October 10, 2004
The noise from the speeches, discussions and music at Saturday’s Mesa Latino Town Hall was the sound of "Chicano applause."
"You start slowly, and you build up a rhythm until you create a crescendo," Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens president Phil Austin told about 400 people attending the annual event.
This was just the third such town hall sponsored by his organization, but it’s already developed a rhythm of its own, spinning off programs and movements that are influencing change in Mesa. Discussions in the areas of education, leadership, economic development and youth spawn ideas that are further developed during the year between town halls.
For example, discussions about leadership last year helped create the Multicultural Coalition for Economic and Social Justice, which has been pushing the Mesa City Council to take such potentially controversial steps as approving a nonprofit group’s proposal for a day labor center, letting residents sit on police review boards and adopting a paid holiday honoring deceased labor activist Cesar Chavez.
The coalition is working on six issues and members feel they have been able to get support from a majority of the council members on five of them, the exception being the Chavez holiday, Austin said.
But other concerns, such as minority representation in the upper levels of city management and helping minority businesses grow through programs and city contracts, might take precedence.
"If we felt like we were having some effect with procurement (of city contracts) and hiring, Cesar Chavez wouldn’t be such a great issue," he said.
Mesa diversity office director Mary Berumen said the city is paying attention to its hiring practices, even in a time of tightened budgets. "Even though we’re not hiring a lot of people, we’re focusing in on it a lot," she said.
Education discussions last year came back to this year’s town hall in the form of a plan to create a database of adults, Hispanic or otherwise, to act as mentors for students. Those involved would visit classrooms to talk about memorable experiences in their lives or invite students to their workplaces.
Much of the input at the town hall comes from the grass-roots level.
For example, Cub Scout pack leader Emilsa Butler was part of an "expo" featuring mostly nonprofit agencies, sitting at a table to spread the word about Spanish-speaking Scout troops.
But she also cornered school officials to suggest they offer after-school Spanish classes at the elementaryschool level, similar to those a friend teaches in Washington state.
Her husband doesn’t speak Spanish and their three children have a limited understanding of her native language, and she would like them to have more of a chance to learn the language while their minds are still more impressionable.
"I would like my kids to be able to learn to speak and write Spanish pretty good, before they’re too old," she said.
Teenagers, mostly high school seniors, involved in the youth discussions at the town hall learned about such things as financial aid available from Mesa Community College and Arizona State University.
Dobson High School student Brooke Crespin, 15, said before she went into the youth session she was looking forward to "hearing about how Latinos can control the direction of their lives."