When Ramon Elias visited an East Valley Girl Scout troop to tell them about growing up in Mexico, he fielded questions for two hours — and had to cut them off.
“These kids wanted to learn, ‘What kind of food did you eat compared to here?’ and ‘What are the differences in the homes in Mexico?” he said. “They were so interested.”
Elias, president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley, said the organization has seen more Hispanic children attending the clubs this year.
The increase reflects the dramatic numbers seen on the county level.
Maricopa County added more Hispanics to its population in one year than any other county in the United States.
And the figures suggest that a large percentage of the new residents are migrants — legal or otherwise.
New figures today from the U.S. Census Bureau show more than 71,000 people who identify themselves as Hispanics were added to the county’s population between July 1, 2005, and a year later.
And the county added more than 366,000 Hispanics since the beginning of the decade, bringing the county’s total Hispanic population to more than 1.1 million.
Meanwhile, Mesa seems to be grossly short-staffed when it comes to dealing with diversity issues, such as clashing cultures and racial tensions.
The Mesa Diversity Office is now down to one person, with a budget of $139,000, to serve a population of 460,155, a quarter of which is Hispanic.
The budget is half of last year’s.
The city cut funding for the department earlier this year as a result of chronic budget problems.
By comparison, Scottsdale’s Office of Diversity and Dialogue has four full-time employees and a budget of $366,133. Tempe’s office has three full-time workers and a budget of $739,250.
But Mesa is largely regarded as the Hispanic center of the East Valley, and many Hispanic activists say that underscores the need to do more outreach.
Mary Berumen, Mesa Diversity Office director, said she partners with other city programs to bolster Mesa’s efforts, which include hiring Spanish-speaking employees, going door to door with bilingual pamphlets to reach out to neighborhoods, and planning an event for Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.
“I think the best part about this is that I’m forced to collaborate and work together with other areas,” Berumen said. “When they started this office, it was just me, but I think it’s OK.”
The growth rate of the Hispanic community in Maricopa County since 2000 is 48 percent, more than triple that of all other ethnic groups. And that means just less than 30 percent of all county residents are Hispanic.
By contrast, the figure in 2000 was less than 25 percent.
As the Hispanic population increases, the Boys and Girls Clubs make a conscious effort to teach the children how to get along and appreciate different cultures.
One example of the cultural differences is seen in the concerns of Hispanic parents when their children first start to attend the clubs.
Typically, Hispanic parents are very protective of their daughters and may not want them to come to the clubs at all, Elias said.
“They are coming from Mexico, where boys have certain privileges and girls have different privileges,” he said. “Then all of a sudden they are in America, where they expect girls to do the same thing as boys.”
On the flip side, children who have grown up in the United States might not understand that many children from Mexico are not used to things such as indoor plumbing or running water.
“I always refer to this as the way the world is — full of different people,” Elias said. “People come to the club, and it’s like its own little world.”
While the sheer number of new Hispanic residents in Maricopa County is larger than anywhere else, the growth patterns are mirrored virtually everywhere else in the state: The Hispanic population is increasing twice as fast as the general population.
The state health department reports the birth rate of Hispanics is more than double that of Anglo non-Hispanics. That was reflected in the Census Bureau figures showing the number of Hispanics younger than 5 increased at a rate about three times that of all other groups.
Despite the difference in cultures, children seem to get along just fine, said Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, community liaison for Mesa Public Schools.
“Little kids play amongst each other and learn from each other,” she said. “And the more we encourage that kind of exchange, the better.”
The Mesa school district saw its Hispanic population grow to 36 percent in 2006 from 26 percent in 2001.
Some schools have starkly different demographics. For instance, 89.5 percent of Longfellow Elementary School students are Hispanic. In east Mesa, Las Sendas Elementary School is 5.5 percent Hispanic.
Among Maricopa County residents in prime working years — 30 to 40 — the number of Hispanics increased at a rate of close to 40-to-1 over all other groups.
Harry Garewal, president of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said he sees no downside to the ongoing shift in population.
“It does nothing but improve the quality of life here,” he said. “The more people you have purchasing products and services, the more sales tax, the more property tax revenues will go to municipalities, the county and the state.”
While most Arizona counties saw Hispanic populations increase faster than all other demographic sets combined, some counties such as Pinal and Santa Cruz bucked the trend.
The number of Hispanics in Pinal County grew at rate of 49 percent, while other groups posted 52 percent growth.