Phoenix's Mexican Heritage


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Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are interwoven in the fabric of Phoenix starting with the first thread. Phoenix's founder married a Mexican woman, and the first elected lawman in the city was Mexican. Learn how Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have played an integral role in the birth, rebirth, and flourishing of Phoenix.


Narrator: When the very first thread was woven into the fabric that became Phoenix, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were there to help with the weaving.

Frank Barrios: In the earlier years, 50% of the population of Phoenix was Mexican American, Mexican/Mexican American. And they -- the population never grew greater than that, but -- in fact, it became lesser later on -- but they also had a very strong voice, they were very well accepted by the community, by the other 50% in those earlier years.

Narrator: Despite the great number of early Phoenicians of Mexican descent, little has been said about their significant role in the development of the city. Jack S willing is famous for founding Phoenix. What is not as widely known is that he did what many Anglo men did at the time in Arizona: marry a Mexican woman. Her name was Trinidad Espinosa Swilling. She's known as La Madre de Phoenix, the mother of Phoenix.

Frank Barrios: She was from Hermosillo, Sonora, and she met Jack in Tucson and he married her in Tucson in, I believe, it was 1865. And then he brought her north. He first went to Wickenburg, and then from Wickenburg, he came into what is now Phoenix.

Narrator: Swilling resurrected Phoenix from the ashes by just adding water. He revived a network of canals in the vicinity of those once used by Hohokam. Many of those doing the back-breaking labor were Mexican, but at that time – as now -- those of Mexican descent were more than just laborers.

Frank Barrios: In the earlier years, many of the business owners, and probably a large percentage, were very wealthy Mexican/Mexican-American businessmen in Phoenix, and that continued for many years, because you -- yes, you had the very poor who were coming across -- uneducated and poor people -- but you also had a base of people that were businesspeople.

Narrator: In 1881, Enrique "Henry" Garfias became one of the first elected lawmen in Phoenix, and he would be the last elected Hispanic official until 1953.

Frank Barrios: Born in California when it was part of Mexico, he came into the Phoenix area in the 1870s, soon after Phoenix was founded. He was very popular both with Hispanic and non-Hispanic people. He was elected five times Town Marshal and three times Constable of Phoenix. And he -- you could write very similar stories to those of Wyatt Earp with Mr. Garfias.

Narrator: The significant influence of Hispanics lasted until the railroad came into town in the 1880s. That's when more Anglos came in. Along with those changes and loss of influence came discrimination and harassment. One of the ways the growing schism played out was in the pews. Mexicans built and funded the first Catholic church in Phoenix in 1881. Just a little over 30 years later, Spanish-language masses were kicked to the basement of the church. Mexicans and Mexican Americans responded by building their own church about a mile away, Immaculate Heart. Although Hispanics were barred from some swimming pools, many attended schools with Anglos and were able to eat at most restaurants and sit anywhere they pleased in theaters.

Frank Barrios: That was my Mecca right there. I mean, that's -- I don't think there was a weekend that my buddies and I did not go to the -- to the movies.

Narrator: Downtown Phoenix theaters were important to Julian Reveles. He was born and raised in the Grant Park neighborhood just south of downtown, one of several barrios, or neighborhoods, formed after the majority of Mexicans were forced to live south of Van Buren for decades. However, some families with the means lived in Anglo areas. Reveles, a movie critic, fondly remembers growing up in the Grant Park barrio.

Julian Reveles: A lot of good times at the pool. You know, swimming is kind of a right of life, you know, something that you do. And Grant Park itself, the little stage that we have here, that's where we had these "concerts," we called them, and everybody -- it was either Tuesdays or Wednesdays, and kids in the neighborhood learned how to dance.

Narrator: Reveles's family attended church at St. Anthony's, and he also watched movies at St. Pius, just a few blocks away. It was a small, intimate neighborhood. Everything was within easy walking distance.

Julian Reveles: This park here, we played basketball, we had the basketball courts. We just did a lot of cavorting in the park. It was the closest park next to the Boys' Club, the Westside Boys' Club, where we could all gather and do whatever it is that young kids do.

Narrator: Hortencia Ortiz grew up in the Grant Park barrio a few years before Reveles.

Hortencia Ortiz: We came to Phoenix when I was 4 years old. I started kindergarten at Grant School, which is on Sherman, I believe. We moved to 20th street and Adams. It was outside the city limits. I believe at that time the city limits ended at 16th street. And there were -- it was farming, it was an agriculture area. There were farms, dairy farms, and there was a cotton field -- not a cotton field, but a cornfield next to us. When it wasn't being planted, the circus used to stop there.

Narrator: She says discrimination was not a big factor growing up in Phoenix.

Hortencia Ortiz: Maybe there was, I was discriminated on, but I didn't notice it. I went along my merry way.

Narrator: As Hispanics came back from World War II, things started to change on the discrimination home front. A group of Hispanic veterans formed their own American Legion Organization, Post 41.

Frank Barrios: I can't say enough for the changes they did in the community. They just were not going to sit back, and where they found discrimination, they changed it.

Narrator: Hispanic political power was reestablished with the election of Adam Diaz to the Phoenix City Council in 1953. It grew in the 1960s with the Chicano Movement and hit a peak in the 1970s.

Frank Barrios: And it all culminated with the election of Raul Castro, who was born in Mexico and became Governor of Arizona.

Narrator: Mexican Americans and Mexicans continue to increase as a percentage of the
population in Phoenix, making up 28% of the city as of 2004. That growth, partly spurred by illegal immigration, has increased tensions between Anglos and Hispanics in a city Built by both.

Frank Barrios: I would even go as far as to say that probably everybody in the area in those early years either spoke Spanish or understood Spanish. The interplay between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic was very good.