I have just returned from visiting the so-called craziest state in the union. I'm talking about the one with both an official state reptile and a state gun (the ridge-nosed rattlesnake and Colt single-action Army revolver, respectively).
You know, that cesspool of intolerance and rancor whose political representatives are purported to hate brown-skinned people so much they devised anti-illegal immigration laws of dubious constitutionality.
Yep, I violated the semi-official Hispanic boycott of Arizona -- the turf of ace illegal-immigrant hunters Gov. Jan Brewer, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and state Sen. Russell Pearce -- and spent more than a week traveling across the Grand Canyon State just taking in the vibe.
Why? Because according to news headlines, activists and pundits, Arizona has become Ground Zero for antipathy toward Hispanics. I had to see for myself if it was true that to step into Arizona was to risk being detained and deported -- regardless of whether you are a U.S. citizen or not. It's the place that gave birth to anti-illegal immigrant legislation and inspired dozens of copycats, and fueled the subsequent rise of anti-anti-illegal immigrant activism.
I'm not the only one wanting to see what all the hubbub's about. Tucson-based Gray Line tours is doing a brisk business with its new full-day excursion "Border Crisis: Fact or Fiction." It introduces tourists to "real people" like Nogales ranchers, business owners and patrolmen who spend their days living, working and policing the border. I could just picture this ad copy: "See hundreds of illegal immigrants arrested and tons of narcotics seized live everyday for the low, low price of $89!"
I did not partake in that adventure, but after fishing my U.S. passport out of a safe deposit box so I could prove my citizenship in case I got stopped during my travels through Maricopa County by one of Arpaio's deputies -- the office of "America's toughest sheriff" just settled one racial profiling case to the tune of $200,000 -- I set off.
Here's what I found while driving from Nogales, through Tucson and Phoenix, to one of the seven natural wonders of the world in Tusayan: Arizona is full of lots of really nice, regular people.
And they weren't nice to me because I was walking around with my notebook in hand, poised to record quotes on a typical reporter question such as "Do you hate Hispanics?"
It's the middle of the summer, so my skin is as dark as the next maybe-illegal immigrant and I dress like someone who buys their clothes at the thrift store (because I do). And in all my interactions with and observations of white and Latino people all over the state, everyone seemed perfectly normal.
Though I'd been imagining that there was nothing but enmity between Hispanic and Caucasian Arizonans, I got a good feeling about day-to-day relations from the ridiculously polite, multiethnic Border Patrol officers in Nogales who let their drug dogs sniff my rental car and sent me and my family on our way with gleaming smiles; and from the seniors at the Arizona Family Restaurant in Green Valley, a mere half-hour from the border, who dote on their young Latina waitresses, asking them about their children or bragging to them about their own grandkids.
Unless I inadvertently lucked into some utopian Twilight Zone, everywhere I went -- fast-food joints, town squares, water parks -- Hispanics and whites seemed to work and play together peacefully.
My 10-day observation of a daily life that looked to me just like life back in my "sanctuary city" home certainly doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of people in Arizona who either dislike Hispanics or merely hate the toll that illegal immigration has taken on their state, but those types are everywhere. Arizonans aren't all foaming at the mouth.
In talking to men and women, white-collar and blue-collar workers, sure, they take pains to point out "yeah, our state has a lot of problems." Whose doesn't? I get to live in the state of Elvis-fixated Rod Blagojevich and a near-junk credit rating.
I may not care for some of Arizona's laws but, like so many other states whose controversial legislation makes them the butt of late-night comedians' jokes, the reputation doesn't do justice to the many kind people who live there.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.