In July, I became one of the tens of thousands of people who chose to uproot their life and relocate to Arizona. It’s a popular destination, with the third-highest rate of domestic migration in the country, topped only by Florida and Texas. I loved many things about my life in Southern California, which had been my base for more than eight years, but it was time for a change.
Although my apartment in Burbank charged extremely reasonable rent for the area and was conveniently located, it was small, in an old building with frequent plumbing problems. As a freelancer, I’d worked from home for years even before the pandemic, but I traveled frequently. During the COVID lockdowns, it became abundantly clear that I needed more space to function effectively. Throughout the pandemic, many of the things that had tied me to my life in California slowly fell away. Los Angeles started to feel stagnant. I’d begun working more in Arizona than California, both in my personal projects and commissioned ones. I frequently wondered why I was paying to live in California while working and spending most of my time in Arizona. I can still visit friends and places I loved in Los Angeles, but day-to-day, my quality of life is better in Tucson.
After traveling regularly between California and Arizona over the last couple of years, I was familiar with the sights along I-10. But just minutes after crossing the border into my new home state, I noticed a new billboard with a clear message: You moved to Arizona for more freedom, so don’t vote like you did in California.
And so after a lifetime spent living in reliably blue states ― Massachusetts, New York and California ― I found myself in a purple swing state just months before the midterm elections. Not just any swing state, but one that proved pivotal in 2020 and is being closely watched in the current election cycle as an indicator of how future elections may play out nationwide. Arizona has a number of election denier candidates on the ballot who openly hold and promote views I personally consider extremely dangerous to women, immigrants, minorities and the institution of American democracy.
I began to wonder about the others who’d moved here recently: the new Arizonans, an influx of voters. Where did they come from? Why did they leave where they’d been living and choose to settle in Arizona? And above all, what is on their minds as we approach a critical election, which could determine the future of this country? Knowing the rest of America is watching Arizona closely, I wanted to find out.
I decided to explore two things simultaneously: the state itself and the people who live here.
I embarked on multiple road trips to explore the state I now call home, searching for visual cues to help me understand my new surroundings and making pictures reflecting my emotional state as I adjust to my new home. I’d spent time in Arizona previously but never as a resident, and I found my perspective shifted. Unsurprisingly, religious and conservative political imagery and messages were prevalent throughout the state, along with American flags and the beautiful landscapes. I also found moments of humor. An adult video store was conveniently located next door to a 55+ retirement RV community in Apache Junction. Political signs showed evidence of human intervention, whether it was Donald Trump’s face extracted from a Kari Lake sign in Tucson, or a sign that had been altered to read “Marxist Kelly” in a small town near the massive mine in Morenci. Other messages were urgent, like a billboard in Phoenix depicting the five conservative Supreme Court justices which declared “Religious Extremists Want to Control Your Body! VOTE!” (it’s not wrong).
I also spoke with and photographed a number of people who had moved to Arizona from out of state since 2020. Though it was a small group of people, I was intrigued by the wide range of answers to my questions. Some cited wanting to be closer to family as a primary factor for moving here, while another was striking out on her own after growing up in the Midwest. One picked Tucson specifically due to the birdwatching opportunities in the area. Many mentioned the comparatively lower cost of living as an incentive to move here. Others selected it with their children in mind. There was a wide span of ages represented, from recent college graduates to those moving here with retirement approaching. No two people I photographed had moved from the same state.
When asked about the election specifically, answers ranged from fatigue and resignation to a feeling of energetic urgency and action. Some had donated their time to political campaigns, while others acknowledged they still had research to do to really understand the issues before voting, especially as new residents. Many spoke of concerns that echoed my own unspoken fears, particularly regarding human rights and voting rights.
