Day Two of Series
The racket of bells and horns that sounds from the small food cart is welcome fanfare in this west Mesa neighborhood. Heads swivel at the noise, and finally the source is located — a handpainted cart being pushed by a Mexican man with a mustache — a man they seem to know well.
He has a captive audience in the late afternoon, when the apartments and homes surrounding Pioneer Park are abuzz with activity. Children play in front of an apartment complex, women with grocery bags stroll down the sidewalk from the bus stop and men in dirty work clothes trudge home from a long day at construction sites.
The cart pusher stops several times to sell frozen fruit bars, called paletas, in exotic flavors such as mango and guayaba. Another cart down the street sells chicharrones, deep fried pork rinds drizzled with fiery chili sauce. One teenager breaks from a pick-up game of soccer to score a paleta.
"Hey man, get one later," his teammates yell. "Come on, you’re holding up the game."
He shakes them off and inhales the white fruit bar to get back in the game.
One kid keeps a paleta for himself while handing another to a man sitting on one of several apartment balconies overlooking the park.
The balconies are crowded with odds and ends — drapery rods, furniture and toys — but a popular gathering place for residents to spend an entire evening.
As it grows dark, the bluish flicker of television sets glows through many windows.
Salsa music kicks up from one house as the family grills dinner in the front yard.
Behind the apartments are aging painted slump block homes with low roofs and small yards. Some are well-kept and quaint, while others are overgrown with weeds and in desperate need of painting.
Lack of garages means cars are squeezed into carports and driveways; many overflow into the side streets.
Low walls with decorative wrought iron surround many front yards, a common feature of homes in Mexico.
These homes may be older and a bit drab compared to those in the city’s newer developments. But life here is uniquely vibrant.
In these neighborhoods in west and central Mesa, a burgeoning Hispanic population has carved out a world of its own, blending new American opportunities with the familiar sights and smells of a home left behind.
On this Thursday night, Reyna Martinez’s street is quiet except for the occasional car that passes by blaring Spanish music from the radio. Her teenage daughter is out front visiting with a friend and neighbor, while two other children are inside studying for a test. A Spanish soap opera, or telenovela, plays out in the background. Her husband, Francisco, a restaurant cook, is at work.
The stucco home on Pepper Place in Mesa, painted a bright robin’s egg blue, is small for Reyna, Francisco and their nine kids. But it is a warm home and one of the nicest — definitely the most colorful — on the block.
Reyna Martinez decided to settle in Mesa 14 years ago for the same reasons that continue to attract new Latino immigrants.
"It is more tranquil than Phoenix," she explains in Spanish. "It’s a better place to raise a family. We are all looking for a better future."
Her husband’s family lives here as well, in a cluster of homes behind hers.
Even after 14 years, Martinez, who grew up just across the border in Nogales, Mexico, has yet to master the English language, although she understands more than she lets on.
"Don’t think we’re stupid," she says in Spanish. "I can read English OK, but I doubt what it says sometimes."
But Martinez, like many immigrants trying to fit in, can be sensitive about her heavy foreign accent when attempting to speak English.
Not that she really needs to. Within a few miles from her home are hundreds of businesses that cater to Spanish speakers — from the booming mom-and-pop industry of carnicerías selling meat and panaderías selling bread to large chains such as Food City, banks and cell phone providers who now post bilingual signs.
Even many of the teachers and principals at her children’s schools are bilingual to better communicate with the majority Hispanic demographic in this part of the city.
When the situation calls for something beyond her limited English, she must rely on her kids or husband, who all speak it fluently.
But Martinez is more than a stay-at-home mom. She has become an ambassador of sorts to the new immigrants who live down the street from her in los trailers, a ramshackle stretch of about 200 mobile homes. She points to one small, run-down trailer, where up to 11 family members live at one time.
"Here, children are sleeping in the kitchen," she says.
They all come here to live the American dream, but many of these low-income families still live in dire conditions.
"We hurt, what we’re going through," Martinez says. "Even though they want a better life for their kids, they don’t know where to look for it. There are so many needs here.
"We are fighting. Working for something huge."
Martinez makes daily visits to the families she has befriended in the trailers, including good friend Alma Lopez, who has only been in this country for five years from Obregón, Mexico.
On this night, Lopez’s 8-yearold son asks her for help with his spelling homework, but the directions and spelling words are in English. She helps him as best she can.
"We live here because it’s affordable," Lopez says.
(Lopez and her family moved a few weeks later to Eloy, where her husband has family and was able to find work in the fields.) SOCIAL GROUP Reyna Martinez digs her hands into the mound of flour and hot lard.
With strong arms, she vigorously kneads and slaps the tortilla dough into shape.
Lucy Duarte does the same in her own large bowl.
It is 9 a.m. inside the kitchen at First Evangelical Lutheran Church on Date Street in Mesa, and the women are just beginning the laborious task of making a huge batch of tortillas.
The weekly ritual takes several hours.
It is not only a time for the friends to laugh and gossip in Spanish, but also to raise money for other immigrant families desperately needing a hand.
The women volunteers form part of the backbone of Comité de Familias en Acción, a small group of immigrant women that helps other Spanish-speaking families improve their living conditions by providing them with educational, health, housing and financial information.
The money they raise from selling tortillas, at $3 a dozen, will help jump start projects to get better housing in their neighborhood and develop community programs.
"There’s this perception that they are adding to the backlog of welfare," says Comité adviser Carmen Guerrero, a longtime Mesa Hispanic activist. "Nothing can be further from the truth. They are very resourceful and trying their best to keep their heads above water and pay their bills on time."
Many of the women who live in "los trailers" also are involved, infused with the desire to improve their living situation.
The group recently started making colorful beaded rosaries, which they will sell at $25 a piece at churches and the upcoming Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, festival at Pioneer Park on Nov. 2.
Nearly every picnic table and ramada is occupied at Mesa’s Riverview Park at Dobson Road and Loop 202 this Saturday afternoon.
Two children’s birthday parties are sharing one huge ramada. A piñata shaped like the Disney character Nemo has already been whacked to pieces, while a Pokemon piñata full of candy still leans against a bench.
Riverview Park is where many Mesa Hispanics come to relax, socialize and play sports.
It is a gathering place, much like the town squares and parks in the middle of every Latin American town — a place to see and be seen. Especially for large families who are confined to small apartments and trailers with no backyards.
"Where are they going to have parties? Have friends come over from school? There is no room," Martinez says. "They go to the park."
The Mendoza family brought a spread of food for a weekend get-together.
The cousins, parents, grandparents and siblings are scattered throughout Mesa and Chandler, but they see each other frequently.
"We’ll do this more now that it’s getting cooler out," says Lupita Mendoza. "It’s just a good place to come and be with family."
The men kick around a soccer ball while the women chat in Spanish and scoop marinated pork into corn tortillas to make carnitas. They top it off with cabbage and homemade salsa.
"This is a Mexican picnic," says Lupita’s brother, Ramon Mendoza. "We just need some music now."