Los Altos Ranch Market
Timur Guseynov
We'd like to be jet-setting hipsters with unlimited travel budgets. Sadly, we're just working stiffs with tiny bank accounts. When we're ready for some out-of-town fun without the TSA screening, we head to Phoenix Ranch Market on Sunday for some parking lot people-watching. Enormous grills cook up delectable eats while fantastically loud local radio stations with promotional booths tempt you with contests and prizes. Furniture stores spill onto the street with couches and love seats galore, and portrait studios are all ready to take your picture. Jewelers with their wares are ready to make you sparkle, and a steady stream of families provides the best people-watching around. And that's before we're inside.

Grab some agua fresca and carne asada for sustenance before heading back to the parking lot. Cowboy hats, boots, and colorful clothes abound in an ever-changing sea of people that will make you forget you've never left AZ. Pick up a piñata for a souvenir, and no one will believe you didn't day-trip south of the border.

We knew we'd found the best Mexican neighborhood in town when we heard that Silvana Salcido Esparza lives there. After all, Chef Silvana, as she's known to fans of her Barrio Café, runs one of the best Mexican restaurants in town, on one of our most-traveled paths, 16th Street.

We asked her to share some Mexican favorites in Phoenix, and among her suggestions was this one, for "Best Mexican Neighborhood."

"All you have to do is look around to see that this little corner of Phoenix is a mecca of Mexico City and Oaxaca transplants," Silvana tells us. She points to Mini Mercado Oaxaca, and Los Reyes de la Torta as great stops for authentic Oaxacan specialties and Mexican sandwiches, respectively, and also points to the local Food City's tortilla factory and bakery as must-dos. Beyond that, parts of Sunnyslope (particularly Hatcher) are, indeed, a mini-Mexico, featuring strip malls packed with doctors, dentists, discotecas, and botas de vaquero.

Another of Silvana's Sunnyslope favorites is the Mexican hot dog vendors situated most evenings at Cave Creek and Mountain View, and also at Dunlap and Second Street.

"Forget south Central," she says. "For a greater sense of community, head towards the Slope. The meth-head zombies are gone and replaced by the little Oaxacans on bikes."

The Purple Lizard
This upscale boutique in central Phoenix takes the prize in this category because it offers items we simply have never seen anywhere else. Sure, there's the expected mix of loteria games, Frida Kahlo replicas and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figurines. But resting on a high shelf is a collection of true treasures — wood statues of some of Latin America's most-revered santos, hand-carved and painted circa 1930. San Juan and Santa Catarina stand next to each other, 80-year-old paint barely flaking off their faces, sad eyes carved into the wood by some highly skilled hand south of the border. Nearby, the greatest find at all, a large wooden statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe completed in the early '40s, stands guard over a table of sweet-smelling candles. The statues, like everything else in the store, are priced to reflect their value, but they won't empty your wallet. Nothing's more than $300.

The little shop is also packed with clothing — everything from basic floral embroidered linen to floor-length silk skirts, including hard-to-find brands like CP Shades, Flax, and the amazing Krista Larson. Another favorite find was the skull-themed jewelry — all silver worked in Mexico and imported to the store.

Frida Kahlo remains an important Latina cultural and feminist icon for many artists (even after that awful movie they made about her a few years ago), so it makes sense that she's the namesake for this local women's artist collective. The Phoenix Fridas, as you might guess, focus their work around Mexican folk-art traditions, though they go about it in very different ways. The group works with diverse mediums — some women paint, others are jewelers or clothing designers, another works mostly on crafts like scrapbooks and knick-knacks — but they all love Frida and they identify themselves as feminists... whatever that word means these days.

These chicks love Frida to the point that they've even given each other nicknames: Smoker Frida, Tia Frida, Dead Frida, Crafty Frida, Beader Frida, Paper Frida, Frida Bill and, well, you get the point. Like a Latin-flavored sewing circle, the women share ideas, support each other and promote their art. They show occasionally at Paper Heart and their works can also be purchased through their MySpace page. In spite of the slightly misleading title, you don't have to be a Latina to join. You just have to love art and, of course, all things Frida.

About 10 years ago, the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation department noticed a town that was brown. "With Latinos poised to become the majority in Phoenix in the near future," says Carmela Ramirez, "we needed to be ready to help empower our community and stop others from taking advantage of us." Ramirez, along with co-founders Albert Santana and Diane Figueroa, accepted the city's challenge to create an organization that could help the Latino community boost knowledge about health, education, business, and arts.

Now, the Latino Institute's highly popular signature events routinely draw thousands of families — both newly arrived and natives. Every year, the Latino Institute offers a Teen Conference, a Back to School Fair and a large festival celebrating Dia de los Niños. The events are always non-alcoholic, non-threatening bilingual forums where Latinos can ask just about any question on their minds to the people who have all of the answers. Bankers, police officers, artists, teachers, business leaders and mortgage lenders are just a few of the panelists and speakers who show up with information at the Latino Institute events. At least five other cities in the country have modeled similar programs after the Phoenix Latino Institute. Nice!

