Day Three of Series
Heidi Bingham is on her way out. The Mesa housewife lives for now with her husband, Daryl, and four children in a house just north of Southern Avenue on Horne in Mesa, across the street from an elementary school her kids don’t attend.
They’re in the process of buying another house two streets to the north, on a street with bigger homes, larger lots and fewer evident "problems" such as the ones they now face — bicycle theft, speeding traffic, neighbors who neglect their yards.
The Binghams are trying to avoid lengthening Daryl’s commute to his job with an air-conditioning company in Phoenix, but they are also having a house built in a new Queen Creek subdivision as a backup, in case life on Ninth Drive isn’t any better than it was on 10th Drive.
Bingham, a block-watch captain, says the neighbors who have created some of the biggest problems are Anglo like her.
But most of her discomfort with her street and the nearby school stems from the soaring number of Hispanic residents who don’t share her verbal and cultural language.
"It was getting very populated by Spanish people," Bingham says one September afternoon, while whipping up a chicken-and-rice dinner casserole. "And it’s not that white people don’t cause problems, but that house (on Ninth Drive) went up for sale, and it seemed like it was from a less Hispanic street than the one we were coming from."
She doesn’t like to watch the men on 10th Drive who while away the evenings drinking beer in their front yards.
She sent her kids to charter schools after seeing the nearest school’s low test scores and hearing about the few white kids being bullied.
Bingham’s day-to-day experience colors her perspective on immigration, which also can be complicated by the nebulous number of illegal versus legal immigrants. Surveys indicate Arizonans tend to overestimate how many illegal immigrants are actually in the state or country.
"I understand why they want to come over here, but it’s affecting our neighborhoods, our education, our economy," Bingham says.
Her own reactions make her uncomfortable.
"I’m really not a prejudiced person, but I’m at the point where I think that they shouldn’t let any more over. We have enough," she says. "Do I sound prejudiced?"
There are pockets throughout Mesa where residents go home every night to a neighborhood that no longer resembles the one they chose. Bingham’s neighborhood was built around 40 years ago, and most of the original owners of the one-story ranch houses were white and Mormon.
Today, it’s a land where music from a passing truck is more likely to feature an accordion than an electric guitar.
Picket and split-rail fences around front yards are giving way to wrought-iron fences or stucco walls, some with gates drawn across driveways.
Residential streets are intermittently clogged with parked vehicles.
And many parties are obvious, with mariachis in the front yard and long tables of food in the carport.
Vendors of tamales and other goods roll shopping carts along the sidewalks, advertising their presence with a bulb horn.
Non-Latino kids are in the minority at the local school, and a sizeable chunk of their fellow students may be just learning English.
Once those children master the language, they can become the main link between their parents and the non- Spanishspeaking world.
This is where you find the United Amigos, whether they want to be there or not.
NEIGHBORHOOD FACES CHANGING
The Binghams’ old and new Mesa homes are in an area that two years ago changed its name under the city’s registered neighborhood program from Poinsettia, a name from the oldest subdivision and the local ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to United Amigos. This bid to reach out to the new neighbors won narrow approval during a special neighborhood meeting, and not everyone is happy with it.
"A lot of us on the board thought it was kind of stupid," says Arden Rowley, who grew up during the Depression on his grandfather’s farm, which was later transformed into the Poinsettia neighborhood.
The neighborhood’s main claim to fame is the Memorial Day ceremony Rowley has hosted in his front yard for the last eight years, capped this year by a missing-man formation flyover by Apache helicopters.
Their area between Stapley Drive, Southern Avenue, Horne and Sixth Avenue was developed in the early 1960s, and the people who bought there were mostly white and Mormon.
Over the last decade, Hispanics are close to becoming a majority in the neighborhood, and perhaps already are.
A Mesa neighborhood outreach office study based on the 2000 census, the most recent survey with detailed information about ethnicity, found 46 percent of the residents were Hispanic.
But that was five years ago and change is coming quickly to the United Amigos.
Many of the area’s Latino residents who do not speak English use words like "silencio" and "tranquilo" to describe the quality they most like about their neighborhood.
"The neighbors are all Mormons, and they’re very quiet," Berta Montes jokes in Spanish, with her brother, Francisco Montes translating.
Her own home is rather noisy, since it’s filled with relatives — her brother who’d just dropped by, her parents visiting from Mexico and young nieces and nephews she’s caring for while their parents work. She’s lived there for four years with her husband and two daughters, ages 11 and 5. She’s part of a large family that has come to the U.S. from the Mexican Pacific state of Colima.
