SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Christian Espinoza

Definitely Illegal

         I am a Criminal Justice major and aspiring lawyer. In 2009, I had the honor of being nominated by a former college professor – a retired Lieutenant of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department – to intern with the City of Goodyear Police Department. The opportunity served as a tremendous learning experience and helped shape my perspective of the melting pot that is our society. My duties as an intern ranged from assisting in school shooting scenarios to experiencing community relations and public information briefings. I was greatly privileged to experience what being a police officer is all about. Before I started this internship, unfortunately, my faith in law enforcement was contrary to what it is presently, due to an incident that occurred during my personal time, at the hands of a deputy with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.

         Late in the year 2008, while I was a passenger in a car along with two of my closest friends, Deputy Farva perfidiously stopped my friends and I for no apparent reason. See, the makeup of our car’s passengers was quite diverse. I am an American citizen, but my Mexican descent remains apparent. The other passengers included an African-American and a white country boy from Indiana. I was the only passenger the officer questioned and asked to confirm my legal status within the country. He asked me to verify irrelevant questions in regards to my employment and residency history. A feeling of violation immediately consumed me.

         Being raised by parents like mine, I always learned how to put myself in the shoes of the other side in any situation to try to better understand their reasoning behind their behavior. So I began to think about if I were the deputy that pulled me over and questioned me. The daydream began:

         In my many years working as a Deputy Sheriff for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, I have learned that teenagers driving near the White Tank Mountains late on a Saturday night are never up to any good. I enjoy patrolling this area because I have the opportunity to protect the community by arresting drunk drivers leaving parties. This thought had been rolling through my head during a warm, Arizona night, and I quickly snapped out of it as a silver Honda Civic made a swift right turn onto Loop 303 without coming to a complete stop. Being as drunk drivers usually ignore traffic laws such as these, I decided it would be worth it to stop them, so I lit them up just south of Northern Road. Three teenagers were in the car, and I assumed I would possibly get to arrest an impaired driver. I started with the basics – license, registration, proof of insurance. The driver, an African American male, was acting fidgety and nervous. I asked the driver if he had been doing any drinking that night, which he quickly denied. His denial warranted further testing, as it did not coincide with his skittish-like expressions, so I asked him to please step out of the car. To my surprise, he blew zeroes on the Breathalyzer. I would not have felt so angered if it were not for the driver deciding to be an absolute smart ass when I asked for a field sobriety test from him. I calmly told him it is my job and my right to execute whatever tests I believe to be appropriate in the situation. He continued to make snide comments, so I asked him to please get back into the car. Both of the other passengers, a white male and a Hispanic male, were unable to present any form of identification. Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his revulsion for illegal immigrants, as well as the new bill that had been under consideration at the time – SB1070 – allowed me the right to ask for legal citizenship status. I immediately saw that as a fitting time to exercise this right, regardless that the bill had not yet been officially enacted. In any case, I knew I would have Sheriff Arpaio’s advocacy. I asked the Hispanic passenger for his social security number, and he, as stunned as he was, replied with,

“I am in high school, sorry, I do not know it. But why are you only asking me for this personal of information?”

I saw this as a perfect opportunity to exercise my sarcastic super power, and replied,

“Well, it would be wise of you to know it, just saying.”

The passenger surely did not like the answer, but it was no business of mine to care. I concluded the stop, not before searching the vehicle. The search was unsuccessful, and I was a little disappointed that my hunch was off and could not arrest anyone in this group. I wrote the driver a ticket for failing to come to a complete stop, and made it clear to the boys to make sure they are never up to no good while I am on duty again.

         Being partnered with different officers from the Goodyear Police Department, I quickly learned that not all officers were as power-hungry as Deputy Farva. However, there were definitely some officers who were freakishly similar. Even though I tried to put myself in the officer’s shoes and understand where he was coming from, I still felt offended. During the time of the situation, state and local police in Arizona did not quite have the authority to question the legal status of individuals yet, as Arizona was still in the early stages of Senate Bill 1070, but the prevalent anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona and a host of other anti-immigrant legislation is the same thing as a pattern of profiling. However, even though I had properly obtained legal citizenship in the United States years ago, the color of my skin had not changed, and I still resembled the appearance of the largest illegal immigrant population in Arizona – Mexicans. It was this factor that ultimately led to the type of questioning I experienced, and why it was only me, the Mexican, that the Deputy interrogated.

         The incident I experienced in late 2008 has continued to be significant in my life because of the way it undoubtedly has helped sculpt who I am today. I can easily identify it from the feeling of victimization that was pressed on me. Putting myself in the opposing shoes in the situation helped me to better understand the feeling of power the officer must have had, and I learn from that everyday. The officer and his actions, purposely malicious or not, portrayed a perfect example of what I intend not to be in my career, family and life, which is using my power to feel good about myself. It taught me that I want to gain power and use it for justice and to better serve my community, no matter how much power I have or even how deeply and often I am judged. I want to use my power for the people, not against them. There are so many Latinos, like myself, who have nothing to do with the issue that is illegal immigration at all, and it is people in these situations who I aim to protect and serve with my power, not discriminate and racially profile.

         Even though all of the feelings I came across in myself were negative, in the end, I am glad that it happened because it taught me a lesson that I hope to someday pass on to those who matter most to me: You will be judged, you will be discriminated against, even unjustifiably punished. Do not let that turn you into someone who puts that same negativity on others. Do not allow those negative feelings to consume you, and always take every situation you find yourself in, positive or negative, into a lesson that you can use for the rest of your life.

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