'Little Oaxaca' sprouts in Phoenix
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 12, 2007

Mexican immigrants find familiar culture in Sunnyslope neighborhood

Yvonne Wingett

If Sunnyslope had a patron saint, her name would be the Virgin of Solitude.

The black-cloaked woman is the saint of Oaxaca, Mexico, but her image drapes walls in homes and businesses throughout Sunnyslope, one of the Valley's oldest neighborhoods, nestled at the bottom of Phoenix's North Mountain.

Over the past decade, so many immigrants from the southern Mexican state have moved into Sunnyslope that the working-class community in north-central Phoenix is becoming known as "Little Oaxaca."

Sunnyslope has always been a haven of sorts. Its first settlers were Midwesterners who suffered from tuberculosis, rheumatism and asthma and set up tents in the early 1900s in the desert after being forced out of Phoenix. In the mid-1980s, refugees from Vietnam and immigrants from Asia made Sunnyslope home and a section was known as "Little Saigon."

Now, waves of Mexican immigrants fleeing poverty in Oaxaca are drawn to Sunnyslope for its affordable housing and its access to major bus routes, which provide quick rides to jobs throughout the city. Many in the neighborhood are undocumented immigrants, and longer-term residents help newcomers find places in the community where legal status isn't required.

They are transforming pockets of the neighborhood, and re-creating pieces of the Mexican villages they left behind. Immigrant enclaves are as old as this country. In Sunnyslope, Oaxacan immigrants are creating an indigenous-flavored subculture within the Valley's Mexican culture.

On soccer fields and street corners, men and women speak with the sing-song accent of Oaxacan Spanish. In restaurants, families flock for plates of mole, a dark chocolaty sauce. Oaxaqueños live side by side in fixer-uppers and reminisce about the green, mountainous fields of their homelands, finding comfort in familiarity.

"Everyone here in this neighborhood is going through the same thing," said Rogelio, a day laborer waiting for work one recent morning. He asked that his last name not be used because of his undocumented status. "You miss your family, your country. The greenness of everything down there (in Oaxaca). The good thing is, you can always find someone from Oaxaca around here to talk to about it. They're everywhere."


New land portals

Immigrants from all over Latin America live throughout the Valley. But there are areas where concentrations of people from different Mexican states influence entire city blocks with their regional cultures.

Along stretches of Van Buren Street in west Phoenix, for example, hundreds of immigrants from Sinaloa fill homes, taco shops and Western-wear businesses. Central Mesa is known for its large population of Guatemalans and Peruvians. And north Phoenix's Palomino neighborhood is home to Mexicans from the northern states of Sonora and Chihuahua.

The neighborhoods typically begin with the arrival of a few immigrants from a Mexican town or city, said Steve Murdock, state demographer of Texas. They grow as those immigrants send word of good-paying jobs in hotels, kitchens and golf courses. Sons, relatives and friends follow, and many send for wives and children later.

The neighborhoods help cushion immigrants' adjustment to the U.S., experts said, and allow them to still feel close to their homelands. Earlier immigrants help recent immigrants navigate, introducing them to people in the neighborhood, showing them how the bus system works and connecting them to priests and churches.

The neighborhoods also create opportunities for immigrants to climb the economic ladder. Many open businesses and sell region-specific food and other products to their neighbors.

"The new enclaves become a . . . stepping stone for immigrants," said Gregory Rodriguez, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank where he studies acculturation.

"It's lonely and disorienting, moving to a land with different expectations. These neighborhoods help ground people and help root them in the past, even as they're obviously charging forth in the future."


Feeling at home

In Sunnyslope, Oaxacans boom banda music from stores and homes. Their cars and trucks announce Oaxacan pride with stickers on rear windows in the shape of the state. Families fill Sunnyslope's five Oaxacan restaurants and panaderias (bakeries), which opened in the past decade.

Mini Mercado Restaurant Oaxaca, on the corner of Central Avenue and Hatcher Road, has become a gathering place for the Oaxacan community. Immigrants stop in to buy bags of mole negro (black mole), little loaves of the region's sweet egg bread and pounds of strong Oaxacan coffee. Some pop in just to pray in front of a shrine for the Virgin of Solitude or drop off money that is donated to churches in Oaxaca.

Jorge Lopez Sr., an immigrant from Oaxaca, opened Mini Mercado in 1999. He saw that the Oaxacan community was growing and no one in the area was selling regional products.

Today, the restaurant is a cornerstone of the Oaxacan community, and Lopez plans to open a stand-alone bakery across the street.

"(Sunnyslope) is like a town of Oaxacans," Lopez, 38, said.

In Oaxaca, Roberto Bolanos, 32, worked the region's cornfields until a few years ago, when the water dried up and the crops died, he said. Three months ago, Bolanos and his wife, Beatriz Herrera, both undocumented, moved to Sunnyslope, where they share a rental house with a cousin. They are saving money they earn cleaning movie theaters and hope to return to Oaxaca in a year.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. was tough, especially for Herrera.

But she quickly made friends with other Sunnyslope neighbors, some from her hometown of Huajuapan de León, in north Oaxaca. On the weekends, the couple hang out with other Oaxacan friends.

"It's made me more comfortable here in (Sunnyslope)," said Herrera, 25. "There's people walking on the streets from Oaxaca. You can tell because of their dialect, and they're very short people with dark skins. We'll stop and talk about who they are, how they got here, where they live and our country."

Reach the reporter at yvonne .wingett@arizonarepublic.com.