Who are we?

  I spend a lot of time alone. Most writers, if they are lucky, do. I've been fine-tuning a memoir, facing into truths about myself I would rather forget.

As I turn to national newspapers and magazines in the deluded effort to unwind after too much time in my own company, I find myself wondering who "we" are -- the "we" our administration tells us stands ready to fight wars on two fronts; the "we" my local chamber of commerce says needs artificial snow on our desert mountains so that ski tourism will increase, but most of all I wonder about the privileged "we" employed by national columnists and feature writers.

I read a column last summer in which a San Francisco writer challenged the cynical notion that the violence of Sept. 11 had not changed "our" behavior. She talked of cozying up in her home and how the "new big thing" for New Yorkers and Bay Area folks is to "stroll through real estate open houses, picking up decorating tips." She said women were splurging on boutique kitchen products. Which New Yorkers? Which Californians? Which women? Which people?

Here, in the rural West, most of the people I know struggle to make ends meet. The young cashier in the supermarket tells me she works two jobs, goes to school and cares for her toddler. Most small ranchers are worried less about decorating their doubly mortgaged home and more about making the payment for the new pick-up they were forced to buy because the 20-year-old clunker wouldn't go another foot. Young Hispanic couples wrestle with medical bills; middle-aged Navajos deal with the impossibility of good, inexpensive care for their aging parents.

While we do have our infestation of second-mansion owners and blithe, silver-haired boys intent on developing everything in sight, most residents of Flagstaff are trying to figure out how to make do with less. We are, if the slick media or our myopic government bothered to ask us, still reeling from the shock and the lingering terror of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

We oppose war. We support it. We don't know whether to trust the government. We don't know who to trust.

We are Hopi, loggers, old-timers, newcomers, kids and elders. We are trust-funders and impossibly wealthy retirees. We -- lots of "we" -- just lost our jobs. We live paycheck to paycheck.

Some of us can afford boutique soap. Some split a bulk buy of generic with our neighbors. We blast norteno music from our pick-up. We glare at the dark-eyed woman who does the blasting.

And, we know who we are, as I learned as a guest speaker in an anthropology class at Northern Arizona University. I gave the class the exercise of writing who "we" in the West were, using their particular identity as the ubiquitous "we."

I expected lots of totally dude-babespeak. Wrong.

Here are a few of the voices from Miguel Vasquez's class: "We are women who will graduate next semester. We are still learning how to be a better student, daughter, friend, money-saver, more forgiving person. We keep meaning to start this today."

"We are a single mother on welfare and living in a white trailer with two dogs...a young woman in an aging body...a 53-year-old sophomore at Northern Arizona University in electronic media."

"We are strong-minded and powerful, except we don't know it yet."

"We are descendents of survivors. We are educated and can't get a job because of our skin color. They don't say it to our faces, but I can read what is in their eyes." This "we" business comes from all sides and easily flips into "them." Native American writer Sherman Alexie tells a local interviewer that he wants to be her -- a white woman -- because white women are lucky. But I remember the white homeless woman I saw crawling out of a pile of cardboard in downtown Phoenix.

Who are we? Who are they? The answers are not simple. Nor are the questions. And it is these questions that those of us privileged to have access to the media must ask more often. We, they, are as diverse as the West. Any other answer is insulting. To all of us.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She lives and writes in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.