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Latinos gain in number, not clout

Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
March 30, 2001

Arizona's huge surge in Latinos over the past decade solidified Hispanics as the state's dominant minority group and created a potential political and cultural powerhouse that will be difficult to ignore.

But although Latino gains could affect everything from business marketing to government policies, sheer numbers alone won't guarantee the kind of political clout that has largely eluded Hispanics in Arizona until those numbers can be translated into votes at the ballot box.

"Numbers alone don't mean voter strength. And without voter strength you don't have a voice in the political process" where key issues like education, transportation and health care are decided, said Rudolfo Perez Jr., Phoenix program director of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Nowhere in the state is the Latino population's inability to translate numbers into political clout more apparent than in Phoenix, where Latinos now make up 34.1 percent of the city's 1.3 million population, yet not a single Latino sits on the Phoenix City Council.

"The numbers are there, but historically the Latino population has not exercised their right to vote," Perez added. "What's going to be interesting is to see the voting-age population. We have to look at how much of the total (Latino) population is over 18."

The 2000 census shows the number of Arizonans who describe themselves as Latino soared to nearly 1.3 million from 688,338 in 1990, an 88 percent increase. Now one in every four residents of the state is Latino.

"The good part of the Latino growth is hopefully people are going to recognize we are a strong viable community," said Luis Ibarra, president and chief executive officer of Friendly House, a non-profit, social-services agency in Phoenix that has served Latinos and immigrants for 80 years.

Faced with census data confirming the size of the state's Latino population, Ibarra predicted employers will accelerate efforts initiated in the 1990s to tap into the Latino market.

"Businesses can't afford to ignore the Latino community anymore," Ibarra said.

But as the Latino community has grown, it also has become more diverse.

"It's still going to be a struggle. Folks don't understand our community," Ibarra said.

Difficult to define

From newly arrived immigrants to residents who can trace their roots back to when Arizona was part of Mexico, the state's Latino population has always been difficult to define, Ibarra said.

In the past, the vast majority of Latinos living in Arizona traced their roots to the northern region of Mexico, specifically the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. But immigrants who arrived since the 1990 census tended to come from all over Mexico, a country where regional differences are far more pronounced than in the United States, he said.

"They are not the same Mexicans," Ibarra said.

"Latino" is a catchall word generally used to describe people who trace their ancestors to Spanish-speaking countries. In Arizona, the vast majority of Latinos trace their ancestry to Mexico, but the number of Latinos who trace their ancestry to other countries is growing.

Better accounting

Phoenix Councilman Phil Gordon, who led the city's census drive, said the latest census numbers reflect a willingness by Latinos to "stand up and be counted," something less evident a decade ago when Arizona Latinos went vastly underreported.

Gordon attributed the better accounting this time around to a massive grass-roots effort led by local Latino community leaders. Every person counted means an extra $25,000 for the city over the next decade in state and federal revenue, he said.

"From my position, the Hispanic community came forward, and not only are they entitled to a seat at the table but also we have an obligation to ensure that these new resources are invested with the Hispanic community," Gordon said.

John Lewis, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, said the growth in the state's Native American population reflects several factors, including higher fertility rates and more people enrolling as official tribal members.

The Native American population grew nearly 26 percent statewide over the past decade.

The latest census data show a significant growth in the off-reservation Native American population as increasing numbers of Native Americans are leaving reservation lands and settling in urban areas.

Over the past decade, Maricopa County now has the largest number of Native Americans of any Arizona county, surpassing Apache County, home to a large portion of the members of the Navajo Nation.

In terms of numbers, Latinos have long been the state's largest minority group. The phenomenal recent growth of the Latino population, however, threatens to overshadow the state's other minority groups, which also experienced significant growth.

Minority surge

While the number of Latinos in Arizona grew by 88 percent during the 1990s, the Native American population grew by 25 percent; African-Americans by 43.7 percent; and Asian and Pacific Islanders by nearly 80 percent.

The overall numbers of the other minority groups, however, pale in comparison with Latinos. American Indians now make up 5 percent of the state's population; Blacks, 3.1 percent; Asians and Pacific Islanders, 1.8 percent; while Hispanics are 25.3 percent, or one of every four Arizonans.

But rather than overshadowing Native Americans, the state's Latino population could bode well for American Indians, Lewis said. Many Latinos also relate to their Indian heritage, he said, and the two minority groups share many issues and concerns, among them economic development, education, employment, transportation and affordable housing.

Cody Williams, an African-American and the only minority member of the Phoenix City Council, said the Latino population's size could create tensions with other minority groups vying for power.

The battle brewing over his District 8 council seat exemplifies the kind of infighting that can take place among minority groups. Williams' term expires this year. In hopes of gaining representation on the Phoenix City Council, Latinos have targeted District 8, which serves neighborhoods in predominantly Hispanic south and south-central Phoenix.

"We are often directed to fight against each other because the powers that be prefer it that way," Williams said. Instead, minority groups would accomplish more by "joining together and going after the larger pieces of the pie as opposed to fighting over slivers of the pie."

The greater challenge, Williams said, would be for all of Arizona's minority groups, which together make up 36.2 percent of Arizonans, to work together.

"An acknowledgement of diversity is not the same as acceptance of diversity," Williams said. "We still have work to do as far as building a stronger appreciation for the value of diversity in our state."

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