native people and immigrant farmers collectively tended the land and animals, and shared the wide, open space. Whether your cup of tea or not, Edward Abbey was accurate in saying that “cooperation is necessary because there are not many fences.” But starting at some point in the last 150 years, lines were progressively drawn. Somebody took out a map and decided to create borders.
And borders create separation. Biologically speaking, when a natural intersection occurs and a species is separated, it begins to evolve in different ways and allows for a new species to develop. Surely it follows that in sociology when a border is established, the people on either side will grow different to each other. Borders make us think in terms like ‘us’ and ‘them’. Borders are a method of forcing change, and where there is change there is hostility. This is still, unfortunately, evident in the internalized society of today. One of my friends, a native Hawaiian of Asian descent and fully functional American adult, fears travelling too far South in Arizona because her heritage makes her look fairly Mexican, and in Yuma and Tucson the Mexicans are abused, forced back over the fictitious wall. Another friend, a Mexican-Italian boy, looks like a dark-skinned Caucasian person and was raised to ‘fit in.’ He doesn’t speak Spanish and is trying to study his own culture alongside his English degree. Some construction work was being done and the workers were all Mexican. The grounds-men here are largely Native. If this doesn’t sound like racism, you might be from Arizona; this is normal.
Arizona can be easily split into two parts: there’s the settled part of the State, and there’s the reservation taking up most of the North-East quarter. They’re in different time zones. Change is being falsely and forcibly created through borders, when once the four quarters were all Native Pueblo lands, and undivided. State law and Federal law are working together in Arizona to drive a wedge between the ‘Indian land’ and the rest of the State, tidying the former into a corner away from all the large cities and slapping an hour’s toll at the border. It’s designed to make the people living in Arizona not want to enter the reservation, except as tourist or novelty: it’s the land of Monument Valley and the Painted Desert.
Flagstaff itself is the home of the Petrified Forest and Meteor Crater, and some of the greatest natural landscapes you’ll see. The photo above is maybe the most picturesque ideal of the USA, a perfectly straight line bisecting a pristine forest with aesthetically-pleasingly asymmetrical mountains behind. Do you see that small triangular road sign on the right? That’s a marker for not being allowed to overtake, which seems strange because it’s straight – it’s too straight: the heat reduces visibility from haze.
Once there would have been tracking paths through the forest – the highway follows the curve of the mountains past Nowater (intuitive if not inventive) – but today an easy route has destroyed them. The pinyons grow differently on either side of the road.
Studying abroad can give us a detailed insight into communities which work very differently to ours. My experience in Flagstaff begs the question, can we truly have diversity if we create borders, both territorial and cultural?
Text by Hannah Mickleburgh and Katt Skippon
Picture research by Hannah Mickleburgh; featured image by Donna Darafshian.