Latinization: A Cultural History of
Latinos’ Contributions to Central Arizona
the PDF version
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate
how the Mesa Southwest Museum, which I am associated with,
intends to utilize its position as a respected cultural institution
to examine the role of Latinos in central Arizona. It should
be noted that this project is a work in progress.
The Mesa Southwest Museum is an educational
institution operated by the City of Mesa in Mesa, Arizona
(Figure 1). Mesa is the second largest city in Arizona and
is part of the Phoenix metro area. The Museum strives for
excellence in the collection, exhibition, interpretation,
and preservation of the cultural and natural history of the
Southwest for the education and benefit of our diverse audiences.
The Museum features over 80,000 square feet in exhibition
galleries that chronicles Arizona’s rich history (Figures
2 and 3). We also oversee Mesa Grande, a prehistoric Hohokam
archaeological site (Figure 4), and the Sirrine House, a nineteenth-century
historic house of a working-class Mormon family (Figure 5).
Last year, we educated over 138,000 visitors.
The City of Mesa is a conservative town
established by Mormons in the mid-nineteenth century (Figure
6). The City prides itself on hiring excellent people and
providing excellent customer service. Hence, the City’s motto,
“Great People, Quality Service!” (Figure 7) Mesa’s current
population is almost 400,000 and 20% of the population is
Latino. According to Census 2000, one in four Mesa residents
is Hispanic. However, this Latino presence is not visible
within the City. Clearly, two separate worlds coexist with
little or no integration.
The Mesa Southwest Museum is the largest
institution in the City’s Arts and Cultural Division. This
division has eighty-five employees and thirty-five of these
employees work at the Museum. Out of these eighty-five people,
there are only four Latinos! And these four Latinos work
at the Museum, and only two of us are in senior position.
Within the City of Mesa government, there
are no Latino representatives on the City Council. In this
year’s election, there were no Hispanic candidates. Nod did
any of the candidates address concerns specifically relating
to Latino issues. The Mesa Public School District is the
largest school district in Arizona and there are no Hispanic
representatives on the school board. Nor are there any Latino
junior high or high school principals.
To illustrate Mesa’s lack of consideration
and cultural understanding, this year Cinco de Mayo fell on
a Sunday, but because of the alleged dominating Mormon influence,
which forbids any activities other than attending church on
Sundays, the City’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held on
Friday, 3 May, and Saturday, 4 May. Whereas all of the surrounding
cities had their celebrations on Sunday!
Mesa is indeed aware of their cultural
deficiencies and want to change but not quite such how. The
City has made some cultural strides, for example in February
2000, a Diversity Office was established (Figure 8) and in
November 2001, the Mesa Southwest Museum had its first major
exhibit that featured bilingual label text. Other cultural
strides include: in January 2002, a Citywide Diversity Training
began; in August 2002, the Mesa Southwest Museum’s name in
Spanish was added to the façade; and in October 2002, the
very First Annual Latino Town Hall Meeting was held in Mesa
However, much more still needs to be
done! The method in which I intend to address the role of
Latinos in central Arizona is through an exhibit entitled,
Latinization: A Cultural History of Latinos’ Contributions
to Central Arizona. Why use an exhibit to address this
pertinent issue? My reason is three-fold.
First, a museum must reflect its constituents,
as a museum professional, I am a firm believer that a cultural
institution, like the Mesa Southwest Museum, needs to present
a forum for social issues that directly affect the audiences
it represents. Most museums are no longer doing what is important
to them, but what is important to their respective communities.
Gurian’s (2001:97) statement perhaps best sums up museums’
new role within their community:
All museums are important part
of civic life. Whatever their overt role may
be, museums have become an important
agent in the creation of a more cohesive society.
Secondly, people who go to museums trust
the information they are getting is factual and accurate.
Last year, the American Association of Museums conducted a
national survey that supported this high level of trust.
This trust enhances a museum’s opportunity to educate the
Finally, any discussion on any ethnic
groups, particularly on Latinos, is regarded as a “sensitive”
issue and its examination will challenge conventional points
of views. I think the most effective way of presenting this
topic is through a structured and dynamic exhibit with the
potential of reaching various audiences. This past summer
at a city meeting on diversity, the director of the City’s
Diversity Office announced that
The most effective
way to change the perceptions of the Latinos and to educate the perceptions of
Latinos and to educate the public [in this area] is through
an exhibit at the Mesa
She like, I, believe that museums play an important role in
validating diverse cultures and discussing social issues. People
can go to museums and learn at their own pace without anyone
questioning their knowledge or telling them what they should
know or not know.
The exhibit will feature four main sections and each section
will focus on a specific theme or themes:
- A Place Call Home
- Who Are We?
- I am-A Bridge Between Two Worlds
- Our Heritage Continues
One of the most difficult elements of developing any exhibitions,
is the creation of the actual exhibit section topics. The specific
section topics were a result of my many discussions with City
of Mesa employees; Latino and non-Latino residents who live
in central Arizona; museum visitors; and my own perceptions.
