Primary Colors

A Phoenix City Council race is pitting Hispanic hopes against black history

But immigration is a major issue facing the city of Phoenix, and in the neighborhoods of District 8, it is the most basic of debates, affecting the living conditions of immigrants and citizens alike.

Immigrant families are doubling and tripling up in houses and apartments built to hold fewer people. Alleys mount with trash. Shacks are added to already dilapidated houses, and detached garages are closed in to accommodate more newcomers.

The failure of city officials to meet these pressures has only heightened frictions between old timers, who see their neighborhoods going down the tubes, and newcomers who are scrambling to get a foothold.

Yet the divisions go beyond those separating the old and new.

"As Latinos, Chicanos, or whatever you want to call us," says Carlos Avelar, "we are as different from the newly-arrived Mexican in terms of our linguistics, our culture and our religion as a Mexican is from a Colombian, or an Argentinean. We may have some of the same roots, some of the same likes and dislikes. But we're very different. There are differences between Americans and Englishmen. The myth is that we're one monolithic group."

"It's nice to be united but get real," says immigration attorney Emelia Banuelos, a Vera supporter. "I say something and the Salvadorans get pissed off at me. I say something else and the Cubans get pissed off at me. Guatemalans, it's another matter."

That makes it hard for Hispanics to line up behind a single candidate.

And Avelar notes that unnecessary rifts have arisen from too many Hispanic candidates running in the same race.

That occurred in 1996 when Tommy Espinoza challenged Mary Rose Wilcox for the County Board of Supervisor's slot now held by Wilcox.

"People are still feeling the pain over that race," says Luis Ibarra, president of Friendly House, a Latino-oriented social-service agency. "Here we had two people who are pretty high in esteem in the community and they're running against each other."

The larger Latino failure is getting eligible voters to the polls. The black community is much more successful.

"The reality is, if you look at voter turnout, it's very low in Hispanic communities," says Avelar, who is backing Fimbres.

In the last District 8 election, in 1997, turnout in some largely Hispanic precincts was a paltry 5 percent. Key black precincts reported voter turnout of 15 percent. The city's average turnout that year was 20.5 percent.

Hispanic leaders say this weakness at the polls is a combination of apathy and a sizeable contingent of recent immigrants, legal and illegal, who cannot vote. The Hispanic population also tends to be younger.

African Americans are far more politically entrenched.

Though they amount to less than 20 percent of District 8's residents, blacks have flexed their political might by voting more consistently and more often as a unified bloc than any other group.

"We've been effective because we communicate well," says Heather Jenkins, a young African American who serves as Feliciano Vera's campaign manager. "It's been proven over time that African Americans can put certain personal issues and differences aside when it comes to these elections. We know how to come together."

Still, Jenkins is a friend of Vera's and says she is helping him because she believes he is a young leader who isn't bogged down by the profound differences at play in the district.

She and others say the effectiveness of black voters stems partly from the involvement of clergy and churches. Churches historically have been the centers of African-American political and social action, nurturing leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. That role comes alive in the weeks leading up to elections as churches gear up to turn out the vote.

"You have every preacher in African-American churches the Sunday before the election telling them that it's their duty to go out and vote," says Avelar. "That has a tremendous impact."

But in the Hispanic community, he says, "about 90 percent of Latinos are Catholics. The Catholic Church is scrupulous about not getting involved. So, if we're lucky, they'll make an announcement that Tuesday is an election day."

Hispanics also lack the shared crucible of the civil rights movement and the struggle to gain the right to vote.

Leah Landrum-Taylor, who supports Mike Johnson, says the diligence of black voters was forged by that experience.

"It was so important in my family," she says, "that one of the rites of passage when I turned 18 was we got our voter registration form. This was a major major thing."

"On the way down to the polls," she says, "my mom and dad explained to me the history of how we got this right, that when I was born, this was something that was still being fought."

The emerging political competition between African Americans and Hispanics in District 8 is also playing out in other arenas.

The Roosevelt Elementary School District, located within city council District 8, was for years controlled by African Americans. In the past five years, the struggle for control of the school district has been a well-publicized donnybrook.

Latinos rose to power on the school board following the 1996 dismissal of administrator Charles Townsel, an African American. Townsel, who is now running for the city council seat, had misued school district funds. Ward-style political infighting continues, particularly among the Latinos, including board member Carlos Avelar.

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