Like Arizona — which until the mid-19th century was a territory owned by Mexico — Mesa’s historical roots are intertwined with Latinos.
The Guerrero, Garcia, Rivera, Mendoza, Candelaria, Castro and Aros families were early settlers in the late 1800s, but endured segregation and racism even as they were helping to build the community.
Gilbert Orrantia arrived in Mesa in the 1940s after flying 50 combat missions in World War II. His parents had moved from Clarkdale, where his father had worked in the smelter, and Orrantia resumed his studies at Arizona State Teachers College, now Arizona State University.
They were part of a growing population of second-generation Mexican-Americans whose families had worked in mining towns like Superior and Globe, then moved down the highway to Mesa when the mines closed, in search of work and better education for their children. Others were migrant farmworkers.
Orrantia, 88, recalls taking his nephew to the Nile Theater on First Avenue and being told to "sit where the Mexicans sit." After the usher refused to let him sit elsewhere, the cashier wouldn’t give him his money back (about 65 cents for both tickets).
"I said, ‘If I can’t sit where I want to sit, having paid as much as everybody else has, I don’t want to be in your theater.’ "
Eventually, after arguing with the owner, he got his change and took his nephew to a ballgame.
Most bars and restaurants in those days wouldn’t serve Mexicans, Orrantia says, and before the war Mexicans were only allowed to buy property in an area known as Verde Vista, near Mesa and University drives.
Even after graduation from college with a biology major and certified to teach French and Spanish, Orrantia says, "It took me six years to get a teaching job because of what I am." More than one prospective employer told him point blank they wouldn’t hire him because he was Mexican.
In 1953, he was hired to teach at Mesa High School — the district’s first Hispanic employee — thus launching his career as one of the area’s best-loved educators and advocates for children and Hispanics.
He served as the teachers union president and formed a committee to push for more Hispanic teachers, understanding that they are important role models for children who might otherwise not see themselves as college material. Where parents at first had asked that their children not have "that Mexican" for a teacher, they soon began requesting that their children be placed in Orrantia’s classes.
"I did go through a lot," he says. "But I know that I earned the respect of my fellow teachers, my administrators and even the people in the community."
He and his wife, Sally, raised three college graduates. His daughters are teachers and his son is an FBI supervisor. Orrantia is somewhat puzzled by the outcry over the growing surge of Hispanic immigrants, though he also understands the frustrations.
"We’re going to have to get through it. All of us. Not just Hispanics," Orrantia says. "I think we’re undereducated as far as understanding others. Because of that, we’re having problems."