The competition for Best Bigot was fierce. With the debate over illegal immigration raging, there were so many nominees: Sheriff Joe Arpaio, County Attorney Andy Thomas, Governor Janet Napolitano, State Representative Russell Pearce, white supremacist J.T. Ready. It was hard to ignore Arpaio's illegal immigrant hotline. Who can forget Thomas' novel idea of charging illegals with "conspiring" to smuggle themselves into the country (prosecutions be damned)? And Pearce has had a hard-on for Mexicans from way back. He's the one always drumming up legislation to try to keep them out, like the bill that his political ally Napolitano actually signed to prosecute businesses for hiring undocumented workers. Never mind that it won't work and, in the off chance it could, would cripple the economy of the state.

But the guy who gets the nod this year is Rusty Childress, Kia dealer and coddler of neo-Nazis like Ready. Childress hosted Ready at one of his Thursday-night hate confabs at his Kia dealership, when people who would have been attracted to the KKK in another era show up to blather about how much they hate Mexicans. And the political extremists at the meetings didn't end with Ready. Besides J.T., all but Thomas and Napolitano on the aforementioned list have showed up to entertain the rednecks at Childress Kia. It's Childress who's been the behind-the-scenes puppet-master of the anti-illegal-immigration movement here. And... he didn't have to do it to curry the political favor of the Gomers in the electorate, either. He did it because he's dedicated, apparently, to bigotry. He didn't even let the fact that he has no problem selling automobiles to Mexicans get in the way of his dedication to the cause. We say Rusty Childress is the bigot's bigot for 2007.

While it's moved away from its mostly reggaeton format in the past year, Latino Vibe still airs NYC DJ Kazzanova's reggaeton mix in a prime Saturday spot (8 to 10 p.m.), and its own on-air talent — like the lovely Jackie Morales on weekdays and Raul RocDaHouse on weekends — still sometimes spin songs by the genre's breakout stars like Daddy Yankee, Tego Calderon, Pitbull, and Don Omar. "Club 95" has just been including more palatable pop and Top 40 hip-hop in its play lists lately — Nelly Furtado, Shakira, Eminem — and that's not a bad thing, even when we get to a Ricky Martin and Fat Joe collaboration. Because this is a station that's got spicy personality and isn't afraid to play the new Akon song right before some Kumbia All-Stars. They go with what works, but they also try new things —like DJ Ruben S. hosting Latin Ladies Night at Scorch Bar every Thursday, or posting an online community calendar directing listeners to stuff like Spanish tours of the Pueblo Grande Museum and the International Hispanic Games. At 95.1, the Vibe is bilingual and bicultural, but most importantly, it's fun and frisky.
They have big brown muscles, big brown mouths and big brown boobs. But most importantly, they have big brains and huge hearts. The hot, hipster crew from "El Break" is the best shot in the arm of political activism for the local Latino community since Chicanos por la Causa. This is a modern day crop of activistas who have their own rough-around-the edges/cutting-edge AM radio show on Sundays at La Buena Onda 1190. Luis Avila, Nuvia Enriquez, Laura Suarez, Obed Hurtado and others aren't afraid to launch a hunger strike to support the DREAM Act one week, and then throw a blow-out rock en español bash the next, with free-flowing spiked horchata. You can catch their show on Sundays. "El Break" is mainly in Spanish, but even if you are español-challenged, you'll get the vibe and drift from this smart, smart band of radio bandidos.
Albert Lineses III, better known as DJ AL3, has been dedicated to building a better Latin nightclub community since he began spinning mixes around the Valley in the early '90s. With the establishment of Ritmo Latino Entertainment in 2005, AL3 created an enterprise "for Latinos, by Latinos," which has grown to include the hottest weekend Latin dance nights in town. There's Caliente Chica (Fridays) at El Matador and Ritmo Saturdays at Coach & Willie's (both hosted by AL3). The latter night touts itself as a Rocky Point-style party, and with around 800 hot chicas and macho men packing the place, it's hard to argue against that. There's also Climax Sundays at Baby Dolls, where DJ Ruhkas takes over the boards while beautiful babes shake their buns. And while the Ritmo Latino DJs (including AL3) lay the Latin music on heavy, they don't stick to just one style; they're as likely to drop some old school Madonna or a new Sean Paul track as they are Gloria Estefan and reggaeton. But one of the coolest aspects of RLE is its Web site, which offers a slew of downloadable mixes in genres from hip-hop to R&B to house and, of course, Latin.

BEST LOCAL HOPE FOR A RONSTADT RETURN

Marisa Ronstadt

Her cousin Linda ain't got nothing on her. Marisa Ronstadt is making a name for herself in the music world. After spending years touring locally in Phoenix with different groups including Los Amigos, Pazport, and Straight Up, Ronstadt is starting to get recognized in La-La Land. The South Mountain High graduate grew up rooted by the rock and mariachi sounds of the music in her famous family, while being influenced by '80s pop, old school, and R&B.

She can sing it all. And she's really purty, too. The wildly popular band Quetzal took notice of this homegirl's big pipes and hooked her up with the group Monte Carlo 76, where Ronstadt now sings lead. Monte Carlo 76 will release their new album, Marisela, early next year and then, Ronstadt says, they'll hit the road for a tour.

And we might as well start the rumor mill early. The chisme from Marisa is that the Ronstadt family, led by Linda, could/maybe/might begin work on a project together soon and very soon. We just hope Marisa and the fam call it Brown Bayou. Or Canciones de mi Food City.

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