As a woman, the knowledge that I now live in a state that doesn’t recognize my right to make my own medical decisions is terrifying. As a white woman, I’m fully aware it’s significantly worse for those who carry less privilege than I do. I worry about what it means for our future elections if election-deniers are voted into office. Above all else, I’m concerned for the future in a state with leaders ― both past and current ― who prioritize corporate handouts over the well-being and sustainability of life for its residents and the environment, in the face of unprecedented drought. What will happen when Arizona runs out of water entirely?
This election is just a step, a blip in the grand scheme of things, but some of the decisions made will have long-standing repercussions, potentially damaging the very structure of the country further. I’ll be watching, along with the rest of America, to see how the New Arizonans shape the future.
Eliseu Cavalcante moved to Oro Valley, Arizona, from Queens, New York, in July with his wife. She has family nearby, and they were able to afford a home here, which had been impossible in New York. That combined with the general quality of life and access to the outdoors influenced their decision to settle in Oro Valley.
“Politically, I felt safer in NY as an immigrant,” Cavalcante wrote. “But I believe with a stronger community we can change things around. … I believe the whole political landscape in the U.S. is a mess, and it’s no different in AZ. We can’t have a system in which every election could have a huge negative impact on people’s lives.”
Cavalcante lamented the “extremists” running for office.
“Every election will be the same from now on. There will be people fighting for basic human rights, which should already be established OR extremists pulling all of us back 200 years,” he wrote. “There is never a plan of progress for the future. So basically it’s hard to tell – you have to go and vote.”
Jessica Soule and her husband, Jonathan Fernandez, moved to Tucson in June 2022 from O’ahu, Hawai’i, with their two sons. Fernandez is active duty military and approaching retirement, so they chose Tucson as a place to raise their boys near family, and as a jumping-off point for exploring the National Parks in the west once he retires.
They also wanted a multicultural environment: Soule is from Connecticut, while Fernandez is from Puerto Rico, and they wanted the kids to be exposed to Spanish. Politics were a factor when they thought about where to live.
“I wanted our boys to be raised in a place where I felt more sure that there would be an openness to different points of view and diversity and different ways of looking at life,” Soule said. “I felt like it was important that they were exposed to more open-minded versus closed-minded people, to the degree that we could control that.”
Right now, she feels “more cynical” than in the past about politics.
“I think when Obama won I was very, very inspired, enthusiastic,” Soule said. “When Trump won, we were in Italy at the time, and I was devastated. I had nightmares and was scared of what I’d come back to, and now honestly, I’m kind of burned out on it, and don’t have any more to give to politics.”
Chris Geddis moved to Kearny, Arizona, from Philadelphia with his daughter, Lilith, in 2020. “Her mother’s family lives here, and we didn’t want to be essentially stuck in a rowhome during COVID,” he said. “They live on a 5-acre property that backs up onto all [federal] land, so we basically had free roam. We didn’t have to worry about being trapped.”
He’s noticed some differences in Arizona, including that it’s “substantially more conservative and religious” than his home. “Also, people aren’t as direct here as they are in Philadelphia,” he said. “A lot of passive aggression.”
“A lot of people here make a lot of political judgments based on their religious background, which I’m very not used to, as far as abortion, and the huge Trump following,” Geddis said. “It’s very white here. I’m used to being in the minority.”
Regarding the election, he shared he feels “like it’s pretty bleak. I really don’t feel like we’re going to have a positive option no matter what comes up.”
Emily Sheridan moved to Tucson from Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and two dogs at the end of August 2022. Factors like the increasing cost of living in Colorado and having family in the greater Tucson area, along with her flexibility as a remote worker, were influential in their decision to choose Tucson for their new home.
“There are certainly some issues that I have concern over, coming from Colorado, but I don’t know that I’ve really formed an opinion yet,” Sheridan said. “I need to do some research about the upcoming election so that I can participate. I’ve certainly seen all the commercials, and that does not get you the whole way there. I think there are some views that feel a little bit shocking, so I want to make sure that I do participate.”
