Without state Representative Steve Montenegro, brown-bashers and notorious Sand Land nativists might not have a Hispanic willing to stand next to them in pictures, sing their praises on the stump, or cosponsor their mean-spirited anti-immigrant legislation. But Montenegro is good like that. Himself an immigrant from El Salvador whose family reportedly received a mysterious grant of asylum in the 1980s when the Reagan administration was denying most amnesty appeals from those fleeing the civil war in that small Latin American country, Montenegro has zero sympathy for any and all arrivals newer than he. Photogenic and well-spoken, Montenegro is a constant reminder that right-wing extremists come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. No wonder GOP political operative Constantin Querard recruited the guy. He's the perfect vendido ("sellout"). If you don't believe us, Google "vendido" and "Arizona" and see whose photo pops up.

These are the best of times to be a Spanish-speaking journalist in Arizona — what with Jan Brewer, Russell Pearce, Joe Arpaio, and the rest of the pro-SB 1070 crew still hanging around. Felix has uncovered so many good yarns that she practically swept the Arizona Press Club's contest for Spanish-language newspaper reporting at this year's awards banquet. Her piece on so-called "anchor babies" was a beauty, as was her sage commentary on the terrible truth that simply being an undocumented immigrant has been a death sentence in Arizona for so many. Her work on the Gabby Giffords shooting also was admirable. Felix is so good that some of us gringos just might take a night class and bone up on español so that we won't need a translation.

Even a year ago, we didn't think there'd be any way we'd be bestowing this award to President Obama, who was solidifying his reputation in the Latino community as a do-nothing president despite his promises that national immigration reform would be among his priorities.

But better late than never. On June 15, Obama lifted a huge weight off the backs of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents. He declared, in a major policy shift, that his administration "will stop deporting and begin granting work permits to younger illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children and have since led law-abiding lives." It grants temporary immunity — under certain conditions — for nearly 1 million immigrants who have been living in fear of deportation: if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16, are under 30, have been in the United States for at least five years, have no criminal history, have a high school diploma or GED, or served in the military. Obama's plan will also allow these young adults to apply for a work permit that will be good for two years, with no limits on how many times it can be renewed. While it has the elements of the DREAM Act, a similar plan that has failed to pass in Congress, Obama's executive decision is temporary and stops short of establish a path toward citizenship for those young people.

Best Basketball-Playing Robot Named for an Undocumented Immigrant

Angelica's Dream

Yeah, yeah, Steve Nash left the Phoenix Suns. But we're not fazed, because a group of kids at Carl Hayden High School built a fully functional layup-shooting robot in six weeks. The robot is named for Angelica Hernandez, an undocumented Carl Hayden alum (and robotics team member) who went on to be the valedictorian of Arizona State University. Check out our conversation with Faridodin Lajvardi, the team's lead mentor, at www.phoenixnewtimes.com/bestof2012

This gripping documentary film by Dan De Vivo and Valeria Fernández follows the story of two Americans at the center of Arizona's fierce battle over illegal immigration — 9-year-old Katherine Figueroa and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

America's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff" sent his deputies on a raid in search of undocumented immigrants and snatched Figueroa's parents from their job at a local car wash. Granted full access by Arpaio, the filmmakers are able to examine what justice looks like from the perspective of a man who gained political power by preying on undocumented immigrants and a little girl who was separated from her parents because, as she explains: "They're not born here and they say that's against the law." The work highlights the extremely personal politics at the heart of this fight — documenting Katherine's pleas to President Obama and following her to Washington, D.C., where she testified before an ad hoc committee hearing held by Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva and pleaded for the president's help in Arizona, where families like hers are being torn apart. And it details how after decades of using illegal immigration as a political catapult, Arpaio stared down, until recently, several federal investigations and is being called out for his racial discrimination.Dan De Vivo is an award-winning freelance producer from New York City who previously produced Crossing Arizona, a documentary about the human costs of illegal immigration. And Fernández, a native of Uruguay, is an award-winning freelance journalist (and New Times contributor). This pair creates a powerful message. You simply can't walk away unchanged, especially as 9-year-old Katherine smiles into the camera and declares, "People, don't be scared. Fight for your rights."Request a screening of the documentary at twoamericans@gmail.com

Best Place to Observe the Science of Xenophobia

Arizona

Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has become imfamous for its stance on illegal immigration. Some call it racial profiling; some think it's just simple law enforcement. Whatever it is, it's controversial. From the state border north to Maricopa County, police officers and border patrol agents are hunting for illegal immigrants.

The Yuma Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol supervises 126 miles of borderland in Arizona and California. Using the highest-profile form of technology to date, the fence (or as agents call it, "the line") acts as the biggest physical barrier illegal aliens strive to overcome in the attempt to cross to the United States. Should they successfully cross, agents rely on other forms of technology to secure the safety of not only themselves, but also those attempting to make it to America. See a slideshow here.

