Best Of :: Megalopolitan Life
- Superstitious PHX
- Baptizing the Dead
Robrt L. Pela
Arizona is built on and around the land of 20 different Native American tribes. But it’s not easy to get Natives to talk about superstitions, because, well, they’re superstitious about doing so. The Pimas believe it’s especially dangerous to relate myths or share superstitions in the summertime, because they will be bitten by rattlesnakes.
Despite the sometimes silence on the subject, Native culture is rich with superstition, says James Barajas, the buyer of American Indian art at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The museum gift shop moves a lot of Zuni stone-carved fetishes from New Mexico.
“They resemble animals and represent different animal spirits that have different properties of good luck,” Barajas explains. “So if you want better luck while hunting, you can take along a fetish that you’ve tied an arrowhead onto. The Hopi have kachina dolls that hold special powers to ward off evil. Others bring blessings, like rain during the summer or help with improving your health.”
Baptizing the Dead
My ideas about the afterlife have always been mixed up. From a very early age, I had the uncanny feeling that my town eats people. Could just swallow them up or that a dark-hearted atmospheric miasma could spread over the town as undetectable as a high-pressure system, and hem folks in. Maybe it started with seeing the wreckage of a four-seater plane crash when I was 9 years old. I ran with my classmates as fast as I could after school one day in the direction of the sirens. Kids with stronger legs shouting out what they were seeing to the slowpokes behind. I remember seeing the woman, of what looked like a man-and-wife team. Her head was hanging out of the crumpled aluminum-foil plane door. She had red hair. She was wearing a green sweater. I remember thinking, She looks like Christmas. She was slumped over and still wearing her seat belt. They tried to land their distressed Beechcraft Debonair in the middle of First Street. It broke in pieces, like so many abandoned green bottles of cheap Thunderbird wine. They tried to land their plane parallel to the railroad tracks.
What happened to people when they died like that, right in the middle of the action? One minute flying above my town and the next clipping their wings on First Street?
I didn’t know, but it’s the kind of thing I would lay pondering in the middle of the night. My bedroom windows open, listening closely for the sound of heavy boxcars pulling into town on the railroad tracks. Air brakes releasing like a breath held too long in your cheeks: pssshhhhhh.
Damon Dering is a talented director and the founder of and driving force behind one of our town's best alt theaters. He chooses mostly provocative and underproduced gems, and has helmed some of the better productions in Phoenix theater history. But it's Dering's heartfelt and amusing curtain speeches that continue to stay with us. Few troupes offer much more than an annoying prerecorded welcome ("... and if you're going to unwrap any hard candy, do it now!") these days, but Dering continues to receive his audiences with personal stories about the production we're about to see. He's shameless about asking for support, fearless when admitting how tough it can be to work as an artist these days, and effusive in his praise of casts and crews and those who bother to come out to see what they've created. Perhaps a festival of Dering's 30 best curtain speeches is in order for next season.
Phoenix textile artist Ann Morton chronicles the 2016 presidential election simply, succinctly, and with editing marks in her work Proof-Reading. Onto a white hankie, Morton stitched the question, "Are we fucked?" in blue string. It's precisely the thing millions of voters were wondering during the run-up to Election Day. With red proof marks threaded on top of the blue words, she rearranges the words and eliminates the question mark. In doing so, she presents the resounding answer: "We are fucked." The work debuted at Grand Art-Haus' "Nasty Women" exhibition, part of a nationwide presentation of artwork benefiting Planned Parenthood. Later, Lisa Sette Gallery included the cloth piece in "Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why, Tell Me Why (Why Can't We Live Together?)." Each time, Morton's white flag made us laugh out loud and then sigh with despair. And we're not sure you could ask for more from a work of political art.
During President Donald Trump's August 22 speech at the Phoenix Convention Center, we couldn't stop staring at the man sitting behind him — the one holding a "BLACKS FOR TRUMP" sign and wearing a T-shirt that said "Trump & Republicans Are Not Racist." Was it the same "Blacks For Trump" guy who kept showing up for his campaign rallies in Florida? Why yes, it was. Somehow, Michael the Black Man (as he prefers to be called) had made it to Phoenix. A former member of the Yahweh ben Yahweh cult, Michael now runs a website where he rants about how the Cherokee tribe is destroying America. He's also accused Oprah of being the devil, and Barack Obama of being endorsed by the KKK. So, in other words, it made perfect sense that he'd wind up in Arizona. The one thing that we want to know, though, is who paid for him to fly out here? Is it really that hard to find a non-white Trump supporter in Maricopa County these days?
Introducing legislation to crack down on unscrupulous individuals who defraud undocumented immigrants? Check. Fighting to get rid of the box that requires job applicants to disclose their prior convictions? Check. Trying to repeal the "No Promo Homo" law that's responsible for rising HIV infection rates in Arizona? Check. In fact, name any issue that affects marginalized people in Phoenix, and there's a good chance that Martin Quezada has sponsored or supported a bill intended to help fix it. Getting Republicans on board is often another story, but the Maryvale Democrat never stops trying. He's also one of the hardest-working politicians out there: When the state Senate wrapped up its budget vote early (meaning, just a little after midnight), he headed to the House of Representatives to support his colleagues as they argued over teacher pay until the early hours of the morning. We'd suggest he run for higher office, but we're too scared to lose one of the few progressive Democrats in the Legislature, and the one person we can consistently count on to inject a note of sanity into any debate.
