Hispanic families reveal shared heritage with city through photographs, tales
Arizona Republic
Jan. 21 2008

Scott Craven

Arguments, protests, arrests. As the debates over immigration rage, it seems as if the relationship between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in Phoenix has always been contentious.

But if one were to look back, way back, one would find a time when, paraphrasing the immortal words of Rodney King, everybody just got along.

Frank Barrios, a Phoenix native, is among those who have looked back, and he was surprised by what he found. It's chronicled in his new book, Mexicans in Phoenix, featuring more than 200 historical photos that detail the Mexican-American experience.

In 2006, Barrios was asked to join a team of researchers overseeing a city-sponsored survey of Phoenix properties with historical Mexican significance. As Barrios talked to longtime Hispanic residents, he found they wanted to share their stories as much as their documents.

As the yearlong project came to an end, Barrios had hundreds of family photographs that told a story few have bothered to hear.

The tale was of prosperous Mexican settlers who were a vital part of an 1880s Phoenix that was just beginning to rise from the desert. Mexicans and those of Mexican descent made up a strong middle class, mixing easily with non-Hispanics, who made up about half the population.

"This is the untold story of Phoenix," Barrios said. "I found two reasons for that. Most of the (city's) history has been written by non-Hispanics, tending toward a certain point of view. Also, politics has been dominated by non-Hispanics, and much of what happens is told through those who make the laws."

This "untold story" unfolds in photos families were glad to share with Barrios. They show proud Mexicans and Mexican-Americans standing in front of prosperous businesses in central Phoenix.

The photos and stories also tell of a community that mingled freely, with mixed marriages common. Many residents were bilingual, as everything from business to church services was conducted in English and Spanish.

It wasn't a perfect society, though. There were cultural clashes from the 1880s to the turn of the 20th century. But compared with the angry rhetoric flying between cultures today, early Phoenix was a utopia of understanding.

"Everyone got along pretty good," Barrios said. "The area depended a lot upon Mexico for trade then, so there was a lot of cooperation among Hispanics and non-Hispanics."

One shining example of that cooperation was Henry Garfias, the town's first marshal, who was elected to that post five times, Barrios said. Garfias was the (Maricopa County Sheriff) Joe Arpaio of his day, perhaps even more popular and respected.

Garfias was just one of the more prominent Mexican-Americans whose stories also are told in a Phoenix Museum of History exhibit titled "The Mexican American Mirror: Reflections of Our City's Heritage."

The 1,500-square-foot exhibit, running through October, contains dozens of photos shared with Barrios and his fellow researchers, pictures that until now remained hidden from the public in family albums and scrapbooks.

The collection impressed Tracy Wright Wagner, the museum's executive director.

"I thought, 'Gee, it's about time the story is being told,' " she said. "The exhibit has been well-received by the community."

Curator Elizabeth Moser was happy and surprised to see so many images detailing a time almost lost to history. Typically, such photos are found in institutional records, from museum archives to city records. However, past searches turned up nothing like the images shared with Barrios, she said.

"I'm so grateful people were willing to lend personal memorabilia," Moser said. "I was surprised at how little of this story is told in the institutional setting. The photos tell stories people can connect with."

Those stories began to change when the railroad arrived in Phoenix. Around 1912 (coincidentally, the year of Arizona's statehood), the city saw an influx of new migrants, those from the East Coast, with roots going back to Europe. The recent arrivals, unfamiliar with the Hispanic culture, distanced themselves from the natives. It was the start of tensions that are familiar today, Barrios said.

So pronounced was the change in attitudes that in 1914 a prominent Phoenix resident started La Liga Protectora to protect Mexican and Mexican-American rights, Barrios said. Pedro de la Lama's group was popular with Hispanic businessmen, and it represented a community that had felt slighted by such proposed laws as English-only (and you thought that was a recent development).

Though lines were drawn between cultures over the years, a blending occurred many weekend nights at Calderon's Ballroom, a hotspot at 16th Street and Buckeye Road that was popular in the 1950s and '60s. It was owned and operated by Leonard Calderon, an Arizona native who prospered when a national tire company hired him to sell tires to the growing number of Spanish-speaking customers. Calderon was the first Hispanic salesman hired by B.F. Goodrich, said John Roberts, the late Calderon's son-in-law.

Thanks to the ballroom as well as his charismatic personality, Calderon was a respected member of the community.

"Everywhere we went people knew the name," said his daughter, Christina Calderon Roberts. "I felt like a celebrity."

Her father also was a unifying figure. Calderon Roberts recalled how Hispanics and non-Hispanics mingled comfortably at her father's ballroom as popular Latino acts from the Southwest and Mexico performed. In the late '50s, her father opened the ballroom to African-American performers, who had difficulty booking Phoenix gigs due to segregation. Through the years, the ballroom hosted such luminaries as James Brown, Little Richard and Fats Domino.

"Remember, things weren't so great between the Hispanics and the Blacks at the time," John Roberts said. "But everyone loved Leonard. He brought people together."

The ballroom eventually was sold in 1984, and only its slab remains.

As today's residents argue over immigration and one's place in society, Barrios is hopeful that those on both sides of the argument will pick up his book and see that Hispanics have been a vital part of Phoenix since it was a dusty frontier town.

"A lot of people think Mexicans are just this group that crosses the border illegally," Barrios said. "The truth of the matter is that Hispanics have been part of the development of Phoenix since its inception to now.

"Mexican-Americans are a cultural subset of the American experience that are just as patriotic, just as strongly pro-American as any other group. I hope this story results in respect for that community and its contribution to the development of Phoenix."

Contact the reporter at scott.craven@arizonarepub lic.com or 602-444-8773.