Montes says most of the neighbors on her street are white. She isn’t exactly dying to know them. "No, it’s fine the way it is," she says. THE OLD DAYS
Arden Rowley may be the original United Amigo. Before farming the land that became his neighborhood, his ancestors settled for a generation in Mexico. Today, he and his wife of 52 years, Ruth, share their home with more than 400 Uncle Sam figurines.
Rowley, 75, spent almost three years as a POW during the Korean War, then parlayed his GI Bill benefits into a 31-year career teaching history and English to Mesa junior high and high school students.
He didn’t pick up on the demographic shift going on around him until a few years ago, when he realized most of the kids walking down the street to nearby Holmes Elementary School were Hispanic.
"I kind of accepted things as they are, and all of a sudden you realize, hey, there are a whole lot of Mexicans living in this part of town," he says.
This was the ethnic label Rowley grew up using for the Hispanic farm workers he grew up around, as well as the Latino children who appeared in his classes at Irving Elementary School around the third grade.
Rowley remembers the segregation of black students in school and of blacks as a whole within neighborhoods, at public pools and elsewhere. He doesn’t believe the same pervasive rules applied to Hispanics, and at the school level, there was a method behind what most would consider madness.
"Even when I was a little kid, I realized that they were there because they were learning to speak English," he says.
Still, he says, he formed friendships more easily with his Latino peers and elders back then than he does today.
Rowley reports that few Hispanic neighbors attend his annual Memorial Day event, and a neighborhood Fourth of July parade he staged a few years ago had the same results.
His insistence that the fliers be printed only in English is likely one of the reasons, and he’s not about to budge on this.
He’s a strong supporter of "English-only" and other legislation proposed to curtail the effect some say Latin American immigration is having on Arizona society.
He doesn’t feel they should abandon their native language or traditions, but thinks it would help everyone on both sides of the divide if Spanish speakers were under more pressure to learn English.
And he does oppose illegal immigration, even though he doesn’t have a good handle on the magnitude of the issue.
"Gestalt theory is the tracking of several different abilities within personality, and one of them is being able to be flexible and accepting things that are different," he says, drawing a parallel with the "others" he sees around him.
"They need to become a part of us and they need to do it legally."
But he admits viewing the interplay through this prism does put some of the onus on longtime residents to bend, too.
"If you want to be a good neighbor you ought to learn English — and maybe you ought to learn a little Spanish, too."
Hannah Meek is the United Amigos’ point person with the city’s neighborhood outreach office, and has taken on the task of helping the neighborhood live up to its name. But she also sometimes has to struggle against a tide of resentment from longer-term residents.
"If I stay distant, it’s very easy to say ‘English only,’ and say that everybody should go back home," she says. "That’s the danger of getting to know them, if you will. You might like them."
She does have the advantage of having a husband who was sent to Colombia for his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and their family has been able to bond with the large Aztecdescended family that moved into a former rental home across the street two years ago and fixed it up.
Her communication with the matriarch of that family depends on having one of the kids around, but most of that family is bilingual and one, a 7-year-old boy, is teased as the "family gringo" for refusing to speak Spanish.
But when Meek and her husband were getting ready to send their oldest son to kindergarten, she wasn’t pleased with what she saw at Holmes Elementary School.
"I went and sat in on a class, and it was after Christmas, and they were working on learning the letter W. I asked them what would happen if my child is reading already?
"And they said ‘oh, he’ll just have to wait for the others.’ "
Scott Meek, now 13, was sent to the back-to-basics Franklin East Elementary School, and his five brothers and sisters are following suit.
This year, Holmes has a student body which is 85 percent Hispanic and a new principal. Darlene Johnson left the same job at Desert Canyon Elementary School in Scottsdale for a shorter commute to a more diverse school. Holmes has earned a "performing" label from the state education department, as opposed to Desert Canyon’s "excelling."
Johnson is not aware of significant ethnic tension among her students, and says having a high number of children learning English doesn’t slow the pace of instruction for those raised with the language.
"If anything, I think that would lead to an increased pace of learning, because we all know how important early language acquisition is," she says.
She adds that Holmes is hardly emptying out, with enrollment at a three-year high of around 800 and a sixth kindergarten class added after the school year began. Ninety-one percent of those kindergartners are Hispanic.
"When you were just asking me about that I started thinking, ‘you mean there’s more kids?’ " she says of the neighborhood kids who don’t attend Holmes.