I spoke to fifty people that I met over a period of three months
either at the Mesa Southwest Museum or out in the community.
Each person was asked the same question, “What would you like
for people in central Arizona to know about you as a Latino/Hispanic?”
The majority of the people spoke to were Hispanics and either
first or second generation Latinos living in Arizona. They
represented a various socio-economic backgrounds and were between
the ages of thirteen and ninety.
As a result of their responses,
the exhibit section topics and preliminary content information
Each individual was told what his/her information
was intended for and all but two people were thrilled with the
idea of having any exhibit specifically on Latinos. However,
except for those people under the age of twenty-seven, everyone
else wished to remain anonymous. I was a bit surprise by this
reaction, but I did respect their wishes.
The two main concepts
of the exhibit are first to demonstrate that Latinos do indeed
have a rich heritage in central Arizona and in many cases, generations
longer than Anglos. And, secondly, to encourage an understanding
and appreciation of cultural diversity.
that Latinos do have a past history and a present history in
central Arizona, the exhibit will incorporate a “Then and Now”
structural approach. This method will exemplify a continuity
of Latinos in central Arizona and will help validate the existence
of Hispanics in this area.
The first exhibit section will
be entitled “A Place Call Home” and will explore why Hispanics
first came to this area in the nineteen century and why they
continue to come to this area even today. Like many place in
Arizona, early Hispanics arrived in this area to escape social
and economic unrest in northern Mexico and other parts of the
Many people in central Arizona are
not aware that Hispanics are not newcomers to this area or indeed
in North America. Unfortunately, many people still do not realize
that Spain had arrived in North America forty-two years before
the pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. Nor do many people realize
that when the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty was signed in 1848, people
who were living in this area became official residents of the
United States. And late citizens when Arizona became a state
According to historical records, Hispanics first
arrived in Mesa by the mid-nineteenth century. And in the last
ten years, the number of Latinos that have moved into this area
has double. Therefore, Latinos have indeed been in central
Arizona for well over a hundred years. Although if one were
to visit downtown Mesa today, one would not see any physical
evidence of Latino presence anywhere (Figure 10)!
as illustrated in the map in Figure 11, there is definitely
a Latino presence in downtown Mesa. The star on the leftside
is the Mesa Southwest Museum and directly to the front of it,
a a dark green rectangle, which is downtown Mesa. Hispanic
neighourhoods literally surround downtown Mesa and these are
the neighbourhoods where the majority of the Latinos live today
(Figures 12 and 13).
The second exhibit entitled, “Who Are
We?,” will explain that even though Latinos speak the same
language, all Latinos are not the same. Many people in Mesa
and the rest of Arizona must realize that Latinos do not represent
one cultural identity. In this region, there are roughly three
main groups of Latinos. The first group are the people those
who have lived here for generations. The second group are the
people who just arrived to this area primarily from Mexico and
other Latin American countries. And the last group are the
day labourers, who are also the majority of the undocumented
residents in this area (Figure 14). Mesa is the oldest community
in this region that has consistently utilized the day labour
force for several decades (Figure 15). Their stories still
need to be told. Even though Mesa continues to have a very
large day labour force, the city has recently turn down the
opportunity to have a community centre specifically for day
labourers. People of Mesa and central Arizona need to realize
that there is indeed diversity with the Latino group and that
the needs of each group are indeed different.
exhibit section entitled, “I am a Bridge Between to Worlds,”
will explore biculturalism. All of the people I spoke to were
adamant whey they said they were both American and Latino.
To them, there is no separation, nor did they feel that they
had to choose between one or the other. This dual identification
and how a comfortable balance is maintained will be explored
in this section.
Many of the Latino parents I spoke to felt
strongly that their children should be bilingual and bicultural.
They believed that their children’s success will depend on absorbing
the best of America, while maintaining what is best in their
own culture. It difficult for many people to understand biculturalism
and cultural identity of oneself.
The final exhibit section
entitled, “Our Heritage Continues,” will explore specific cultural
traditions. Many Latino celebrations and foods have been assimilated
into mainstream culture. This section will discuss the cultural
attributes that were first brought here and how they were or
were not assimilated into Anglo culture. Often it is the social
customs of any culture that are the most revealing cultural
elements of the assimilation of cultures.
Because of exhibit
space constraints and the people I spoke to, the actual exhibit
will include only the social traditions that are most well-known
(such as Cinco de Mayo, the dances, the piñata), so that non-Latinos
can easily recognized them as well.
It is my goal that this
exhibit encourages the citizens and employees of Mesa and the
Phoenix metro area to reevaluate their attitudes toward Latinos;
challenge existing perceptions of Latinos; and see that we are
indeed an integral part of central Arizona.
Copyright © 2003