As the Hispanic minority booms in Mesa, so do the challenges, potential for conflict and opportunities - East Valley Tribune: Mesaentransicion

As the Hispanic minority booms in Mesa, so do the challenges, potential for conflict and opportunities

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Posted: Sunday, October 23, 2005 12:10 pm | Updated: 7:23 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Day One of Series

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.

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"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 secondlargest 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."


Illegal immigration is the political lightning rod that overshadows any public debate on how to cope with problems in the community or in the schools. And it’s true that immigrants are arriving in Arizona and Mesa in record numbers — an estimated 500,000 immigrants are in Arizona illegally. Still, a study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute shows that two-thirds of the children of Latino immigrants — and 93 percent under 6 years old — were born in this country, even if one or both of their parents weren’t.

Whether illegal immigrants are a net gain or a huge cost to taxpayers depends on which study you rely upon.

Those who earn low wages, don’t pay taxes, whose children are educated in public schools and who use hospital emergency rooms for their health care are most likely a drain. Those who are approaching middle-class, who pay Social Security taxes — which they will never recoup — and remain relatively healthy are probably paying more into the economy than they take out.

What’s not debatable, however, is that many businesses have grown to rely upon illegal workers.

Still, when state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, says "they have turned (Mesa) into a Third World country," as he recently told a reporter for, he speaks to the frustrations of some longtime Mesa residents who see their neighborhoods changing. And he articulates the "us vs. them" dichotomy that Hispanics say further inflames the debate.

"I’m increasingly concerned about the polarization," says Lisha Garcia, Mesa’s neighborhood services administrator. "There isn’t communication between the older, established residents — it doesn’t matter their ethnicity — and the new residents who are coming. And there’s a cultural clash."

Garcia, who was raised in Tucson and spent most of her professional life in San Antonio and Mexico City, says she went through "culture shock" when she and her daughter arrived in Mesa last year.

"I had no idea that this type of cultural isolation was still prevalent in a the Southwest, in a city this size," she says.

During a recent interview, Garcia’s phone rings. It’s her 17-yearold daughter. "He called you a spic?" she says into the phone. "You have every right to be upset. . . . No, honey, you did the right thing." She hangs up the phone and shakes her head. "It breaks my heart," Garcia says. "This is an everyday occurrence for a lot of people here in Mesa."

Mesa attorney and Hispanic activist Phil Austin says Pearce and his allies are using the oldest political trick in the book.

"He is the Joe McCarthy of his era," Austin says. "It’s a political ploy. . . . He’s playing on the fears of people, because they’re afraid of the change that’s going on. And he’ll ride those fears as far as they will take him."

Pearce refused to be interviewed for this story, but he’s made his views quite clear. Since leading the campaign for the antiillegal immigrant Proposition 200, he has become a nationally known immigration reformer. Earlier this month, he advised Colorado legislators interested in a similar ballot proposal. He says he supports legal immigration and wants those who come to the U.S. to abide by American customs.

"We need some policy reform where (when) you come here, you’re expected to be a loyal citizen of the United States of America and assimilate, not a clash of cultures," he said at a Brookings Institution forum in Washington, D.C., in December.

"You must come here with the right attitude. You must come here and be self-sufficient. If you’re going to come here, you’ve got to assimilate and be an American, and that means you’ve got to fit in and be patriotic."


Mesa is struggling with the same immigration issues as Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe and other Valley cities. But to people here, it feels different.

Perhaps it’s Mesa’s reputation as a bastion of Mormon conservativism. Or the fact that the city has a growing population of day laborers, who despite their immigration status are critical to the Valley’s economic development.

"I’m here to work. Solamente," says Domingo Fernandez as he stands in the shade of a block wall along Broadway near Gilbert Road with five other men, hoping to salvage a half-day of work. Earlier that morning, he says, there were at least 30 of them.

Fernandez, from Hidalgo, Mexico, says he walked for three days and nights to get to the U.S. about a year ago. He left behind a wife and two children, ages 3 and 10, to whom he sends money whenever he can.

Contractors hire him for landscaping and construction site cleanup. Sometimes, the men say, area residents hire them to do odd jobs around their homes.

Those on all sides of the immigration debate agree that enforcement is a key component of reform, and Pearce supports legislation to fine employers who hire illegal immigrants. Beyond that, though, there is broad disagreement about how to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and whether to provide some kind of documentation to those already here, such as a guest worker program.

And while there is some sentiment for allowing state and local law enforcement to help enforce federal immigration laws, determining who is here illegally and then deciding what to do with them is well beyond the scope of most cities, including Mesa.

"Congress has dropped the ball," says attorney Julie Pace, an employment-law expert who grew up in Mesa. "But they don’t want to take the heat for it, because it’s controversial and they really know that they need the workers or this country would stop."

