Touch of Evil (Part 1 of 2)


Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a rally for Donald Trump at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona, 18 June 2016. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)

There is no more representative picture of former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio than the portrait of border sheriff Hank Quinlan created by Orson Welles in his prophetic Touch of Evil (1958). At the end of Welles’ film noir masterpiece, in which “Justice, for once, is represented by a Mexican” (even though the protagonist, Miguel Vargas, is played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up), Quinlan is “defeated by technology, by the truth, by justice…. The powerful end up as victims of their abuse of power.”[1]


Screenshot of Orson Welles from the trailer for the film “Touch of Evil,” 1958. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Obsessed with nostalgia and tormented by blissful memories of a past that never was; half-buried in the muck surrounding an oil field; “so dirty you can smell the filth, lame, enormous, racist, unpleasant”; shot and killed by his former partner after years of battling crime and hunting down criminals with brutal force and dubious tactics, Hank Quinlan dies like a foul, pre-historic beast by collapsing into a pond of sludge and sewage.

No such poetic justice was visited upon Sheriff Joe. No such Shakespearean restoration of world order transpired in the state of Arizona. Last month, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for defying a federal court order to stop “detaining people based solely on suspicion of their immigration status, when there was no evidence that a state law had been broken.” Last week, Donald Trump granted Arpaio “a full Pardon,” calling him an “85-year-old American patriot” and thanking him for “years” of admirable service: “He kept Arizona safe!”

Accepting his pardon, Arpaio lost no time in thanking Trump for knowing that his conviction was the result of “a political witch hunt.” Without missing a beat, he asked his supporters for donations to help pay off his legal expenses, since he is suing in federal court to vacate his conviction. Newly legitimized by Trump’s Pardon, Arpaio is considering a run for elective office—perhaps as a candidate for Jeff Flake’s US Senate seat in the upcoming Republican primaries.


Donald Trump / Joe Arpaio pardon protest, Phoenix, Arizona, 22 August 2017. (Credit: Christopher Silavong)

You will never make sense of Arizona immigration politics unless you understand two unspoken rhetorical premises. First, the variance between “legal” and “illegal” immigration is a distinction without a difference. Arizona immigration opponents can safely couch their arguments as being strictly against “illegal” immigrants because they know—and they know the rest of us know they mean—that all immigrants are illegal. The real political decision to be made is which immigrants—if any—you will choose to tolerate.

Second, Mexicans and Central Americans (they are all the same to immigration opponents) of Indo-Hispanic descent are the greatest threat to the ruling classes in Arizona. Because they are Indian, they threaten the nativist legitimacy of Anglo-Americans. Between a descendant of Yaqui Indians and Joe Arpaio—who is invading whose country? Between an indigenous Tarahumara and a Mormon Saint, who has the oldest ancestry in the region?

Because these descendants of Indian tribes speak Spanish—a different and vibrant European language spoken throughout the rest of the continent—and because they have also inherited the culture of Cervantes and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (which preceded Anglo-American culture in North America), Indo-Hispanic populations present a fearsome threat to a people who thought the North American Indian peril had vanished with the end of the Indian wars and the establishment of the reservation system.


Screenshot of Orson Welles from the trailer for the film “Touch of Evil,” 1958. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus the reasoning and the justification for Arpaio’s immigration raids: 1) all immigrants are illegal and 2) you can always tell an immigrant by their brown skin—regardless of documentation or birth certificates. The infamous SB 1070 (“papers please”) law from 2010 was struck down, and the demise of Arpaio was brought about, precisely because such policies and practices placed undue burdens on legal immigrants and natural-born American citizens.

With this understanding, Arpaio’s ready espousal of Donald Trump’s “birther” outrage becomes sensible: Barack Obama could not possibly be an American because he is the son of an immigrant and he is half-black. He came from Hawaii—an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—and besides he was born in Kenya. If his birth certificate says otherwise, then his birth certificate must be false.


(to be continued)

[1] Guillermo Cabrera Infante, “La sombra de Welles,” in Un oficio del siglo XX (Bogotá, Colombia)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s