Over the past two years, this openly atheist duo have taken turns pissing off their conservative colleagues in the Arizona Legislature by giving invocations that don't reference God or Jesus. In 2013, Mendez, then a state representative from Tempe, gave a shoutout to Carl Sagan rather than offer up a prayer to any particular deity. Afterward, Republicans barred him from giving any more invocations — unless, of course, he was willing to mention a higher power. This year, Salman, who also happens to be his partner, took up the fight when Mendez moved to the state Senate and she took his place in the Arizona House of Representatives. In April, she delivered an invocation that referenced "the humanity that resides within each and every person here" — not exactly a controversial sentiment, but one that earned her a rebuke from Republican leaders. If, one day, lawmakers finally get the memo that we're no longer living in medieval times, we'll probably have these two to thank.
"Lobbyist" is often a dirty word, but not when it comes to Samuel Richard. The former Protecting Arizona's Family Coalition executive director, who left the organization in July to start his own progressive lobbying firm, routinely puts in long nights at the State Capitol (sometimes bringing along a flask when floor sessions drag on past 11 p.m.). His goal? Ensuring that wealthy Arizonans aren't the only ones with a voice in the democratic process. Whether advocating to overturn the state's overly stringent restrictions on temporary cash assistance for low-income families or campaigning against predatory payday loans, he's dedicated to fighting the good fight in a Legislature that often would rather focus on petty shenanigans like banning a ban on plastic bags.
You're no one in the world of hardline anti-immigration advocates unless you've made an appearance on the National Border Patrol Council's podcast. Previous guests include "policy experts" from the xenophobic Center for Immigration Studies, disgraced former sheriffs Joe Arpaio and Paul Babeu, and, of course, Donald Trump. The president — then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — appeared on the show last May and complained that refugees entering the country "have cellphones with ISIS flags on them, and we're supposed to say that it's wonderful that we're taking them in." But along with the tirades against sanctuary policies and excoriations of former President Obama, the hourlong podcast often includes digressions into less thorny topics like the best places to get gas-station tacos and how many of the podcast's listeners are named Ron. It's a rare look into an agency that's typically closed off to outsiders, which makes it a must-listen every week.
Whether podcaster Jared Duran is talking to indie icon Robyn Hitchcock, Arizona roots musician Jon Rauhouse, or storyteller Jessie Balli, he’s got an ear for hearing. Quietly pushing his guests to explain their processes and artistic drive, Duran takes the long-game approach, allowing conversation to unfold organically and welcoming insightful detours. Associated closely with literary journal Four Chambers, he tends toward lit guests — like Paul Mosier, Clotee Hammons, and poet Jia Oak Baker — but Duran’s just as engaging speaking with filmmakers and musicians. And like all great podcasters, he understands that he’s part of the draw, opening each episode with a thoughtful rundown of his recent thoughts on current events and cultural touchstones.
Alt-AZ's morning lineup got a jolt of frenetic energy recently by adding radio vet Mo Ro to handle the a.m. airwaves. After establishing herself with the midmorning slot, Mo Ro quickly assumed the mic for what amounts to FM prime time last year. Quick with quips and nerdy trivia, Mo Ro's been a breath of fresh air on the mostly dude-dominated morning show scene. Whether spinning local music with her Homegrown With Mo segment or talking comic book, sci-fi, and pop culture trivia with her Nerdgasm News bit, Mo's enthusiasm and love for Phoenix is infectious. Her hilarious personality helps give Alt-AZ the boost a proper morning show needs.
Ted Simons, the host of KAET's Arizona Horizon, knows the Valley. He's been here three decades, hosting radio shows on KTAR and KZON, always demonstrating a blend of warm humor and deep knowledge. It's no surprise Horizon recently won an Emmy — Simons has that kind of vibe. The host got his start at KAET, and his dedication to the station is clear. Discussing the Diamondbacks, local politics, the arts scene, or anything else on his plate, Simons aims for balanced voices and digs deep with his interview subjects, displaying a calm demeanor even while fostering healthy debate.
Whether she's describing the scene at a heartbreaking funeral for an entire family that perished in a flash flood, or recalling her hilarious journey (spoiler alert) across the finish line at her first marathon, Stina Sieg can tell the hell out of a story in all the best ways. She's a reporter for KJZZ, our local National Public Radio affiliate, where she works tirelessly to find, report, and recount other people's stories. We've also been lucky enough to hear her onstage at various storytelling events around town (including New Times' own Bar Flies), telling her own tales. We're never disappointed. Sieg's got the gift and the heart, and we know her story's just begun. We can't wait to hear where it takes her.
In case you haven't noticed, there's no shortage of storytelling events in Phoenix. From true stories to fiction, open mics to rehearsed readings, weekly roundups to monthly showcases, the desert narrative is now being told onstage and in front of a live audience. And yet, with so many outlets for pouring out tales of heartbreak and humor, there was still something missing up until this year — specifically, a space for black voices. Cue Phoenix native Rachel Egboro. The Storyline co-founder launched her own quarterly storytelling series, The Whole Story, to showcase a more comprehensive narrative of the black experience. In her first two shows, Egboro proved that she could bring not just the diversity of the black community to the stage, featuring everyone from stand-up comedian Anwar Newton to BlackPoet Ventures' Leah Marche, but also a packed audience of listeners from all backgrounds to the theater. Needless to say, The Whole Story has opened up a whole new chapter for Phoenix storytelling.