AllAmerican Hickson is hip to Latino food, family, friends
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 18, 2005

Yvonne Wingett

On the patio of a Mill Avenue bar, Chris Hickson passes out another round of Jack and Cokes, leans his elbows on a pub table and bobs his head to a hip-hop beat. He turns around and raises his eyebrows at a parade of brunettes, miniskirts and metallic bags. He refocuses on his best friend, who is describing a Carlos Mencia comedy routine based on a stereotype of Mexican gardeners. "I've never even heard of him," Hickson says, sipping from a plastic cup. No surprise to Luis Morales, who drinks a Corona while schooling Hickson on the East LA comedian, the latest rage in Latin pop culture. "Dude, he makes fun of the little things in life you can relate to," says Morales, a Mexican immigrant. The image of Hispanics as fence jumpers, pool boys and landscapers. "You'd laugh your ass off and be like, 'Freaking Luis, that's you!' "

It's the way their friendship has always been: a cultural give-and-take of music and movies, food, fashion and language. It began in high school and continued through college and was built on Monday Night Football, Catholicism, family values and a tight crew of diverse friends.

At 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, Hickson is a broad-shouldered athlete who fills restaurant booths. His style is a casual mix of printed athletic T-shirts, cargo shorts and Spalding sneakers.

Hickson represents the all-American 26-year-old who has adapted to the profound changes that Mexican immigrants have brought about in Arizona's culture, schools and neighborhoods.

Morales has contributed to Hickson's "Latinization" by influencing his shopping habits and introducing him to hot chicks on Spanish game shows.

An Anglo minority
Hickson grew up in a largely Latino working-class neighborhood in Tempe, where vans sold Mexican ice cream and Hispanic fútbol leagues swarmed the park. His divorced dad, Michael, worked long hours as a truck driver and was a committed father who raised his sons on Hamburger Helper, Sunday school and an appreciation for hard work.

Hickson spent summer afternoons playing soccer with his best friends, Rogelio, Javier and Manuel. He doesn't remember having an Anglo friend.

During school, he boarded a bus into Guadalupe, riding along Avenida del Yaqui, past the mecánicos and mercados (mechanics and markets) to Veda B. Frank Elementary School. Until he was in fifth grade, he was largely unaware of accents and skin color, even though he was in the minority as one of a few Anglo students. He was taller and lighter than them, but it didn't matter. Hispanics played tetherball, chased girls and ate cupcakes, too.

Then in the fifth grade, at the first classroom party, it hit him. His friends brought pans of tamales, tacos and enchiladas. He brought cookies. That's just how it was, he says, laughing. Hispanic kids brought the main course; Anglo kids brought dessert.

Those grade school experiences, combined with the "everyone's born equal" attitude his father instilled in him, made Hickson appreciate different cultures.

By the time he graduated to seventh grade at H.M. McKemy Middle School in Tempe, he identified friends by interest. The jocks, the whiz kids, the hotties, the wannabe gangbangers. Never by Hispanic, Black or Anglo. His father moved his sons into a middle-class, mostly Anglo neighborhood near McClintock Drive and Interstate 10, where Hickson shot hoops after school. He made many friends there, but the names changed to Jason, Melissa and Mario.

When Hickson got to know Morales his freshman year on the football field of McClintock High School, he tagged him as a tough defensive lineman. Not a Hispanic defensive lineman.

"We just felt each other," he says, shrugging his shoulders. "We meshed together. In sports, it didn't matter what color you are."

Hickson saw a lot of himself in Morales: Both were high school football stars who listened to rap music and worked after school to help their families. Hickson just wanted to play ball, make something of himself and make his parents proud. So did Morales.

They did it together. After graduating from high school, both enrolled in college, hit the bars, threw pool parties and shopped at Food City and Trader Joe's.

Awkward moments

Hickson is sensitive to their differences only when he visits the Morales family in Tempe, where he struggles to communicate with his friend's parents and grandma. He fumbles through a conversation with Morales' dad, who makes fun of his Spanish, and can only say a few words to his mom.

Hickson wishes he could speak Spanish fluently. "I could fit in more instead of not being included and feeling out of place," he confides.

That said, Hickson digs how Morales and other Latino friends find any excuse to get the family and neighbors together for a comida, or cookout. He wishes his own family spent more time together.

"A birthday party for a 2-year-old is a party," he says. "Mexicans get together, and you have aunts, nieces, nephews, grandma, grandpa hanging out and having a good time. We just sit and look at each other (and say), 'So, how's work going?' "

La vida buena

Hickson lives happily in two worlds and somewhere in between.

He is centered in suburban American pop culture, crooning along with country songs in his SUV and answering his cellphone with "Dude, what's up?"

But he also knows Santana's lyrics and craves Mexican hotdogs wrapped in bacon and doused in mayo. He listens to mariachi music and, like a true Mexican, squeezes lime on everything - even bratwurst and buns. He takes road trips to Colorado for football games and to Nogales, Sonora, for boozing and shopping.

This night, he is dancing beneath blue strobe lights with a dozen Anglo friends at Graham Central Station in Tempe. He moves easily among its four dance floors, from hip-hop and Latin reggaeton to country and songs from the '80s.

"Not bad for a White guy, huh?" he says to his friends.

Hickson and Morales can joke about anything with each other. Hickson tells Morales the one about the Latinos who park five or six cars in the driveway and four don't work. Or how they have to watch TV at his house because "when you go to Luis' house, you watch TV Mexican-style, with the small TV on top of the big TV because the big TV doesn't work."

The jokes are their way of making fun of other people's ignorance, not each other.

"They're just stereotypes," Hickson says. "To us, there are no racial differences."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4712.