Pace, who advises businesses on immigration law, says demographics show there are not enough American workers to fill jobs in the growing service-based economy, nor will there be in the future. The trick for employers is to find workers who are legal without violating laws against discrimination in the workplace.

"You may not presume that people aren’t here legally simply because they have brown skin or speak another language," she says. "We want people who can come in legally and pay their taxes and be treated with respect. Employers are stuck in a horrible Catch-22."


Julie Pace is vice chairwoman of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce immigration task force. She comes from a fourth-generation Mormon pioneer family, attended Fremont Junior High and was in the first graduating class at Mountain View High School. Latinos and Mesa’s once-dominant Mormons, she said, are remarkably similar.

"We have always had a large Hispanic community (in Mesa)," she said. "When you get down to the values of Mesa, they’re very family-oriented, they’re very church- oriented, very kidoriented. They have the same work ethic that the Mormon pioneers had."

Statistically speaking, however, the new arrivals are younger, poorer and less educated than the rest of Mesa.

They say they have settled in the city for the same reason Anglos do — it’s a great place to raise a family. The crime rate is low, the schools are good, housing is more affordable than in other parts of the Valley and the work is here.

At 24, the median age of the Hispanic population in Arizona is 10 years younger than Anglos — in the prime of child-bearing years. The Hispanic birth rate is higher than any other ethnic group in Arizona and in the U.S.

"It is a fact that the nonminority population is decreasing and aging rapidly," Olivas says. "On the opposite extreme, there is a very young, vibrant minority population led by Hispanics. Proof of that is the incredible transformation in Mesa’s public schools."

While Hispanic children typically are receiving a better education than their parents, and Hispanic students from Mesa have become student government leaders, valedictorians and Ivy Leaguers, Latino students as a whole still lag behind in the Mesa school district.

Minority students are more likely to come from poverty and arrive at school speaking Spanish as their first language. More than half of the children attending Mesa schools are poor, up from 30 percent in 1991. While nearly every family spoke English as their primary language in 1980, one-quarter now say they speak something else, primarily Spanish.

Arizona has one of the highest rates of limited-English proficient students in the country, according to a new Urban Institute study, which poses huge challenges for educators. Nearly half of the children in immigrant families live with a parent who has not graduated from high school, which means the parents are less able to help with homework and less likely to be in well-paid, fulltime jobs.

The drop-out rate for Hispanics is nearly twice that of Anglo students, and passing rates for Latinos on the high-stakes Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test consistently fall well below their peers.

"Many children who are immigrants do very poorly in school. Their children make up that gap," says Jim Zaharis, former superintendent of the Mesa school district, who has lived in Mesa since he was 3.

"One of the challenging dilemmas for educators today is, while you’re working to help that second generation, you have a pipeline of first generation always coming in," he says. "You open the door the next Monday morning, or the next September, and there’s a whole new group. And that is unlike many other states."

Pearce has said up to $1 billion annually is spent to educate the children of illegal immigrants. Mesa school district officials say no such number exists, in large part because schools cannot ask students whether they or their parents are legal U.S. residents.

This creates a paradox for educators, but their primary mission is to educate children.

"If a child is sitting at your door . . . you want them to succeed," Zaharis says. "The school administrator is in a difficult place. There are two laws that seem to be conflicting. One is that they need to come here legally. The other is, you need to give them an education. You don’t put that on the child."


If schools are the place where Hispanic growth is the most obvious, hospital emergency rooms may run a close second. Like classrooms, hospitals do not turn away patients they suspect are in this country illegally, nor can they under the law. While it is a mounting financial problem for hospitals and taxpayers, it is an even greater health issue for the Hispanic population.

Lack of insurance, coupled with language and cultural differences, lead to preventive health and treatment problems for Latinos. They are more likely to let small problems become larger, more expensive ones.

The burgeoning Hispanic population in Mesa means the problem will only continue to worsen.

"In our city, we lack resources for the uninsured, we certainly lack resources for any preventive services, and we lack health care workers," says nurse and Mesa Community College instructor Bertha Sepulveda, who leads a federally funded program to train Latino nurses from other countries to meet U.S. qualifications.

"We’re in a double crunch for bilingual health care workers because of our changing demographics and the need to be culturally competent."

The uninsured and undocumented in Mesa have only one place to go for medical care besides the emergency room — East Valley Family Care.

The federally funded clinic serves mostly women and children, mostly the working poor and mostly Hispanics. It is the busiest of Clinica Adalente’s six clinics and, though it doubled in size earlier this year, struggles to find doctors and nurses.

Dr. Luis Irizarry sees a wide range of health issues, from chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes to things that are more difficult to diagnose.

"Sometimes all they want to do is talk to somebody," he says. "There’s a lot of depression, stress. They come in complaining of pain, but often there’s something else behind it."

