Mesa leaders aim to ease tensions
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 30, 2005
Justin Juozapavicius

As Mesa prepares to turn a corner in how it addresses the concerns of its booming Hispanic population, community leaders hope to overcome an adversarial attitude that could go along with the process.

"Change brings conflict, and conflict is sometimes scary," said Phil Austin, president of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, speaking at the fourth-annual Mesa Latino Town Hall. "It is scary. The unknown is scary."

Hundreds of residents, students, and city and school district officials attended Saturday's town hall at Mesa Community College, sponsored in part by The Arizona Republic.

Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker, Vice Mayor Claudia Walters and Councilman Mike Whalen were among those attending sessions on leadership, education, health care and youth development.

The theme of this year's meeting, "Mesa: A Changing Community," couldn't have been more fitting, community leaders said, because many people are just waking up to the fact that one out of every four residents here is Hispanic.

This year has also been a trying one for the city's Hispanic community.

In April, ethnic tensions erupted during a town hall meeting when some Anglo residents criticized Hispanics for not learning English fast enough and filling their front yards with beer cans and parked cars.

The day-labor issue was thrust into the spotlight - again - a few months later. Police and business owners launched an aggressive campaign to prevent workers from congregating near Broadway and Gilbert roads, long considered the "ground zero" for the day-labor explosion in Mesa.

Recently, the threat of severe budget cuts has put the city's Diversity Office in jeopardy as Mesa struggles to overcome a projected $36 million deficit next year.

And on Thursday, David Garcia, one of three finalists for Mesa's city manager position and a Hispanic, withdrew his candidacy, saying Mesa wasn't the "right fit" for him.

"It is a real critical year for our community as a whole," said Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, community liaison for Mesa Public Schools and Mesa Community College. "We're at a tipping point."

But there has been progress: Pat Esparza, who is running for City Council in District 4, could become the first Latina ever elected to such a post in Mesa.

And last year, artist and activist Carmen Guerrero came about 2,500 votes shy of taking one of three Mesa School Board seats. A win would have made her the first Latina elected to the board in modern times.

"The problem with city government is that it reflects how Mesa used to look 10 years ago," said Scott Somers, a candidate for City Council District 6, speaking at a candidate forum at the town hall.

The challenge in years to come will be battling stereotypes about Hispanics that could further polarize Mesa, said Napolean Pisano, the education chairman of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens.

"When you see day-laborers on the street, they're there to get a job, not urinate on the street or harass passers-by," Pisano said.

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