Diversity improves
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 16, 2006

Commission works to better image

Cary Aspinwall

Gilbert may one day be viewed as a melting pot, with rapid growth bringing neighbors of many races and cultures.

But for much of its history, that hasn't been reality.

Gilbert has been the small, mostly White town of historically segregated schools, the White supremacist "Devil Dogs" teen gang and some parents who in 1997, wanted to ban Invisible Man, a classic novel about race relations.
Until 1947, most children of Hispanic heritage in Gilbert attended the "Mexican School," where they were punished if they spoke Spanish.

The Gilbert Historical Museum, housed in an old schoolhouse at Gilbert and Elliot roads, has documented the Mexican School's history in a book and exhibit, in a portrait of a different era of the town.

In 25 years, Gilbert has gained 173,000 residents, an average of about 6,900 per year, 1,200 more than the town's 1980 population of 5,700.

And almost 90 percent of that population in 1980 was White. Hispanics were the largest minority group, but Blacks, Asians and other groups had fewer than 50 people each on the 1980 U.S. census.

Much of the community, like much of the nation, was segregated during the first half of the 20th century.

A majority of the Hispanic community lived in its own part of Gilbert, near the southwestern corner of Gilbert and Warner roads. The area was referred to as Sonorita, or Sonora town, after the northern Mexican state of Sonora.

Other incidents in recent years only added to Gilbert's reputation as a mostly-White town that didn't value diversity.

In 1997, some parents asked Gilbert Public Schools governing board to remove Invisible Man from the high school curriculum. The parents said they objected to the "strong language, sexual content and violence" in Ralph Ellison's 1952 novel. The School Board denied their request.

Gilbert's image wasn't helped in 1999 when a teen-age gang of White supremacists known as "The Devil Dogs" made headlines for violent attacks and links to drug smuggling rings.

Since then, the town has tried to address racial tension and cultural diversity through a diversity task force and the Human Relations Commission, formed in 2001.