Best Place to Find Mexican Jumping Beans

Mexican Import

Mexican Import

Ah, Mexican jumping beans. And we're not talking about what happens when you overeat at Taco Bell. This variety tends to take the form of Southwest souvenirs, the kind that come in a teeny tiny clear plastic box. Place them on a table and they could be any sort of brown bean or nut. But as soon as you get these little suckers in the palm of your hand, they come to life.

Technically, Mexican jumping beans aren't beans at all but rather a seed pod from the desert shrub Sebastiana pavoniana, native to Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. And contrary to popular depiction — as well as the common name — the "beans" don't jump so much as they roll. Besides being a freaky novelty gift, Mexican jumping beans serve as homes to the larvae of the Jumping Bean moth, or Laspeyresia saltitans. After hatching from their eggs, the tiny worms will burrow themselves into the "beans" and for the next few months, as the larvae mature into moths, eat the seed inside that grows inside the pod. The "jumping" action we see is actually a self-defense mechanism of the larvae as it tries to keep itself out of heat, which can cause the seed to dry out and kill the worm inside. Even body heat radiating from the palm of the hand can set start the bug wiggling. If we were trapped in a tiny heated box, we'd probably start squirming too. Mexican Import in Scottsdale is our favorite spot in town to stock up on all kinds of south-of-the-border tchotchkes — including, of course, Mexican jumping beans. What are you waiting for? We know you want to run out and buy some right now. Have fun!
Los Sombreros
Courtesy of Los Sombreros

All over the world, humans eat some strange stuff, and the Southwest is no exception. Huitacoche, or corn smut, looks a great deal like a piece of corn that's gone bad. But corn smut is a delicacy south of the border and, lately, people have been trying to bring wider recognition to this ancient delicacy.

It's a tough sell. The problem is that corn smut is basically a petri dish you can eat. There is no corn smut plant — this isn't a strange-looking plant with a strange fruit. This is what happens when a very particular kind of fungus infects a corn stalk and slowly makes its way to the individual kernels in a growing ear of corn. These kernels grow into "galls," which basically are massive tumors that eventually consume the entire ear. The end result is an ear of corn that looks like a burned brain, with its blueish-black color. Tasty. For eating, the corn smut is harvested before it can fully develop and fill with spores. At this stage, the infected kernels are still moist and soft, suitable for serving with tacos and quesadillas. They possess a sweet woodsy flavor akin to mushrooms. They're also quite a bit healthier than a normal ear of corn because, in the process of corrupting the corn, the corn smut is able to create a number of useful chemicals that corn normally lacks. So it's tasty, it's nutritious — and it's still called corn smut. And maybe that's the problem. If you dare try it, we suggest Los Sombreros; it's a house specialty at the sweet little Scottsdale Mexican restaurant.

There are young geniuses among us, and you'll find several of them have been roosting at the Aguila (eagle) nest in Central Phoenix.

This leadership institute, a nonprofit organization launched about eight years ago by Rosemary Ybarra-Hernandez, mentors young Latinos, mostly from lower-income families, from high school through college. They say their approach is not "rocket science," but they certainly are shaping and guiding our future rocket scientists, and their track record is impressive. Some of the students who are part of the program — and we're talking serious brainiacs — are bound for amazing futures. Phili Reyes of Phoenix just took part in a NASA internship involving the space shuttle Orion. Reymundo Hernandez, also a local kid, is starting his senior year at MIT. Carmen Ramirez Zazueta, who attended Agua Fria High School, is a National Science Foundation Scholar. And Diana Garcia, who attended Westwood High School in Mesa, is a Gates Millennium Scholar at Brown University. Impressive, yes?

Arizona's recent laws concerning immigration certainly have made some people think twice about visiting our state. And now we have finally reached the stage where we can automate the process of scaring visitors away.

The AVATAR, or Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real-Time, is a machine that looks like an ATM as envisioned by Kafka. AVATAR has two screens: One projects the head of an ethnically neutral male and the second features a touchscreen that lets users interact with the machine. Behind the scenes, it has a suite of sensors that measure respiration rate, skin temperature, pupil dilation, and a host of other factors. Using the data it collects screening border crossers, AVATAR should be able to flag suspicious behavior for further investigation by flesh and blood border agents. Conveniently, AVATAR is bilingual and capable of recognizing and understanding normal human speech. The upshot of AVATAR is that, theoretically, the machine is an objective judge of suspicious actions and thus impervious to politically uncomfortable charges of racial profiling. This system currently is being field-tested at the busy Nogales border crossing, so make your travel plans accordingly.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of