Spencer Fahlman moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2020 from England. After COVID lockdowns kept their relationship long-distance, he was joined by his partner, Abby Ashenhurst, who was living in Scotland at the time, as soon as the travel ban was lifted in November 2021. Spencer, who grew up in the U.S. and has family in Arizona, is able to vote while Abby, as a U.K. citizen, is not eligible, though both are politically active.
“My whole life, I was very interested in politics,” Ashenhurst said. “I came here with the same mindset. Being in a relationship with someone who’s American, I’ve always followed American politics to a degree. … Then being here, as a woman, as someone that is LGBTQ+, and someone that may come into some issues with things that have happened here, it’s kind of a strange place to be.”
Ashenhurst said she thinks “a lot of people around here have political opinions that are different to mine.”
“I always want to consider obviously my own safety and my own rights, but also so many people that I care about are affected by those things,” she continued. “I remember [the night] when Trump was first elected, one of my friends who lived in California, they were a victim of a hate crime that night that was Trump-related. I remember hearing about that at the time, and being so shocked… I didn’t think I’d ever have to consider gun laws or my rights to an abortion being taken away. So I think that is difficult to handle at some stages, but also interesting, and I hope that I can become more active in changing the things that I think are best for people.”
“We’re involved with a political campaign for a democratic candidate, and we want to give what we can in terms of our skillset and our resources,” Fahlman added. “Financially, we can’t give much, but hopefully all this work that we put in, and all this work that the people we worked with have put in matters and makes a difference. You know, Roe v. Wade [being overturned] was scary, and I hope that invigorates this base of people who are undecided or not involved in politics, and really stirred them up to go out and vote and make a decision that could affect people for decades, like a long-lasting generational decision. And I hope people go out and make the right one.”
Gracie Rechkemmer moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, from Iowa in early July 2022 after graduating from Iowa State.
“I had never been to Flagstaff before, actually, I’d only been to Arizona once, so it was kind of a random decision,” Rechkemmer said. “I just definitely knew I wanted to get out of the Midwest, and try something different.”
“I get the vibe that it’s a little more conservative” in Arizona, compared to Iowa, she said. “People don’t really talk too much about politics here, which is a little bit different than I’m used to. But Flagstaff, I definitely get the feeling that it’s a little bit more on the liberal side. I work in sustainability, so it’s nice that people here actually really care about climate change and sustainability. But on the whole, I feel like Arizona maybe doesn’t so much.”
Lisa Kindle and her husband moved into their new home in Tucson from Minnesota in September 2022, after he got a new job in the city. As they approach retirement, they considered the tax rates for their retirement funds, along with the warmer weather, in their decision to move here, although his job was their primary motivator.
Kindle recounted an experience they had while visiting last spring that cemented their decision to move to Tucson: “We felt like we were called to come here and build a creative wellness center. We really felt like there was some kind of calling or pull to create a space here that we could bring people in, and it would be very peaceful.”
“The main vision is to have a place for people to come and get away from the stress of life, maybe they’ll do some art, maybe they’ll have a workshop, maybe they come to the gallery, walk out on the serenity path, walk the labyrinth,” she said. “I just want people to feel welcomed and rested here.”
Regarding the election, she said she’s “pretty independent” and will “vote based on qualifications and what I feel will serve, whether it’s county or national politics, I’ll vote who I feel is the best candidate.”
Evie Shen-Tal moved to Tucson with her husband in June 2021 from Sarasota, Florida. They both work remotely, so they’d lived in a variety of places before, including her native Israel. Her husband, an avid birdwatcher, chose Tucson for the birdwatching opportunities, and she was relieved to find the city had mountains with plentiful hiking trails, good restaurants and politics more aligned with her personal beliefs.
“I think we moved [to Florida] in August 2016, so it was right before everything, you know. We really didn’t even dream that Trump would get elected,” Shen-Tal said. “Then we found ourselves living in Florida when Trump was the president. … Even though Arizona as a whole is not quite what we were looking for, when we were looking into the city of Tucson, we noticed it was more liberal-leaning, and that was a huge factor for us.”