Best Dream Act 2009 | James Garcia | La Vida | Phoenix

Immigrant raids, detentions, deportations. We read about it in the local news, but rarely do we get to know the people behind the headlines. That's where James E. Garcia comes in. A journalist, Arizona State University professor, and playwright, Garcia uses his literary talent to put a human face on the immigrant drama that is played out every day in downtown Phoenix.

The characters of his plays include day laborers, children torn from their families by immigration raids, and Mexican-Americans struggling with their own identities. We particularly liked Dream Act, a play about a smart young woman brought to the United States as a child by her undocumented parents. She aspires to go to medical school, but is blocked by her immigration status. Then there's Garcia's new play, The Tears of Lives, which follows three children who are left to fend for themselves when their father is caught up in an immigration raid. Based on true events, the children survive on their own for nearly a month before they are finally discovered and helped by local activists.

Garcia started writing plays in 2004, drawing upon his experience as a journalist. "Writing plays is the perfect combination of letting your imagination run wild and having an editorial opinion about the climate," he says. "Pretty much everything I've created onstage is also a commentary on the world I'm living in." Sounds good to us.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Macayo's is more than just a nice place to have dinner. This renowned Mexican restaurant is a great place to go to relive your lunchtime past over a plateful of flautas and a bowl of pico de gallo, because it's been standing on North Central Avenue for decades, and there's hardly anyone who can't recall having dined there "back when." Macayo's is also a traffic hazard, at least for out-of-town visitors or newbies who can't help but take their eyes off the road to gaze in shock (and possibly horror!) at the restaurant's gaudy façade. Its multi-hued, step-down front — which emulates the over-the-top stylings of a Mayan temple — has been screaming to passing traffic for decades.

This tarted-up Mexican mainstay is also a movie star, having appeared rather infamously in the 1969 movie Chastity, starring Cher as a hippie hitching rides in front of Macayo's. And, perhaps most notably, Macayo's is a leading chapter in the history of Mexican-American cuisine, because it is allegedly the place where the chimichanga was invented.

But we digress, because while Macayo's may be a local landmark, it's mostly a restaurant where people both famous (Bill Cosby, Fleetwood Mac, the Obamas) and infamous (Elvira, Liberace) have dined. Those of us outside the spotlight have also eaten at this garish Central Avenue location, which threw open its doors in 1952. When we're not dropping in for chips and salsa and quesadillas, Phoenicians can feast their eyes on the spectacle of our very own downtown Mayan temple.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

If there's anything going down in Guadalupe, William Robles is the first to know about it. That's one reason why so many reporters stay in contact with the local community activist, who can often be seen doing security for different private and city events or patrolling the square-mile municipality of 5,000 souls on his bike.

If Robles spots something happening, like a fire truck pulling up to a blazing home or MCSO deputies arresting a fellow Guadalupano, the 40-year-old acts as a one-man news outlet, firing off e-mails to local TV and print reporters. He also keeps them apprised when there's an important town hall meeting, a religious celebration, or a festival coming up.

Robles seems to be at every protest and every community gathering of note. And his activities are not just confined to Guadalupe. When the MCSO did a sweep of faraway Avondale, Robles was there to protest the sheriff. When Zack de la Rocha came to town last time, Robles was there, too, marching with his big drum, banging out a beat that seems to keep the nativists and Minutemen at bay.

In fact, days before the big May 2 march led by de la Rocha, Robles walked all the way from Guadalupe to the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Phoenix, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio keeps his offices. It was his personal protest for those suffering in Arpaio's vast incarceration complex. Dressed in black on a hot spring day, he carried before him a flag bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

When he's not on patrol or involved in a demonstration, Robles is usually studying computers at South Mountain Community College or spinning a combo of hip-hop and Yaqui music as "DJ BigWill" on the Yaqui tribe's radio station, KPYT 100.3 FM in Tucson. Robles is part Yaqui, like Guadalupe itself, which is half Yaqui Indian and half Mexican-American.

An easygoing guy, Robles is quick with a laugh and a joke. He likes Dr. Pepper and Chinese buffets and razzing his friends. Truth be told, it would be hard to imagine Guadalupe without him.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

If Phoenix human rights activist Lydia Guzman has ever had a lazy day in her life, we haven't seen it. Guzman, who heads two vital immigrant rights organizations, Respect/Respeto and Somos America, is usually a blur of motion. You might hear her voice on Spanish-language radio, urging listeners to call Respect/Respeto about being racially profiled. Or you might get the seat next to her when she's at the Legislature keeping an eye on hateful, anti-immigrant bills being considered there. And if Arpaio's doing a raid of a local business, collaring mothers and fathers and other regular workers at candle-making factories or car washes, Guzman will be there, too.

