All Anglo No More, a Latin Phoenix Rises

In backlash era, Latinos here are holding onto social gains

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The face of America is undeniably changing. Eight years from now, demographers say, Hispanics will replace African-Americans as the largest minority group in the United States.

From corner cash machines to Congress, another language and another culture are influencing the way Americans look at their country - and changing the way they live their daily lives.

Just 125 miles north of the Mexican border, Phoenix is embracing this transformation. While most metropolises near the border have long been integrated, Phoenix has remained largely homogeneous - until recently.

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In the 1990s, the booming economy here has brought thousands of Hispanic newcomers to the Valley of the Sun, making it one of the nation's fastest growing Latino centers. It provides a window into how the most significant demographic shift in America this century can affect a city's commerce and identity.

"Phoenix was a kind of Anglo enclave when it was founded," says Gary Keller Crdenas, director of the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University. "Now it's accelerating at a higher rate than the rest of the country - but from that lower base."

Among the signs of change:

* The Hispanic population in Phoenix is growing three times faster than the non-Hispanic population.

* Hispanic Business magazine has ranked Phoenix as the nation's No. 2 market for new Hispanic businesses.

* The two local Spanish-language television channels say the number of households watching Spanish television is growing faster than in any of the country's other top 15 Hispanic markets.

Yet Phoenix - with 375,000 natives of Mexico - remains distinct from other cities with large numbers of Hispanics. Although Phoenix's population has skyrocketed recently, experts say that this sixth-largest metropolitan area in the US has so far avoided many problems plaguing other major cities.

"San Diego is getting to be too much like Los Angeles - crowded and congested," says Dr. Crdenas. "And there are some Hispanic areas in L.A. that look like the third world.... The bad press [about] San Diego and L.A. means that we get an extra push."

In many instances, that means attracting more middle-class Hispanics. Although Phoenix draws its share of gardeners and migrant workers, says Crdenas, Phoenix's growing high-tech industry and strong universities, coupled with Arizona's weak welfare system, ensure that a significant number of entrepreneurial Hispanics settle in the valley.

The lure of tolerance

Others note that Arizona is perceived as more welcoming and tolerant than California or Texas, where tensions have risen over illegal immigration. The backlash against affirmative action and illegal immigration has not resonated here to the degree it has in other parts of the US.

In fact, the conflict over such issues has had just the opposite effect in Arizona, according to Ray Arvizu, president of a Phoenix advertising and promotions business.

It galvanized Hispanics to protect the social gains they have already made, he says, and made them stand up as a cultural and demographic force. "It sent a message to everybody that this market is here."

And this market has had a substantial impact on the community.

"You cannot take for granted the billions of dollars this market spends or generates. It is a financial and numerical reality," says Sandra Ferniza, director of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Hispanics here in Arizona's largest city spend an estimated $5 billion annually and are forming businesses at a faster rate than in the rest of the US. From 1987 to 1992, the number of Hispanic businesses in Arizona grew by 81 percent. They now account for 7 percent of all businesses in the state, says the US Census Bureau.

Rise of Latino culture

Culturally, the Hispanic influence has also surged. Once thought of as a weak market for Latino entertainment, Phoenix has now become a routine stop for big-name Hispanic musicians. Upscale Scottsdale, famous as a golf haven, now hosts two Latino nightclubs. And, a new demand for Latino theater is emerging where many said none existed before. About 50 Latino-owned restaurants have opened in the past few years, reports The Arizona Republic.

But Hispanics have yet to parlay their increasing influence into strong corporate or political power. There currently are no Hispanics on the Phoenix City Council, only one-eighth of Arizona's US congressional delegation is Hispanic, and only five of Arizona's 25 largest publicly traded companies have Hispanics in senior management. Two of those firms have Hispanics who sit in corporate boardrooms.

But it only a matter of time before they appear in greater numbers, says Ferniza, as Hispanics make their way up the business and political ladder.

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