If he knows his patients, it’s easier to spot the emotional ailments. That’s why Irizarry encourages his patients to stick with him, even if they have to wait a few weeks for an appointment, rather than shop around. He also urges them to come to him for treatment rather than relying on home remedies or drugs dispensed by friends and relatives.

"Many of them are afraid to get care because they’re afraid they’re going to be deported back to Mexico," he says. "They prefer to go to friends."

He understands the concern about illegal immigrants using medical services. His own mother needs medication and treatment, he says, and why should she be in line behind someone who is not legally allowed to be here?

"We can go on with the debate, but the bottom line with these patients is, we all need care," he says. "My job as a doctor is to take care of ill people, regardless of whether they are Mexican or Chinese or Martian."

Bertha Sepulveda raised two children in west Mesa while building a successful career as a public health nurse, educator and consultant. She came out of retirement to run the nursing program for native-born Hispanic nurses in the Maricopa Community College District. She believes that bilingual, bicultural health care professionals are critical to the health and well-being of the East Valley’s growing immigrant population, and will save taxpayers money in the long run.

"They come here because they are looking for a better life. They are looking for a way to feed their family," she says. "The first and only way is to understand this population. To understand why they’re here."


The business community certainly seems to understand. From billboards to Spanish-language media, businesses are tapping this gargantuan and growing market.

Hispanic buying power increased in Arizona from $8 billion to $21 billion over the last decade, according to the Datos 2005 study, released earlier this month by the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

In the Valley, Hispanic households control nearly $15 billion in spending, 55 percent of Hispanic households own their homes and 86 percent have at least one bank account. The average annual household income is $51,525.

"Based on the census numbers, if you’re not doing multicultural marketing . . . or having dollars allocated toward the Hispanic market, you’re just waiting to go out of business," says Greg Patterson, the son of a former Chandler mayor and owner of Andale Communications in Mesa.

According to the Chain Store Guide, Hispanics’ disposable income nationwide has jumped 29 percent since 2001 to $715 billion last year, double the pace of the rest of the U.S. population.

Hispanic buying power is growing at a rate of 118 percent and is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2008.

Advertisers have almost doubled their advertising efforts targeted to Hispanics.

Hispanic teenagers control 15 percent of the teen market and are expected to account for 60 percent of total U.S. teen growth from 2000 to 2020.


While hanging onto their Latino roots and customs, Hispanics in their teens, 20s and 30s are pursing the American dream with a vengeance and are well on their way to forever altering the political, economic and cultural landscape in the East Valley.

By 2020, second-generation Latinos — U.S.-born children of immigrants — will outnumber new arrivals and third-generation Hispanics, according to Datos 2005, an annual Hispanic trend report compiled by Loui Olivas from U.S. Census data, the Pew Hispanic Center, the Urban Institute and other sources.

While there is no data available specifically for Mesa, there is no reason to think the booming Hispanic growth rate here will shape up any differently.

Record immigration and high fertility among immigrants will combine for some staggering statistics: Between 2000 and 2020, the number of second-generation Latinos in U.S. schools will double and the number in the U.S. work force will triple, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"Regardless of whether immigration flows from Latin America increase, decrease or stay the same, a great change in the composition of the Hispanic population is under way," the study says. "The rise of the second generation is the result of births and immigration that have already taken place, and it is now an inexorable, undeniable demographic fact."

These young men and women are both Latino and American, and together with other secondgeneration minorities they are introducing new music, foods, language and attitudes while adapting to Anglo customs and laws that may have confounded their parents.

They will be better educated, substantially bilingual and, as a result, will earn more than the first generation, according to the Pew study.

They will open new stores and restaurants, buy their first homes and log on to the Internet in record numbers (one out of every two new Internet users is Hispanic). And as their education and incomes improve, so goes the baby boomers’ retirement.

"It’s exciting because of the richness in diversity, culture and customs that population brings to the community. It re-energizes development and it rekindles neighborhoods," Olivas says. "And eventually you have a minority work force supporting a predominantly non-Hispanic retired community.

"So be kind to your minorities, because in their future lies your Social Security check."

Despite their numbers, a sizeable percentage of Hispanics are ineligible to vote — either because of age or citizenship status, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, and among those who are eligible less than half go to the polls.

With time, Olivas says, the three things that make committed voters — age, education and income — will apply to more Hispanics, thus empowering the electorate to put more Latinos into office.

And with time, Anglos and Latinos will fuse into a stronger, albeit different, American culture.

"You can’t stop it," Olivas says. "The only thing I’m hoping people will do is embrace it, accept it and help these new communities become stronger communities."

- Tribune writers John Yantis, Kristina Davis, CeCe Todd, Blake Herzog and Brian Powell contributed to this report.

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