You might catch her on the evening news, talking about the hunger strikers in Joe's jails or the MCSO's atrocity du jour. But you won't catch her for long. Part of her duties at Respect/Respeto is gathering "testimony" of civil rights abuses and racial profiling. So she spends a lot of time on the phone with moms weeping because one of their grown children has been nabbed by the MCSO for being in the country sans papers, or interviewing crying children who've lost their moms and dads in the same manner. Often, she ventures into the jails, like to Estrella, to visit with Hispanic women who allege injuries at the hands of Arpaio's detention officers.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Guzman also cries a lot. The tears flow when she sees others recounting the pain or abuse they've endured. As you can imagine, it's emotionally draining, less a job than a calling. Something she has to do. Ask her what she wants for her birthday, and she'll tell you, "Joe Arpaio indicted and the 287(g) program ended." She's a selfless individual. But, hey, she ain't no saint. She can cuss up a storm when she's pissed. But she never forgets to give you a bear hug when you bid her goodbye.

Earlier this year, Guzman was elected president of Somos America ("We Are America," in English), a patchwork quilt of local organizations that came together during the 2006 pro-immigrant marches and demonstrations. The organization's prime directive is "to mobilize for social justice and equal rights for immigrant communities in Arizona." In other words, Guzman has her hands full. Again. Here's hoping she remembers to take a vacay once in a blue moon. Because one thing's for certain in "Ari-bama": the suffering and injustice will be here when she returns.

Alberto Alvaro Rios is a writer with a keen eye and an open heart who knows how to get out of the way of his own material. And the man's got some material. Born in Nogales in 1952, the son of a Mexican father and an English mother, he chronicles the real and imaginary borders that divide us as well as the unlikely things that bring us together. Regarding his childhood, Rios once said, "Spanish was all around me, but my mother was there, too — with a British accent. I had a zoo of sounds." His memoir about growing up on the border, Capirotada (it's the name of a popular Mexican bread pudding), won the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award, and was designated the One Book Arizona choice for 2009. He's also written 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which is this year's The Dangerous Shirt, and three collections of short stories.

If you've been to the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, you've probably seen his poem "The Museum Heart" engraved on the wall in the building's lobby. In 2005, when Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, visited Arizona, Governor Janet Napolitano asked Rios to write a poem commemorating the occasion. He did, in English and in Spanish. The poem concludes: "Let us turn the map until we see clearly / The border is what joins us / Not what separates us." For over 27 years, students at Arizona State University have had the benefit of his instruction; these days, he's a Regents' Professor there, with an endowed chair in English. He's also tried his hand at playwriting, and he hosts Books & Co., the locally produced PBS show featuring interviews with contemporary authors. Rios has lived all over the state, and now resides in Chandler. Fittingly, the Arizona Historical League has bestowed its lifetime achievement award on him, designating him an Arizona HistoryMaker. Gracias, Alberto. Thank you.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

It's the coolest clique in town — a group of female artists who practice their craft(s) in the name of their heroine: Frida Kahlo. Once a year, the Phoenix Fridas throw a birthday party for the enigmatic late artist (she would've turned 102 this summer) and every day, they make art that — in one way or another — honors her spirit. The best-known member is Kathy Cano-Murillo of "Crafty Chica" fame, but local painters Tracy Dove and Emily Costello are also members, as is Leticia Amezaga, who does everything from playing in a band to designing a line of clothing — and she's a pro at the Bedazzler. ¡Viva la Frida! And long may the Phoenix Fridas craft.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

Allison Young

There is only one chef in the Valley who would have no qualms about referring to the majority of the men in the culinary world as "10-foot-high tokes."

With her cropped hair, unedited demeanor, eclectic art collection, and some of the best leg tattoos around, Silvana Salcido Esparza is clearly as badass as they come. Oh, and she's also one of the Valley's best-known and most respected chefs. Esparza owns and runs Barrio Café with her partner, Wendy Gruber, and serves up some of the best "Mexican-inspired" cuisine, as she calls it, that we've ever had.

It says, "Save water, drink tequila" in a footnote on her menu, but Esparza's secret, she says, is love. From the enchiladas del mar to the decadent slow-roasted pork with achiote rojo and sour orange with salsa Yucateca, Esparza puts her heart and soul into her food. "You cook with love," she says, and she makes sure of it every day (if she's angry or upset, she says, her food refuses to turn out right).

A baker's daughter from Merced, California, Esparza has her mother's recipes memorized on her heart, as she puts it, and she puts her father's bread on the table for every meal served at Barrio Café. She spent six years working in a bank in Miami, Florida counting the cash brought in daily by cartels, before she gave it up and went home when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She spent a year learning about her Mexican roots through her mother's food and helping her fight the disease before taking her place at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in the early '90s.

Then, in 2000, just as she turned 40, she quit her job, cashed in her 401(k) and sold or gave away everything she had but her '68 VW. She headed to Mexico to spend the next year of her life learning from — and cooking with — the people of Mexico. She slept on mats in huts in tiny villages and went from place to place by bus. She told the people she met that she had come to Mexico to get in touch with her soul, and to find her voice. She did.

Esparza has taken a true Phoenix barrio, at 16th Street and Thomas, where her restaurant is located, and turned it into one of the Valley's culinary draws — all without selling out, or compromising her roots, or becoming any less badass.

"We put it together with love," she says of the restaurant. And we love to eat there.

Best of Phoenix 2009 In Photos

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