If the East Valley ethnic majority could be likened to a river, it might be the Solimoes River in South America.
It flows for hundreds of miles, changing in name and character several times until it meets the Negro River, itself one of the world’s largest streams.
The waters of the Solimoes are light in color; those of the Negro, nearly black. The light and black waters flow side by side for six miles, gradually merging, before they finally mix and flow on together as the awesome Amazon.
If the East Valley were a river like that, the dominant white population would be the Solimoes, meeting up with and constantly being enlarged by a growing tide of people broadly categorized as Hispanic.
Someday — sooner or later, depending on where you live — the Hispanic side will be larger than the white side. It would not be the first time that has happened, for it was only in the 19th century that an influx of English-speakers overwhelmed Arizona’s Spanish-speaking settlers. Now, history appears to be reversing the process.
"It’s coming to a full circle," said Louis Olivas, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Arizona State University. "We are going back to an Arizona that is predominately Hispanic." That will happen statewide, he thinks, as soon as 2035. In Maricopa County, it could happen by 2016.
The process is not entirely smooth. In fact, geography may supply another analogy: That of massive tectonic plates, meeting and grinding and clashing along fault lines in the Earth’s crust.
In the East Valley, fault lines are visible everywhere:
• A Hispanic citizens group filed a discrimination complaint in July against Paradise Valley Unified School District, claiming the district discriminates against some parents by failing to communicate with them in their native languages.
• The fatal shooting of a Hispanic teenager by Mesa police in August became — almost instantly — an ethnic issue, with Hispanic activists claiming police were too eager to pull the trigger.
• The East Valley Institute of Technology made frontpage news by forbidding students from speaking Spanish among themselves in the classroom. The school later relented, but the case evoked emotional reactions both from those who favored the ban and from those who considered it racist.
• More than two dozen Arizona legislators — many from the East Valley — have endorsed a ballot initiative that would bar noncitizens from voting and limit eligibility for some welfare benefits. At a November news conference, organizers of the initiative claimed it is not about illegal immigration, even though they displayed posters purportedly showing illegal immigrants being rounded up in a Phoenix drug bust.
• The Tribune’s Vent line, which collects anonymous comments on current topics from readers, regularly crackles with vitriolic calls such as this one, from just last week: "Give me a break, Latinos. Get off your butt and learn the English language. Why should we cater just to you?"
THE BAD OLD DAYS
For all the acrimony, however, Phil Austin believes relations between Hispanics and the majority have improved over the long haul.
Austin, 52, is a lawyer who heads the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. The group was active in the late 1980s and early ’90s, went moribund for a while, then revived in the past couple of years.
Austin’s family traces its presence in Arizona to the 1860s. The great-grandfather from whom he inherited his name was Welsh and German. His grandfather married a Mexican Indian woman who fled the depredations of Pancho Villa around the time of World War I, and moved his family to Mesa in 1920.
Mesa was segregated then. White kids and minority kids went to separate schools — though in Austin’s family, with its mixed blood, some went to the "white" schools.
"They used to have signs that said ‘No Mexicans, colored or dogs allowed,’ " Austin said. And minorities could use the town’s swimming pool only on the last day of the season — the day before it was drained.
"I don’t think there’s any question that things have gotten better," Austin said.
But while overt discrimination has lessened, Hispanics lag in income, education, homeownership, and clout in the political and business communities. That, Austin said, is why minorities form groups like his — as a bridge to a future when such groups will no longer be needed.
"If the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens is here 10 years from now, I’ve failed," Austin said. "We are working for the day where having a Hispanic or Mexican on the city council won’t be an anomaly, we can have a mayor and nobody even notices it, we can have people on the boards of corporations and won’t notice it."
NOT IN LOCKSTEP
Scottsdale City Councilman David Ortega, a candidate for mayor in the March election, recently found himself under fire from the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens for a perceived lack of concern with Hispanic issues. This, despite Ortega’s receiving an award in November from Arizona’s largest Hispanic bar association for community service.
Ortega, who traces his family’s roots in Arizona to the 1700s, said that while he has quietly worked to help minorities in Scottsdale, "I do not believe in wedge issues. . . . Once a person starts believing and creating and perpetuating the wedge issues, as though education means more or less to Latinos than anyone else . . . people are giving up part of their power and allowing those wedges to split us.
"We have to understand that all families in Arizona have the same needs and wants," Ortega said.
But even within the Hispanic community, if indeed there is such a monolithic thing, Arizona’s families are incredibly diverse. Hispanics are not just Mexicans, but can include anyone with roots in Latin America. Their roots here can be as deep as Ortega’s, or as shallow as those of someone who arrived just yesterday — illegally, perhaps — and is waiting for a job on a Chandler street corner.
Illegal immigration, one of the hottest issues in Arizona at present, accounts for some, but not all, of the Hispanic population growth. The Hispanic population is young, with a median age of 24.1 in the 2000 census compared with 37.9 for whites. While Hispanics were about 25 percent of the state’s population, they accounted for 41 percent of the births in Arizona in 2001, and 45 percent of the births in Maricopa County.
