Gilbert sheds racist past as diversity grows
The Arizona Republic
May. 30, 2006

Cary Aspinwall

As Gilbert was trying to shed its image as home to a gang of teenage White supremacists over the past seven years, something else happened.

The town's demographics changed.

In neighborhoods, schools, churches, grocery stores and gathering places of the fast-growing and famously white-bread town, the faces were becoming increasingly diverse.

Gilbert's population has grown wildly since 1990, and its ethnic diversity appears to have grown even faster. Since then, the overall percentage of the town's population reported as White has decreased to 76 percent from 85 percent, according to U.S. census data and Claritas surveys.

In the past few decades, Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and other ethnicities have steadily grown in size as a percentage of Gilbert's population.

Gilbert is no longer just the town of the Devil Dogs White-supremacist gang, rodeo and dairy farms. Now, it is home to a Japanese-language preschool, Korean- and Hispanic-language churches, sushi bars and an annual Global Village Festival celebrating diversity.

The town has been trying to remake its image since 1999, when the Devil Dogs made national headlines by beating up people and having ties to a drug ring linked to former mobster Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano.

Lots of things have changed in Gilbert in seven years. Teens tied to the Devil Dogs went to jail and served their sentences. And in a tidal wave of growth, the town has gained about 70,000 residents, many of whom never heard of the gang.

Fidelis Garcia moved to Gilbert in 2002, attracted by its then-affordable housing and highly ranked schools, he said.

Garcia, who grew up in Guadalupe, said he has seen Gilbert's diversity grow by leaps and bounds in recent years. But some of the factors that attracted him to Gilbert have remained the same.

"I've always said Guadalupe and Gilbert have a lot in common," he said. "Both are very religious, both are very family oriented and both have strong roots in Arizona. For me, there are a lot of ties."

The Hispanic population in Gilbert grew from 3,382 residents in 1990 to 21,736 in 2005. That's an increase larger than the entire population of Florence or Paradise Valley.

The town's Black population has grown 10 times its 1990 number of 433, to more than 4,300.

Asian-Americans are also one of Gilbert's fastest-growing populations. In 1990, the U.S. census reported fewer than 500 Asian-Americans living in Gilbert. Now there are nearly 7,000, more than doubling their percentage of Gilbert's overall population.

Yuko Elliott, a kindergarten teacher from Japan, started the AmeriPan Kids preschool after moving to Gilbert with her American-born husband.

She met other Japanese-American couples who wanted her to teach their children some Japanese language, stories and customs a few hours a week. Word of mouth has spread far enough around the Valley that Elliott's school has a waiting list.

Gilbert may be changing, but the scars of the Devil Dogs still linger under the surface, in the minutes of town meetings and in the reasoning behind the creation of its Human Relations Commission.

The Devil Dogs were part of an older gang called White Power that was one of 13 documented gangs in Gilbert in the early '90s, according to Gilbert police. Its members beat up other teens and threatened people in spring 1999, disfiguring one White teen in a brutal attack in a Gilbert neighborhood. Later, police in Gilbert, Mesa and Phoenix connected the Devil Dogs to Gravano and a ring that trafficked in the designer drug Ecstasy.

Community leaders say the gang's crimes acted as a catalyst to get Gilbert residents talking about diversity.

Projects such as the annual Global Village Festival show that Gilbert has changed, said Tami Smull, one of the festival's organizers and a member of the town's Human Relations Commission.

"The best sign of the changing demographics here is Meet Your Teacher night at the elementary schools," Smull said. "There's just this sea of diversity with the young families."

The Global Village Festival is seen as a feather in the town's cap, doubling in attendance and attractions in its second year. Gilbert's attempt to celebrate diversity and culture through song, dance and art seems to be catching on.

"A lot of the culture we have represented at the festival comes from Gilbert residents," she said. "And it provides an opportunity for people to focus on understanding and love, instead of hate and differences."