Six former Phoenicians share their stories of self-exile in this collaborative profile inspired by last fall’s Exit Interviews series on Valley radio station KJZZ. Their words. Our paper. And a few nice portraits.
Lauren Gilger’s complete Exit Interviews series is now available via podcast at theshow.kjzz.org.
By Lauren Gilger & Amy Silverman
Phoenix is a bit of an enigma.
There’s a lot of griping about this place where we all live – long characterized as a mecca of sprawling suburbs, strip malls and chain restaurants. It’s too hot to survive in the summer and full of retirees in the winter. It’s devoid of original culture or art, and no one here supports the arts, anyway. If you want to make something of yourself, you’d better get out of Phoenix.
Sure, there’s some truth there – but mostly not. Phoenix by and large is a beautiful place to live. It’s easy, it’s still pretty cheap, it’s full of history and tradition – you just have to know where to look.
It’s on the rise.
Still, many accomplished locals have left for greener pastures – bigger cities with more opportunities, more culture, more of a “scene.” A half dozen now-former Phoenicians told Lauren Gilger – host of The Show on KJZZ – why they split town.
With the pandemic in full throttle, artist Antoinette Cauley was at the height of her career in Phoenix. In the summer of 2020 – in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement – her nine-story-tall mural of Black author and activist James Baldwin went up on the side of the Ten-O-One building on Roosevelt Row in Downtown Phoenix. Accompanied by one of Baldwin’s most enduring quotes – “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced” – the mural overlooks the streets where protesters had earlier marched for justice in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
But post-Floyd America was suffocating her. She had to get out of Phoenix, she says – and out of the U.S. It was a bold move by an up-and-coming artist who felt like she was finally having her moment.
“My body sort of had this fight-or-flight response, and I was like, ‘Man, I’ve got to get out of this country.’ This country is not built for us. It’s built by us, but it’s not for us. And it never will be for us, so I need to go somewhere where it’s safer.”
At the same time, even as her career blossomed in Arizona, she felt she was at a professional standstill here. She was turned down for residencies in Tempe and Tucson. She couldn’t get her work shown in museums.
“I love Phoenix. This will forever be home,” Cauley says. “But at the same time, this is such a young city. It’s not as developed as some of us need it to be in order to really step into our full potential.”
So she applied for residencies across the globe and landed one in Berlin, Germany. It’s been a terrific experience, she says. “I really built a great sense of community in Berlin. I’m kind of amazed at it when I think about it, especially with… a pandemic and a lockdown. But I have a really strong support system there.”
Will she ever return to Phoenix?
“It’s not out of the question, for sure. Seeing what I’ve seen internationally and seeing the way that German government functions and the way that they take care of their people… I feel a lot safer,” she says. “But I mean, I can never get away from Phoenix. [It’s] my first love. So maybe one day I’ll end up living [there] full-time. But I feel like the world is mine, so why not go out and take everything that’s meant for me?”
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Sometimes, leaving a place is purposeful – and therapeutic. Michael Turner certainly felt that way.
“It’s not cool to say you’re from Phoenix,” the disgruntled Arizona State University grad says. “I’m guilty of [thinking] that, too. Anybody that told me that they were born and raised in Phoenix and then they’re in their 30s, I’m like, ‘What are you doing here? You should leave.’”
For Turner, landing in Phoenix was more or less a matter of desperation, when he was 18 and looking to get out of another place he didn’t like – his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d grown up spending summers with family in Flagstaff, and it was easy to get into ASU, he says. That seemed like a good enough reason.
Turner got a degree in communications, which he says he’s using today in a roundabout way as a standup comedian in Los Angeles. It’s a career he stumbled into after, of all things, his best friend’s death in the Iraq war. Turner spoke at the funeral, where he had the crowd crying – and laughing. It got him thinking that maybe he could make a living doing standup.
As an up-and-coming comic in Phoenix in the mid-2010s, Turner says it was a great city to be in: big enough to have some good clubs to play, but small enough to let an unknown kid cut his chops.
He got better fast. Turner even started producing his own shows. One of them – an on-stage “fake news comedy show” called This Week Sucks Tonight that he produced with fellow Phoenix comedian Anwar Newton – became a runaway hit. So big, in fact, that he moved it from Crescent Ballroom to Stand Up Live!
The success of This Week Sucks Tonight kicked his career into overdrive. He and Newton started taking the show around the country, where sold-out crowds in New York and L.A. cheered them on, he says, and the national comedy world took notice. But here in Phoenix, things stalled.
