Mesa has reached a tipping point. What had been a gradual demographic shift has gained momentum over the past decade, fueled by record immigration.
One in four Mesa residents now are Hispanic, up from one in 10 in 1990. If the trend continues, the city will be majority Latino within 30 years.
"They are our next taxpayers," says Mary Berumen, Mesa’s diversity director. "They are the ones who are going to be supporting us in the future. They are our next leaders."
Mesa Unified School District now has the second-largest population of Hispanic students in the state. By 2008, the Mesa school district will have a majority of minority students, most of them Hispanic.
Latino-owned businesses in Mesa are multiplying, and the community’s economic clout continues to increase. Employers here find themselves ever more dependent on the young, vibrant Hispanic work force.
Neighborhoods that had been predominantly Anglo are turning over to new Hispanic homeowners, particularly on the city’s west side and downtown.
"It is about mathematics. That change will occur," says Loui Olivas, associate vice president of academic affairs at Arizona State University and a thirdgeneration Arizonan. "Therein lies the challenge and a great opportunity for the East Valley — to accept the changing demographics and embrace what that means to the economic future and well-being of Mesa."
Mesa isn’t alone, but rather a microcosm of a dramatic transformation under way in other parts of the Valley and throughout the state.
By 2035, demographic estimates show Arizona residents will be mostly minority, primarily Latinos. The state already has one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations of English-language learners, according to a new study, with most of them going to a few mostly urban schools, including Mesa’s.
Valleywide, home ownership among Latinos has topped 50 percent. And the number of Latinoowned businesses is expected to grow by 60 percent in the U.S. between 2004 and 2010.
But as the burgeoning Hispanic population carves out a sizeable slice of the American pie in Mesa, there are growing pains. Latino activists and city leaders say fear, racism, resentment and misunderstanding have fostered a culture clash that threatens to unravel the fabric of the community.
The culture that Hispanic immigrants bring with them does not always sit well with their new Anglo neighbors. Many residents — Anglo and Hispanic — complain about once-quiet neighborhoods now filled with loud Latino music, strangers on the streets at night, outdoor cooking and cartpushing vendors. The neighborhoods in which they’ve lived for decades no longer resemble the place where they raised their kids, and many are moving out.
"It’s not so much accepting change as most people feel like it’s being forced on them," says Ray Villa, the city’s neighborhood outreach director. "People here feel more like their backs are up against the wall, so they have to make a stand."
Villa, a former Chandler police lieutenant, says many Mesa neighborhoods are undergoing a peaceful transition. Indeed, some neighborhoods are being reenergized by new Latino homeowners.
Others, however, are practically at war. Longtime neighbors may not be as inclusive of newcomers they suspect are illegal immigrants.
In Mesa’s core, such as the area near Broadway Road and Robson, some areas are 80 percent to 90 percent rental, Villa says, which means there is little investment in the neighborhood and less incentive to keep properties up to city code. The city doesn’t even have an internal blight code, he says, so there’s no way to keep tabs on the interior conditions of homes.
"When I go into the neighborhoods and I meet with different groups, I see people embracing diversity left and right. I see compassion," Villa says. "But I also see that people are frustrated. They’re frustrated at the federal government for not doing its job. They hear all the stats that are being thrown out there, and they feel like they have to make a stand."
Mesa police receive more than 50 calls a month related to loud music or noise — the highest of the city’s 31 beats — from one of the city’s most culturally diverse neighborhoods, bounded by Broadway, Mesa Drive, Stapley Drive and U.S. 60.
Kim Clarkson, 34, is a west Mesa native who sold her home near Main Street and Stapley Drive to move with her husband and five children into the Groves neighborhood, near Val Vista Drive and Brown Road.
They needed a bigger house, but Clarkson says they also didn’t like the "rundown" look of the Food City and other stores that had taken over nearby strip malls. And she’s uncomfortable with Spanish-language billboards.
"The only words I could understand on the sign were Western Union," she says.
Their decision to move was based on socioeconomic, not racial, factors.
"It’s a matter of whether you want to live near the kind of stores they have at Val Vista and Baseline or the kind of stores they have at Main and Horne," says Clarkson.
Lucy Duarte grew up in Nogales, Mexico, but moved to the U.S. legally when she was 17.
"We’re here, our kids are here, and we’re not going anywhere," Duarte says, shrugging off the tension between Hispanics and Anglos in Mesa. "They need to know more about us, and little by little they will accept us more. They fear us because they don’t know. But between the two cultures we can make each other richer."
At the same time, the demographic shift is creating social, economic and political upheaval, from predatory lending and slumlords to health care and education deficits to the lack of Hispanic representation on city boards, commissions and in elected posts. No Hispanic has been elected to public office in Mesa.
Yet Mesa’s political leaders are doing little to address the social problems surrounding the growing Hispanic population or the fundamental lifestyle changes troubling the city’s Anglo residents. The city doesn’t keep statistics on the growing number of Latino-owned businesses, and the City Council has done little to address the demographic changes, other than a series of debates over a day labor center that ultimately fizzled.
Council members Mike Whalen and Kyle Jones sponsored a town hall forum earlier this year to hear neighborhood concerns, but the discussion devolved into a litany of complaints about loud music and cars parked in yards and paleta salesmen.
But otherwise, there has been little or no action by the city’s elected representatives.
"People have to recognize that Mesa is changing," says Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, community liaison for the Mesa school district and Mesa Community College. "But no one seems to want to talk about it.
"We avoid it because it brings out all the vehemence that some members of our community have. People are afraid to go down that path . . . and yet those are exactly the kind of conversations we need to be having in our community."