Monday is a day for expressing love, for cherishing the people who make our lives special. Amid all the candy and balloons, however, Feb. 14 is also the 99th anniversary of Arizona's statehood. Despite tough budget times, plans are under way across the state to celebrate its centennial in the coming year.

And celebrate we should. There is much to love about Arizona: the mild climate (as chilly as it's been recently, consider those back east who would gladly swap places with us), the mountain vistas, the independent spirit. We hold onto these things ever tighter as Arizona comes under assault from the rest of the nation because of our response to one of the prime challenges facing us: potential threats to our security and prosperity from illegal immigration. But the greater challenge is to avoid letting this story define us when there is so much more that makes Arizona special.

Our state is a melting pot within a melting pot, drawing transplants from all across the nation, and the world, who are looking for a legendary quality of life. Natives of this state are few, or at least it seems that way much of the time. They may grumble about invasions of Californians or Mexicans or whoever else, but the fact that so many come here seeking something they can't find elsewhere should be a source of pride, at least - whatever else it may bring.

But with the good has also come the bad during our first 99 years. Our fair desert, a refuge for so many from colder climates, instead became a prison during World War II for Japanese-Americans whose only crime was to have been born. We've suffered a string of black eyes and boycotts, from Gov. Evan Mecham's infamous cancellation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and other civil rights gaffes to the continued tendency of our more maverick politicians to seek publicity by railing against federal power - even as our schools wither and the rug is swept out from under the most vulnerable of Arizonans when money is tight.

But it's easy to forget that Arizona has always been a spitfire, even before it earned statehood. The popular recall of judges was so controversial that President William Howard Taft threatened to veto our admission into the Union unless the provision was taken out of the state Constitution. So it was removed - only to be stubbornly restored once we were a state by means of constitutional amendment. That's how deep Arizona's independent spirit runs.

We're the state that redefined participatory government and the rights of the accused, tamed the mighty rivers and bent them to our will, and virtually created the retirement lifestyle. We're the state that stood up to the White House and made the whole nation take notice, for good or for ill, then rallied that same nation around us to keep vigil over a grievously wounded congresswoman and mourn those who did not survive the horrific attempt on her life.

We are Arizona, and we're proud.

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