“We marketed it, we jumped on radio stations. We tried to tell everybody, we screamed it from all the mountaintops,” Turner says. “[But] we’d never get over like a hundred people there. And we appreciate every single one of those hundred people that came. But it wasn’t growing the way that we needed it to grow.”
Finally, he left in early 2020 for Los Angeles. The pandemic has slowed him down, he says, but he’s hopeful for the future.
Turner’s thesis on the Valley is simple, rueful and informed by his own disappointments: Phoenix doesn’t deserve nice things. “I gave them nice things. It’s just like if you put so much love into something and try to do it, and then you don’t get that back, it’s like, this is an abusive relationship. Yeah. This is like I’m being emotionally abused.”
NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK
Rachel Egboro was born and raised in Phoenix, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who came to the United States so her father could pursue a degree at Arizona State University. She has always loved stories. She majored in English at the University of Arizona, “because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so [I] chose something I enjoyed.”
After graduation in 2008, she worked in nonprofits and philanthropy, most recently for the Arizona Community Foundation. But she’s better known in Phoenix for her appearances on storytelling stages across the Valley. Egboro co-founded Storyline with local writer Dan Hoen Hull, and as the Downtown Phoenix storytelling scene grew, she took the stage at other events, including Bar Flies.
But as she told her own stories, something she’d noticed for a long time was amplified:
“In Phoenix, it’s very easy to – or at least it was – not to have day-to-day experience with Black people.”
So Egboro founded The Whole Story, “a space dedicated to Black narratives that really highlighted the diversity of our experience beyond what was shared in the news,” she says. The event was sponsored by the Phoenix Art Museum.
The show was a hit, and soon Egboro was regularly holding events at the museum, highlighting the stories of the Black community to an audience that was largely not. She says Phoenix audiences, to their credit, made the journey rewarding.
But she left in 2021. For Egboro, it was a combination of things – the pandemic, the chance to grow in a new environment, and love. She relocated to be closer to her now-husband, who works with Black artists in New York City.
She loves New York. She also loves coming home to Phoenix – flying over the city, she feels a sense of open space and relief even before the plane has landed.
“I think people leave because they don’t realize what they have,” she says. “And so they need to leave to appreciate what they have or had. With Phoenix, what I love about it, along with its space, is it’s still new. It’s still being defined. Its potential is there. Anyone can come and shape it how they want. So, for me, I left the Valley knowing and loving Phoenix for all of those things. I know what I gave up.”
ITHACA, NEW YORK
What does Rogelio Juarez miss most about Phoenix? His extended family, for sure, but tacos are a close second.
“I definitely miss the food. Shout out to Elmer’s Tacos in Chandler.”
Oh, and Tacos Chiwas. Also El Norteño on Seventh Avenue in Phoenix.
Juarez is a fiction writer and his words, as well as his palate, are steeped in Arizona. He grew up in Chandler and earned a political science degree at Arizona State University, but recently left to pursue his MFA in creative writing at Cornell University, having relocated there with his young family several years ago. Now that he’s graduated, he’s not sure they’ll ever come home.
That could be tricky. Juarez wants to be an Arizona writer whose writing speaks to the truths – the sometimes hard truths – about the place he is from. “For me, I almost never want to write a story that’s outside of Arizona. I think the specificness is actually a strength. I think that is where the power comes from. It’s not trying to guess, you know, what’s this universal experience? Or what do other people expect of an Arizona story? It’s really just trying to tell the truth about what I love here and the people that I love,” he says.
Now he finds himself doing that from New York.
Juarez left Arizona to escape the tension of race relations, global warming and politics in general – and, frankly, because he didn’t get into graduate school here.
“The kind of funny story is that I did not want to leave Arizona. I wanted to stay here to study at Arizona State University or University of Arizona, which both have great programs. And I was wait-listed at these programs, but I ended up getting into Cornell. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
He describes Ithaca as a comfortable bubble. Juarez gets the appeal, but says he’d like to return to Phoenix to face issues, like how Mexican American studies should be taught, head-on. His wife’s not so sure.
“We have a young family, and so… our primary concerns are, you know, jobs and schools and safety and the political situation of places,” he says. “But I guess my personality is like, I want to go be at the forefront, be on the ground marching, and she’s like, ‘Just calm down right now. We need to build a home.’”
HEBER CITY, UTAH
Twenty years ago, Tamara Stanger ended up in Phoenix in the middle of the summer – and hated it.