Older whites worried about the state’s changing demographics will soon need these young Hispanics, Olivas said.
"You’re going to find eventually a minority working population that is supporting predominately a white, non-Hispanic retirement group. I’m going to welcome any group. I want them paying into Social Security so I can collect," he said.
Despite their economic contributions, Olivas and others said Arizona’s newer Hispanic residents may not assimilate into the mainstream English-speaking population as fast as their predecessors, or earlier generations of immigrants from other countries. The simple reason is they won’t have to.
"Even when they are born and raised here, they don’t lose their language, " Olivas said. "When you want to read you can pick up several newspapers in Spanish. You can tune in three different Spanish-language TV stations" or 14 Spanish radio stations in Maricopa County alone.
Further, he said, new Hispanic immigrants often can return to their homelands with relative ease, whereas the European immigrant of a century ago knew when he arrived that he had forever severed ties — he had no choice but to become Americanized.
WARY OF NEWCOMERS
Assimilation can be difficult even among Hispanics. Teresa Brice-Heames, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico early last century, is running for mayor of Mesa and is on leave from Housing for Mesa, an affordable-housing agency.
"When our corporation wanted to build affordable housing in downtown Mesa, one of our staunchest opponents was a longtime, prominent Hispanic in downtown Mesa," she said. "He said, ‘I don’t want those Mexicans moving into my neighborhood. All they do is sit around and drink beer, work on junk cars and let their kids run around.’ "
Hispanics who have established themselves here, Brice-Heames said, often fear they will be lumped in with newer arrivals who have not yet learned American ways. An agency such as Housing for Mesa often finds itself teaching its immigrantclients what is acceptable and what isn’t — "You don’t hang your clothes in your fence in your front yard."
Alfredo Gutierrez, who was born in Arizona a month after his mother arrived from Mexico in 1945 and who ran for governor last year, acknowledged that many feel threatened by Arizona’s changing face.
"I know it challenges people and it scares them," he said. And part of that fear is economic — justifiably so, Gutierrez said, as new immigrants are willing to work for what most Americans consider low wages.
But, he said, that’s the point: They’re willing to work. When he recently saw 20 Mexicans near a Valley Home Depot store, "those weren’t 20 guys looking for handouts."
Immigration, legal or illegal, will continue, Gutierrez said, simply because the Mexican economy lags so far behind Arizona’s. "For the foreseeable future I just don’t see the Mexican economy turning around," he said.
So: With immigration unlikely to end soon, with its youthful vigor and a soaring birth rate, the Hispanic population will become ever more visible in the East Valley. There is no good or bad in that, Olivas said. "It just is." It’s history in motion, just as history always has been.
Which means duallanguage voice mail menus, posters in English and Spanish, billboards in a tongue many whites don’t understand, Cinco de Mayo festivals, restaurants where you can buy head tacos (tacos de cabeza) — those manifestations of Hispanics’ presence in the East Valley are not just passing things. They’re here to stay.
That, Gutierrez said, is the wave of the future in America’s vast and colorful melting pot.
"I think you’re going to have this tremendous diversity of cultures across this country," he said. "In our case, in the Valley, it’s primarily Mexican, this diversity of language and culture expressed in every way.
"I’m trying to convince my wife to go to a Peruvian restaurant in Mesa this evening. Can you imagine that?"
Hispanics in Arizona — a timeline
1521: Spain’s Hernan Cortes conquers Aztecs in Mexico
1540 to 1542: Francisco de Coronado explores American Southwest, including present-day Arizona
1687 onward:Eusebio Kino begins to spread Catholicism in what is now northern Mexico and southern Arizona
c. 1750: Indian uprising against Spaniards in Sonora-Arizona region
1752: Spain establishes fort at Tubac, on the Santa Cruz River: First permanent Spanish settlement in present-day Arizona
1776: Tubac garrison moved 40 miles north to site of present-day Tucson
1810 to 1821: Mexico revolts from Spanish rule; Spain’s Arizona outposts suffer from economic problems and Indian attacks
1821 to 1853: Arizona or parts of it belong to Mexico
1848: United States wins most of Arizona after war with Mexico
1853: Gadsden Purchase completes United States acquisition of Arizona from Mexico
1860: Tucson has 925 residents, of whom 168 are white
1864: Census finds Arizona’s non-Indian population is 4,187, most of whom are new arrivals from Sonora
1880s: Large white corporations dominate copper mining in Arizona; Mexican investment has waned and Mexicans are mostly laborers, paid less than whites
1890s: Economic depression creates growing anti-Mexican sentiment among Arizona whites
1903: Mexican workers strike at copper mines in Clifton and Morenci; strike fails; economic status of Mexican workers deteriorates
1912: Arizona achieves statehood
1911 to 1920: Mexican Revolution sparks new wave of emigration to United States — as many as 2 million Mexicans enter United States by 1930
1940: Mexican immigration resumes as Great Depression ends and U.S. economy improves
1990: Hispanics account for 19 percent of Arizona’s population
2000: Hispanics are 25 percent of Arizona’s population