Mexicans in Arizona mostly your fellow Americans

September 27, 2005

We are surrounded by Mexicans - Hispanics, Latinos, Chicanos, whatever you want to call them.

Some are U.S. citizens; some are not.

Whatever their citizenship, all of Arizona belonged to them (and to the Indians who preceded them) until late 1853, when the Gadsden Purchase was signed by Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna.

Now it's "ours," whoever we are.

Who we are in Arizona is 25 percent Mexican, a fact that seems to terrify many white residents.

Contrary to popular belief, 64 percent of the Hispanics you encounter in our state were born right here in the U.S. of A.

Another 8 percent are naturalized citizens.

That means at least 72 percent of the Mexicans you meet have every bit as much right to be here as you do - and perhaps more, if one considers historical precedent.

That 72 percent is a low estimate, too, since untold numbers more do not have citizenship but are here legally.

So while some white Arizonans adopt an attitude of instantaneous superiority over their Hispanic counterparts, that assumption is, to put it gently, asinine.

Results of a new Maricopa County survey by the Behavior Research Center were reported in this newspaper a week ago.

Consider the disconnect between respondents and reality:


  • They guessed that 39 percent of Arizona Hispanics are illegal immigrants. The U.S. Census deems that proportion 28 percent - but including foreign nationals who are here legally.


  • Respondents said 47 percent of our Mexicans were born here; reality says 64 percent.


  • And those surveyed just knew that only 48 percent of Mexicans here speak English well. In fact, that count is 80 percent.


My dear friend Elvia speaks lousy English. It's almost as atrocious as my Spanish. But the strength of our communication surpasses spoken language. We understand each other perfectly.

She was born in Mexico. She came to Tucson in 1963. And she became a U.S. citizen in 1964, helped by Cele Peterson.

(I've never had the honor of meeting "la seńora Peterson," as Elvia still calls her, but I flat-out love that woman. She helped Elvia.)

What begins as fear and nationalism too often morphs right into racism.

Yet Arizona would be a vapid wasteland if not for the generous cultural influence of our Mexican predecessors.

Aside from the tritely obvious - Mexican food, mariáchi music, adobe houses and Mexican tile - is the lofty gift of literature, whether by Salomón R. Baldenegro in the Tucson Citizen or acclaimed authors Luis Alberto Urrea, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska, to name only a few.

The sheer sound of spoken Spanish is lilting music to any discriminating ear.

But the best gift of all is the one that too many Arizonans mistrust: the people.

We are surrounded by Mexicans, for very good historical and geographical reasons. The vast majority are U.S. citizens. The vast majority here illegally are merely trying to feed their families.

In their displaced fear, some white Arizonans forget that criminals come in all colors. In their rush to nationalism, they overlook the fact that many Mexicans were in Arizona for generations before the rest of us showed up.

And in their ignorance, they forsake the bliss of friendship with an entire segment of humanity - our fellow Americans.

Assistant Editorial Page Editor Billie Stanton's column appears Tuesdays. E-mail, phone 573-4664 or fax 573-4569.