Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Resurgent Mexican Phoenix

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Resurgent Mexican Phoenix

Article excerpt

As popular understanding of Phoenix's mythical namesake focuses singularly on the firebird's magnificent rebirth, so too do many of the city residents' notions about the development of the largest center in the U.S. Southwest. For most, metropolitan Phoenix spontaneously sprang from the desert, exploding from a population of around 100,000 in the 1940s to its current estimated 4 million residents (C. Sargent 1988; U.S. Census Bureau 2005). Nostalgic reflections on the city's short history tend to accentuate this boomtown narrative and disproportionately focus on non-Hispanic achievements in conquering the arid desert environment. (1) This perception of early Phoenix as an almost entirely Anglo metropolis persists despite evidence of substantial Mexican roots in the city. For example, regardless of Phoenix's nascent Mexican population, early adobe architecture, proximity to Mexico, and historic southward connections, the pantheon of historic local luminaries is represented by figures from faraway Missouri, Michigan, and Connecticut. These personalities include John W. "Jack" Swilling, a Missourian associated with the founding of Phoenix; Dr. Alexander J. Chandler, a veterinarian from Michigan, who became a land speculator and canal developer; and Charles Trumbull Hayden, a Connecticut-born businessman who founded the flour mill around which the suburban city of Tempe emerged. Similarly, representations of contemporary Phoenix ignore its original Mexican heritage and instead promote images of verdant golf courses, azure swimming pools, and a pseudo-Mediterranean lifestyle that strive to clearly differentiate the metropolitan area from other quintessentially Mexican or Spanish southwestern cities such as Tucson, Arizona, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas.

In this writing we put aside the contrived notion of past and present Phoenix as a fundamentally Anglo place. Instead, we assert that the metropolitan area not only has Mexican roots and a resurgent Mexican population but also embodies long-standing regional connections that contribute to its distinctive Mexican subculture. We begin by illuminating the Mexican character of early Phoenix, an element of the city's history that was selectively diminished and drowned out by a crush of Anglo newcomers. We then focus on the revival of Mexican Phoenix, highlighting how this unprecedented population shift has transformed the urban landscape. Next, we incorporate both survey and landscape data to demonstrate that Phoenix's Mexican population is truly a regionally select subculture formed through both historical and contemporary connections with particular Mexican states. We end with a call for greater understanding of the internal diversity of the Mexican population in the United States and a reassessment of the monolithic Mexican national identity so commonly perpetuated in popular media.

A FORGOTTEN MEXICAN PAST

The history of Mexicans in the Southwest has been a selective telling, and only in very recent accounts has the story of their role been reinterpreted. In these reassessments it is clear that Mexican ancestry has been viewed largely as a romanticized past involving "myth" in New Mexico (Wilson 1997), "whitewashing" in Los Angeles (Deverell 2004), and a "Spanish colonial" culture in California (Kropp 2006).

In Arizona, Tucson's Mexican heritage has been recounted (Sheridan 1986), yet Phoenix's Mexican past has largely been forgotten. One critic called Phoenix "the most ahistorical community in the United States" and noted that "the citizens of Phoenix are in fact principally to blame for the lack of historical interest in their own community," not having formed a historical society and museum until the mid-1970s (Johnson 1993a, ix). One of the earliest modern histories of the city was an edited volume in which the two chapters about ethnic groups in the city's past highlighted Native Americans and Italians, neither of whom ever constituted a majority of the city's population (Johnson 1993b). …

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