But like most of us, she got used to the brutal summer – and before long, the young single mom found herself never wanting to leave.
Until recently, Stanger was an award-winning chef in the Valley, crafting innovative cuisine using native, often foraged, Arizona ingredients. She began at – of all places – Sizzler, after being told again and again she couldn’t get a job in the food business in Arizona as a woman who didn’t speak Spanish. Eventually she broke through, and went on to several increasingly high-profile gigs, making a big splash at Helio Basin Brewing Co. and later starting the restaurant Cotton & Copper. She competed on the Food Network’s Chopped and worked with the James Beard Foundation.
“The desert, I believe, has more edible food in it, like wild foods, than anywhere else in the world,” she says. “There’s so many things that just grow there, and it’s so interesting. We have a very ancient and beautiful, poetic Southwest cuisine.”
Stanger made her career as an Arizona chef celebrating Arizona ingredients. And it worked. But as with so many things in life, timing got in the way. “When the pandemic hit, it was the busiest we’d ever been in the restaurant, like the most profitable we had ever been was the night right before we decided to close.”
Stanger didn’t want to leave Phoenix. Desperate for work, she took a job near her hometown in Utah. She’s now executive chef at The Lakehouse at Deer Creek near Heber City, one of the most beautiful settings she’s ever seen. Perhaps not the most forward-thinking place when it comes to cuisine, but Stanger wants to change that. Now she’s trying to do for her homestate what she did for Arizona.
“Utah really needs more food culture. And so I’m kind of on a mission here to build that and kind of show people what these foods I grew up with, like the wild game, all the agriculture here [are about]. I’m kind of doing what I did in Arizona and just educating people and trying to develop a cuisine here.”
She still makes her way to Phoenix every month or so, and while she has no plans to return full time, Stanger says she’ll never say never.
“I really love Arizona, but I am on a different chapter now, so I really can’t say what’s gonna happen in the future. But I’m not letting go of Phoenix. I will always make sure there’s some reason I have to keep coming back.”
AJIJIC, JALISCO, MEXICO
Head south of the border, and eventually you might meet Yvonne Watterson in a tiny Mexican town outside of Guadalajara called Ajijic. It’s a picturesque place full of fellow expats from around the world.
Watterson didn’t grow up in Ajijic – or Phoenix. She’s from a very different part of the world: Northern Ireland. Growing up surrounded by violence and conflict during The Troubles – an uprising of Irish nationalism against the U.K. that spanned three decades starting in the 1960s – she knew she would leave from a young age. In college, she finally got her chance when she got a job in New York one summer and visited Phoenix. She decided to return.
“For me, it just presented this opportunity – I could escape the rain and The Troubles and the unemployment and all of that,” she says. “And I thought that I’d come back and get a convertible and drive on the freeway listening to Tom Petty or something.”
Watterson spent decades working in Arizona’s public education system, teaching in several districts before becoming a high school principal and turnaround specialist. She married here and raised a daughter in a home she and her husband Scott bought in Central Phoenix.
She had a good life in Phoenix, but everything changed for her on September 11, 2001. “When I turned on the news that morning, it was just that sickening feeling – a feeling of fear and revulsion,” Watterson says. “And I think if you ask anybody from Northern Ireland at that time, they’ll tell you the same thing. You know, if you hear a car backfiring, you’ll think, ‘Is that a bomb?’… It was kind of like that fear came back again.”
Then came the last straw in 2006, while she was working as principal at GateWay Early College High School in Phoenix. Arizona voters overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 300, taking away in-state college tuition rates from undocumented students in the state. It directly impacted her students – 38 of them, some of whom didn’t know they were undocumented. She had to tell them.
When she spoke out about the plight of her students in The Arizona Republic and worked to raise the money to pay for their tuition, she says she faced immediate backlash from the school
administration, and lost her job.
She did raise the money – but the experience left her with a bad taste in her mouth and a diminished view of both Phoenix and the United States.
Watterson’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2011 and the death of her husband in 2013 left her even more disillusioned. And so after visiting Ajijic, a tiny village in Mexico that reminded her of her homeland, she and her boyfriend decided to make a big move.
“It reminded me of many of the things I miss most about Northern Ireland – the rhythm of it, the colors, the music,” she says.
Life is good. She hasn’t looked back – almost.
“You know, I often feel guilty for turning my back on Northern Ireland instead of staying there and being part of all the efforts to bring peace,” Watterson says. “Now, I feel a bit guilty about leaving the U.S. Survivor’s guilt.”