The infusion of new residents from south of the border has transformed this area from a bastion of the old, mostly white and Mormon Mesa into something much more cosmopolitan, a process many, many cities have already gone through. Carlos Valenzuela was brought to California from Mexico as an 8-year-old. Now 44 and a plumber, he lives on Horne near Southern with his wife and three children.
One thing he’ll say about where he lives: It’s no Pico Rivera, the suburb east of Los Angeles where he grew up and lost several friends to gang violence. "There hasn’t been one single drive-by shooting here. That’s the biggest advantage," he notes.
But a man did get out of a car several years ago, in front of the rental house next to Valenzuela’s, and sprayed it with automatic gunfire, targeting a recent tenant.
Today, Valenzuela is worried about speeding traffic up and down Horne, and has a running battle with his current next-door neighbors over the loud music they favor.
"Now on the weekend it’s a different story, but if they do it during the week, I have to get up at four in the morning," he says.
The United Amigos live within the Mesa Police Department’s Beat 18, which covers 1 1 /2 square miles of culturally diverse neighborhoods between Broadway Road, Mesa Drive, Stapley Drive and U.S. 60. From April through June, Beat 18 had 158 calls about loud music or noise, the most of the city’s 31 beats. The citywide average for those three months was 78 calls per beat.
Mesa neighborhood outreach director Ray Villa said the clash of cultures is at the heart of most disputes over loud music.
"In Latin America, especially in Mexico and especially in the evenings, they tend to gather in front of their homes, because they don’t have much of a backyard," he says. "Americans are used to gathering in their backyards, where they’re concealed from the world."
Meek hears from grumpy gringos about this issue all the time, and says, "It’s the one area where there’s a legitimate complaint, and it’s not just people being prejudiced."
Mesa’s new "loud party" ordinance was pushed by City Councilman Kyle Jones, himself a United Amigo.
Valenzuela considers the police department his ally in the disputes he tends to have with the neighbors, most of whom have been Hispanic.
But he was dismayed at the slower response his wife, who mostly speaks Spanish, received after she talked to a Spanishspeaking operator about a stray dog earlier this year.
He also has more global concerns about identity theft by illegal immigrants — including those he works with — after somebody stole his daughter’s Social Security number four years ago and used it in the purchase of a mattress at SleepAmerica.
He’s closely monitoring his sense of how safe the neighborhood is, and when it might be time to move.
"On a scale of one to 10 with 10 being the worst, we’re at about a five right now," he says.
He’s planning to take a good look at the crime statistics for at least a one-mile radius around his house and, depending on what he learns, may decide to move.
But, he says, "one reason I might try to stick it out a little longer, is the gas."
The United Amigos area is one of the candidates to be Mesa’s next "opportunity zone," which means that for the next 18 months the city will infuse extra local and federal resources into an area considered to be "on the verge of decline."
Potential neighborhoods qualify on the basis of age of the homes, crime statistics and poverty rates, as well as the ability of residents to organize and reverse some of the problems associated with aging neighborhoods.
As part of the process of selecting an opportunity zone, the city’s neighborhood outreach office held a meeting for residents at Holmes Elementary in September.
One of the last signs guiding people into the school cafeteria read "Junta de vecinos," Spanish for meeting of neighbors.
At the meeting, about 60 people, roughly half Latino and the other half Anglo, sat at largely segregated tables and said what they do and don’t like about their neighborhood.
The colored slips of paper listing "challenges" grew into a quilt on the front wall as neighbors listed grievances about alley upkeep and activity, speeding cars, an "illegal church" and people fixing cars in their front yards.
The "white" side of the room tended to dominate the dialogue. Most of those sitting on the "Hispanic" side appeared to be there just to listen, except for the kids, of which there were many.
Ray Villa, Mesa’s neighborhood outreach director, says the United Amigos meeting drew the biggest crowd out of the 12 the city has held this fall in its potential opportunity zones.
But there was little interest in the next step — signing up for one of the issue-specific "teams" the city wants to set up.
"I got the impression that there were issues there, and most of them were minor issues. The issues were addressed, and they were not so big, they didn’t want to invest a lot of time in them," Villa says.
Hannah Meek thinks the lack of enthusiasm has more to do with human nature and the tendency to let those who are already shouldering the burden continue to do so.
But she and her husband won’t consider leaving United Amigos, even though they could afford to go to an area without the extra baggage an aging neighborhood carries, no matter who the inhabitants are.
"We’re not going to move because we like it where we are, and we don’t need a new house to find happiness," she says.