October 1, 2004
Arizona’s Hispanic population is growing faster than the populations of all other groups combined.
Figures released Thursday show that those who identify themselves as being of Hispanic or Latino origin now make up 27.7 percent of the state’s population. That June 2003 figure, the most recent available, is up 2.5 points from the 2000 census.
But the potential to be a major force in Arizona politics probably is years away. That’s not only the conclusion of pollster Bruce Merrill. It is a sentiment shared by Alfredo Gutierrez who for years was arguably the state’s preeminent Hispanic politician.
This, however, presumes Hispanics tend to identify with the same issues — and unite behind the same candidates. Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center, who has surveyed Hispanic attitudes for years, said the trend may be just the opposite.
He said the growth in the Hispanic population in Arizona is less related to immigrants from Mexico and Latin America than the overall growth of families already here. That, said de Berge, is reflected in the fact that 80 percent of those Hispanics he has questioned speak English.
What also has occurred, he said, is the development of Hispanic middle and upper classes, people whose political views may be vastly different than those of newcomers.
Merrill, a mass communications professor at Arizona State University who directs the Walter Cronkite Media Research Program, said there is the potential for an enormous impact on politics and elections. He said, though, numbers alone won’t make Hispanics a political force.
What’s needed, he said, "is for the Hispanic community to become politicized.’’ Merrill said blacks were propelled into politics by the civil rights movement. "Even today, African-Americans tend to be more interested in — and have more information about — politics than Anglos,’’ he said.
Aside from the lack of that kind of national movement, Merrill said there are no real Hispanic political leaders that are recognized by the community. The closest, he said, may be Henry Cisneros, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a former mayor of San Antonio.
Merrill said there is a potential for Hispanics to have a much greater influence within five years, and potentially even control politics in Arizona in a decade — if they get involved.
Gutierrez agreed that the fact that more than a quarter of Arizonans identify themselves as Hispanic has not translated into political influence.
"The numbers, unfortunately, don’t express the political involvement at this moment,’’ he said. "It takes years for numbers to manifest themselves into civic activity.’’
But he sees different factors at work than Merrill. He said some of this occurs because it takes five years for new legal immigrants to become citizens. He also said, much of the Hispanic population is young and young people tend to be less interested in politics.
He’s not sure when population and political interest will reach critical mass. "I think that we are due for a major involvement,’’ Gutierrez said. "It might occur this year, it might occur even in a couple of years.’’
County 2000 2003
Cochise 30.7 32.9
Coconino 10.9 11.1
Gila 16.7 16.3
Graham 27 27.8
Greenlee 43.1 46.3
La Paz 22.4 23.2
Maricopa 24.8 28
Mohave 11.1 11.4
Navajo 8.2 8
Pima 29.3 31.9
Pinal 29.9 30.5
Santa Cruz 80.8 81.9
Yavapai 9.8 10.5
Yuma 50.5 54.4
Statewide 25.3 27.8
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau