Why Does Phoenix Feel So White?

It’s April 2016, and I’m at the Sheraton Grand in downtown Phoenix, trying like crazy to stay engaged with Mayor Greg Stanton’s state of the city address. 

He got my attention with an opening nod to Mexico consulate general Roberto Rodriguez Hernandez, with whom he’s signed an agreement to promote two-way trade and student exchange programs with Mexico. “We are turning the page in our relationship with Mexico,” he promises, before quickly switching gears to talk about solar energy, a decrease in unemployment rates, and the Fry’s grocery store that’ll open downtown next year. 

To be fair, our mayor is addressing a room filled mostly with CEOs and other businesspeople who want to hear about protected water supplies and veteran hiring initiatives and plans to rebuild the Phoenix economy. He’s not here to entertain this crowd — thank goodness.

Mayor Stanton is, in so many ways, perfect as the leader of the sixth largest city in the country. He has an interest in sustainability; he understands our fluctuating economy; he’s engaged with the workforce sector. 

But more than anything else, what says “I am Phoenix!” about our mayor is not the fact that he grew up here, or how well he seems to understand the importance of becoming a carbon-neutral city. It’s because he appears to be the single whitest person in all of Arizona. He is as bland as a Scoutmaster, as humdrum as a cake-pan salesman. You just know, if you forced Greg Stanton onto a dance floor, cranked up a Rihanna mix, and held a gun to his head, he couldn’t dance.

Phoenix is not the whitest city in America. According to an article published in July’s Atlantic Monthly, that dubious honor belongs to Portland, Oregon, with Seattle, Washington a close second. Phoenix is, according to that same study, the 19th whitest city in America, and 11th on the list of U.S. Hispanic populations. But that’s a truth more evident on paper than in our local culture, as far as I can tell. Considering our large Hispanic population — nearly a third of Phoenicians are some kind of Hispanic, according to last year’s census — shouldn’t Latino culture be more evident here? And where are all the black people? Why do I typically only see Chinese people when I’m at that cool dim sum place on 44th Street?

I know. I know! How could anyone, let alone someone who’s lived here practically his whole life and spent decades documenting local culture, think Phoenix is anything other than a melting pot of people from all over the place. Right? That’s our modus operandi, our calling card, our pride and joy. Everyone knows we have Asian communities — check out downtown’s Japanese Friendship Garden! How about that Chinese Cultural Center on the east side? We have our own chapter of the NAACP; an Islamic Community Center; a whole bunch of Muslim mosques; an entire museum devoted to Native American art. And, seriously, haven’t I heard that a third of our population is Hispanic? 

I have heard. I’ve seen the census reports; read stacks of books about our city (particularly Bird on Fire by Andrew Ross and Jon Talton’s gorgeous A Brief History of Phoenix); and been to the DMV in Maryvale. I know we have black and Asian and Native communities here. But last year’s census numbers make it plain why we see so few different-colored faces outside of the ethnic enclaves minority communities often create for themselves: Only 6 percent of our population is black; half as many residents are Asian. A whopping 2 percent of the people living in Phoenix are Native American, I guess proving that when we run a group out of town, we really run a group out of town.

And, yes. Phoenix is home to nearly 600,000 Hispanics. But there’s a difference between having a bunch of people of one ethnicity and being a city that truly embraces its ethnic culture. And, yeah, okay. We do practically have a taco truck on every corner — sorry, Mr. Trump. But culture doesn’t begin and end with cuisine.

Depictions of our town as a cultural melting pot are about as realistic as a Sonoran Desert cowboys-and-Indians battle scene in a John Wayne movie. Muslims, Jews, refugees — we’re a town rich in overlooked minorities. We’re closer to the all-white, network-television-tidy version of Phoenix seen in Alice, that ’70s sitcom set at Mel’s Diner over on Grand Avenue, than we are to an ethnically diverse community. Take a look at the crowd scenes in Bus Stop (the Marilyn Monroe picture shot here in 1956) or the famous Phoenix footage from 1960’s Psycho, and you’ll see swarms of Anglo faces, just as you mostly will today if you visit those same streets in downtown’s business district.

How come Phoenix feels so white? I’ve been pestering people I know, and some I don’t, with that question lately. Some have cited obvious reasons for our apparent homogeny: racism, entitlement, our infamous sprawl. Several mention the controversy over immigration reform and “illegal” aliens. Some have told me that Phoenix is like most big cities, with racial communities that keep to themselves. Others have rolled their eyes and muttered things about how Phoenix’s melting pot is the real culprit. Our town is made up of people from all over the country, I’ve been told, who maybe are more interested in where we came from than they are in the history and culture of the Sonoran Desert. 

Others have been more frank, claiming we’ve isolated Natives, alienated blacks, scared off Asians. Okay. But with a third of our population Hispanic, shouldn’t Phoenix feel more like a Mexican border town, and less like an exterior set from The Donna Reed Show?

It’s true, you can’t swing a piñata stick without hitting a taco truck in this town. Our freeways are dotted with bilingual billboards. Cinco de Mayo celebrations are fast overtaking Easter and New Year’s parties. Tamale festivals, once annual family fetes, are now year-round public gatherings. Salsa challenges, a festivity invented by Anglos, are weekend-long affairs sponsored by Sprint, Budweiser, and Coca Cola.

But once the sponsor tents come down, Phoenicians are just as likely to forget their love of Mexican culture as not. The Latino population here is growing; census figures also show that Arizona tops the list of states for both import and export of products to and from Mexico.

Yet there are plenty of people — Anglos and Latinos alike — who say that, for a big city this close to the Mexico border, Phoenix could be a lot more brown, Latino culture-wise. A little more social awareness wouldn’t kill us, either.

“You don’t want much,” teases actor Richard Trujillo when I call to chat about how he, a fifth-generation Mexican-American, feels about Phoenix Theatre’s recent colorblind casting mess. The company, one of the city’s three Equity houses, cast Iranian actor Pasha Yomotahari as the Latino lead in their September production of In the Heights. The musical, by Hamilton author and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, is all about Latino identity. Isn’t Phoenix, with nearly a third of its population Latino, ethnic enough to cast such a part with a real, live brown guy?

Sort of, says Richard, who’s the artistic director of the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts. “A better question is, ‘Does Phoenix have the professional Latino talent?’ How many Equity actors who are Latino or Hispanic are living there, and working there, today? I was one of two when I lived in Phoenix. It was me and Maria Amorocho.”

Back then, Trujillo heard snarky comments when he portrayed Lord Macduff in a 2006 Arizona Theater Company production of Macbeth. “Because I was Latino,” he explains. “And when I was cast in The Lion in Winter, I had fellow actors asking me, ‘Is this a multicultural piece? I mean, you’re Mexican.’”

But if we don’t have a lot of Latino actors here, why not? “Not enough work for them,” Richard reminds me. He left Phoenix for Los Angeles more than a decade ago, scoring a number of high-profile acting roles, one of which led to his current post. “Look at how hard Marcelino Quiñonez had to work to get people to come see his play,” Richard reminds me, referring to last month’s one-weekend-only production of El Che, Quiñonez’s one-act about Che Guevara.

“Yes, but that thing was sold out,” I reply.

“Okay,” Richard says. “Let’s see how long it’s going to be before Phoenix sees another play about Latino or Chicano culture. And then, let’s see how long before another brown-skinned, non-Latino actor gets cast as a Latino in Phoenix.”

I want to argue with Richard Trujillo, but I can’t.

If you talk about Phoenix’s lack of Latino culture with enough people on enough occasions, someone is bound to mention San Antonio, Texas. About the same distance from the Mexican border as Phoenix, San Antonio, unlike our fair city, wears its border-town culture on its sleeve.

Comparing that city’s Latino cultural presence with our own is like comparing a Sherman tank with a peashooter. San Antonio’s annual citywide festival to honor the memory of those who fought in the Battle of the Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto lasts 10 days and comprises more than 100 separate events. The city has a central entertainment district called the Paseo del Rio, where an awards ceremony dedicated to Tejano music takes place annually. Museums there include the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, the Alameda National Center for Latino Arts and Culture, and the Museo Alameda. At Christmastime, a San Antonio Hispanic counterpart to Santa, known as Pancho Claus, arrives at a festival lighted by 7,000 luminarias.

In our own valley, pickings are slim. We have the CALA Alliance (Celebración Artística de las Américas), a nonprofit that creates exhibits and performances specific to the state’s relationship “to the Americas.” There’s the Arizona Latino Arts and Culture Center on East Adams Street, and there’s Xico, the 41-year-old arts organization that promotes indigenous arts through other community programs. But we have no Latino-specific museums. Neither the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art nor Phoenix Art Museum have any Latino-specific exhibits on their schedules this season (although PAM comes close with an exhibit by Argentinian artist Horacio Zabala), and the Heard Museum, despite rumors to the contrary and to the chagrin of many Mexican-American artists, seems to be holding fast to its rules about showing only Native American artwork.

Can’t Phoenix pull out some stops, like San Antonio did? In order to answer that question, Stella Pope Duarte tells me, you have to go back about 500 years. “In San Antonio and some of the New Mexico border towns, they consider themselves Spanish,” says Duarte, a South Phoenix native and nationally renowned novelist. “It’s a different connotation than Mexican. ‘Spanish’ meant you were European. Historically, Mexicans were looked at as lowlife, people who crossed the border with rags on their back, looking for a handout. If you were Spanish, that was different. You were able to rise higher, work more, earn more. Oh, heck yeah!”

So Mexicans were disempowered by the early obscuring of their nationality, and that’s trickled down to a Phoenix that doesn’t look so brown? “Well, that and a lot of other things,” Duarte says. “You don’t have to look very hard to find the racism here. It lives and breathes in [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio. He’s just the current leader of an oppression the Mexicans have lived with here since the 16th century. They’ve never been allowed to get a foothold.”

After the Mexicans began reclaiming their rights with the Chicano movement of the mid-1960s, she says, their new visibility meant new racial challenges. “In Mexico, they’d say to the Mexicans who lived here, legally or not, ‘Oh, you’re not a Mexican, you’re American!’ And of course over here they were just ‘dirty Mexicans.’ You spend your life being looked down on by Anglos, you get used to it. And it gets ingrained in your DNA. It takes a long time to shake it off, to say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m worth more than that.’ In the meantime, you’re invisible. So’s your culture. So Phoenix looks white.”

All these things, Duarte insists, cast a dark cloud over the brown people here. That cloud contributes to an obscured Sonoran culture and visibility.

“When I was first published in 2002, I was a nationally acclaimed author,” she reminds me. “I couldn’t find anybody here in Phoenix who cared. Not Latino people, and not American people. Nobody. I’d go do a talk somewhere, I’d be billed as ‘best-selling author,’ and the audience would look at me and go, ‘Oh, heck. Why did I come here, there’s this Mexican woman up there. What’s she gonna say?’”

Geography plays a part. Phoenix is spread out, bigger now than it used to be, Duarte gripes. The death of the barrio hasn’t helped. “There was an intimate, close-knit culture in the barrio that fed us. People lived along the same street, everyone lived as a community, and we were proud of our culture. Today the barrios are thought of as slums. Most of them are gone, anyway. A lot of the land was sold for industrial expansion. Phoenix wanted to be a metropolis that could compete with other big cities, so they dismantled a lot of the old barrios.”

Those barrios were too impoverished, and frankly too small and far removed from the city’s hub, to ever have any real political power here. With no real cultural identity and little leverage, the barrios were easily wiped out by freeways and the expansion of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Hispanics headed to Glendale and Maryvale, where their presence was further diluted in a suburban melting pot. “When you lose your community,” Duarte says, “there goes some of your strength, too. Your culture. Your visibility.”

I call Zarco Guerrero, the national superstar mask-maker and visual and performance artist. What needs to happen, I ask him, to create a connectedness with Sonoran culture? For starters, he says, people have to stop being afraid.

“Mexicans have been calling themselves Hispanic for centuries,” he tells me. “I get it. People want to fit in. It’s human nature. But when Mexicans call themselves Hispanic, we are saying what we are not. Spanish is not our language any more than English is. Our native languages are more poetic and complex than either English or Spanish. We are not from Spain.”

Obscuring identity and co-opting culture makes a mockery of Mexican traditions, Guerrero says. “In Arizona, we started making a big deal out of Dia de los Muertos just as it was dying off in Mexico and being replaced by Halloween. That celebration was originally a form of protest and affirmation of our indigenous heritage, and now it’s a party by a bunch of gringos at the Mesa Arts Center.”

But doesn’t more attention to Mexican traditions, like all these gringo Day of the Dead parties, mean a higher profile for Latino culture? No, he insists. It’s just another attempt by white men to rewrite Latino history. 

“We have to take back our history. It was reinterpreted by the missionaries who came here to rescue us. We were made to believe we were saved by the Christians. Now we’re learning how the indigenous people were never conquered — we were made to believe we were.”

After the conquest of Mexico, Guerrero says, Mexican history was purposely erased. “For 300 years, there’s been a conscious effort to rid of us of our ancestral memory by killing our wise men, suppressing our language, telling us we’re evil. When the settlers came to the Valley, it already had one of the most unique ecosystems, this immense canal system we’re still using today. I was never taught any of this in school, growing up here. Why not? Because it was rewritten, with the white men as the heroes. Running off with our parties but ignoring their significance is more of the same, in a way.”

I thank Guerrero for the history lesson, and ask him what these awful truths have to do with the Valley’s lack of Mexican culture. “Everything,” he hollers. “Because when you have a people whose proud, strong history has been taken away from them, you’ve got people with no strength and no pride. No presence! You need those things to share your culture.”

Mexican cultural expression and what Zarco Guerrero calls “our indigenous faces” have been relegated to a few small museums. “The Heard Museum works hard to exclude Mexicans, to not classify us as indigenous,” he says. “We’re a part of the legacy of 2,000 years, but you can’t find us here. That’s the cultural genocide of the indigenous people that takes you up to the present, and your question about why Mexican culture is such a mystery here. Because the white men took our pride and our history, and for a long time, the Mexicans sat there and let it happen."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela