What do you do when reality intrudes on fiction?
by Steve Meissner
The problem with writing about current events – especially Arizona politics – is that reality sometimes rears up and bites you in the butt. That just happened to me … in a good way.
I’ve been toiling for more than a year on a sequel to The Cactus Caucus, in which my main character discovers the truth of an old Mo Udall line: “Once you catch the political bug, the only cure is embalming fluid.”
He decides to run for the State Legislature, and meets up with a young woman who keeps inspiring him to do the right thing. This young woman is a Dreamer: someone who was brought to this country by her parents at a young age. She grew up in Tucson, believes in the American Dream, and actually thinks that getting involved can change things in a good way.
Marta Rosario is also in hiding. She is a college student who won a scholarship. If anyone found out that she is a Dreamer, she would lose that scholarship – since state law prohibits non-citizens from receiving financial aid – and she would have to pay out-of-state tuition to complete her degree.
Yeah, she’s a fictional character – but she’s also real. Maybe young people are too busy texting and partying to pay attention to the musty business of local politics, but thankfully there is many a Marta out there.
Well, that thread in my plot-line got blown sky-high last week, when the Arizona Board of Regents decided that students who qualify for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status can also qualify for in-state tuition. This follows a court case in which a Maricopa judge ruled that students attending Maricopa Community College qualified for in-state tuition rates, and it flies in the face of a state law demanding that non-citizens cannot obtain financial assistance.
Now, my Marta would probably still lose her scholarship if discovered, but thanks to the decision by the Regents, she would qualify for annual tuition of about $11,403. That’s a lot of cabbage, but it’s nearly 60 percent less than the out-of-state rate, the $32,630 a year she would have to pay under the old rules.
So my fictional character is deeply rooted in a reality that’s shared by thousands of young people. Instead of being doomed to a life of low-wage jobs, they can truly dream of a day when they can attain the knowledge and skills to be somebody. They just have to sell their soul at the Student Loan Store, just like every other Arizona Millennial.
This ain’t over, of course. This is Arizona, and the mouth-breathing Nativists have not gone away. Russell Pearce , that hoary old bed-wetter, had an op-ed published in the May 11 Arizona Republic in which he opined that by letting Dreamers get an affordable education, judges routinely “violate their oath of office to uphold the Constitution.”
There are howls of outrage from elected officials – the same ones that stripped $99 million from universities, virtually eliminated all state support for community colleges, and refuse to fund K-12 education. They call Dreamers “freeloaders” and “lawbreakers.”
Our governor says he’s disappointed by the judge’s ruling, but says he’ll reluctantly accept the judge’s decision – an effort to have it both ways, in typical politician fashion. Attorney General Mark Brnovich says he is “very disappointed” by the ruling, and is “evaluating all options, including a possible appeal.”
So the battle continues, and I face a dilemma. Do I change Marta’s character? Shall she remain a Dreamer who faces catastrophe if her secret is discovered? Do I need to revise my plot line completely?
I haven’t decided. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section.
But I do know one thing: Knowledge is power. Investing in education is something our state and nation need to do. We need to recognize that arming young people with the intellectual tools to succeed will make our state succeed. Instead of lagging in job creation, Arizona and other states can attract business and create wealth by encouraging kids to get an education.
Our state currently ranks 41st in per capita income. In 1995, before our elected leaders began serious efforts to starve our schools, we ranked 35th.
I write about current events because I hope to inspire and advocate, not just to entertain.
My Marta Rosario may be fictional, but she represents a reality that we need to embrace, because their dreams can’t wait…
For more than three decades, Steve Meissner has watched the Arizona political scene as a journalist, lobbyist, bureaucrat, and even as a legislative staff member. For nearly 20 years he was a reporter, editor and columnist for several publications, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Most of his newspaper career was spent at the Arizona Daily Star, where he was a reporter, editor and columnist, and taught journalism for more than a decade as an adjunct at the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. He is the author of Cactus Caucus, a novel about Arizona’s legislative politics, which is available in Kindle format. He is currently working on a second novel about Arizona politics.