The little cafés and bodegas along Mesa’s Broadway Road corridor bustle with activity every afternoon as hungry people search for a quick lunch. Young men duck into delis to buy a cold drink and a sandwich. Children drop in after school hoping for a quick snack.
Spanish is the dominant language in the barrios, which have grown rapidly every year, propelling Hispanics to become the largest minority group in Mesa. Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Hispanics in Mesa climbed from 78,281 to 106,325, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The group now represents nearly a quarter of Mesa’s population.
The demographic shift has brought visible changes to the community, and with those changes has come inevitable tensions between the burgeoning immigrant neighborhoods and the older, often more conservative established ones. But in the face of such a drastic cultural and economic transformation, many Hispanic and white residents agree that city officials have done little to address these changes. Instead, the city took a giant step backward after the bulk of Mesa’s recent budget cuts went straight to the heart of the very
programs and services meant to promote cultural awareness.
Mesa’s Diversity Office is down to one employee and the diversity dialogue series no longer exists. Only one of the three neighborhood outreach coordinators, who serve as liaisons between the city and neighborhoods, speaks Spanish.
“I think it’s gotten to the point where these issues are coming to a head, and now it’s at the forefront,” said Pat Esparza, executive director of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.
“Now they have to listen, but unfortunately, it’s almost too late,” she said. “It’s that big immigration problem. You’ve got 20 million immigrants here. Now what do we do with them? Mesa has been asleep.”
Ron Sirrine, a greatgrandson of one of Mesa’s founders, said he’s frustrated that many new immigrants don’t seem to want to “meld” in with the community. He said he’d welcome community meetings to deal with the issues that arise, but the city doesn’t seem interested.
“I think nothing has been done because they’re all afraid they’ll step on someone’s toes,” Sirrine said. “That kind of nonchalant, passive attitude is why all of this anger is starting to boil to the surface.”
But some city officials were working to respond to these concerns. Mary Berumen, director of the city’s Diversity Office, said the office was formed five years ago specifically to address the demographic changes.
Since then, the city has translated a lot of material into Spanish to foster an environment of better communication. It offers additional compensation to Spanish-speaking employees, and the city has held meetings on a variety of neighborhood issues.
“Mesa is such a growing, diverse community and we are trying to keep up with it,” Berumen said.
But Hispanic activists said a greater effort is needed, and some City Council members agree. Many of the issues will be discussed today at the Latino Town Hall, a yearly event in which residents come together to discuss issues relevant to the Hispanic community in Mesa.
“It’s going to take a whole lot of working together to get people to understand,” Councilman Mike Whalen said.
Hispanic activists point to the lack of diversity among city employees as another example of the city’s poor response to changing times. According to an assessment in June, Hispanics fill only 12 of the 119 top-level city positions. Seventy of those are filled by white men. There were two black men and no black women in leadership roles.
Mayor Keno Hawker acknowledged that the city has work to do in that area. But he said he’s glad to see that staff is more reflective of the population now than when he first took office in the 1980s. Back then, he estimated that 90 percent of employees were white.
Hispanic activists also say not enough has been done to address the growing Hispanic businesses. Unlike cities such as Phoenix, Mesa lacks a minority procurement program to educate small and often Latino business owners about the bidding process so they can learn how to become city contractors.
“In regards to economic development, I don’t see a lot that has been done,” said MAHC president Phil Austin.
The city’s Human Relations Advisory Board, which serves under the auspices of the Diversity Office, is planning a yearlong report to determine if Mesa is an “inclusive” city. The study will try to ascertain if people have equal access to services and if social attitudes are inclusive.
“We don’t have rock throwing in the streets. We don’t have an uprising. The blending of cultures is happening on a subtler level,” said Susan Weidner, chairwoman of the advisory board. “That’s what we want to access. Is it evolving organically and well?”
In addition, Police Chief George Gascón will be holding monthly forums with subcultures such as Hispanics, blacks and other groups so the police department can better understand their needs.
Hawker said he thinks both the board’s and Gascón’s efforts are positive. But he downplayed the importance of an inclusiveness study.
“I don’t think it hurts,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s my No. 1 priority. I’m more into police and fire and transportation and economic development and Williams Gateway and land use and water quality.”
Weidner and Esparza both said they thought the hiring of Gascón also signaled that Mesa is heading in a more positive direction. Esparza said that Gascón’s ability to speak Spanish will encourage Latino residents to be more comfortable with government.
“His ability to talk to the Spanish media has really created . . . a sense of trust in the Latino community,” Esparza said.