Photos by Anna Peña
Gail Buck and Wayne Miiller represent the new Valley homebuilder Casa Providencia, whose motto is, "Bilingual, bicultural in our changing market."
José Burruel, author of Mexicans In Scottsdale, says he's a prime example of a "socially mobile Mexicano."
Once ridden with crime, the land around Palomino Elementary School and the neighboring park – the heart of activity for the area – is filled with attractive townhomes and two-story houses.
Published by: Phoenix Magazine, May, 2008
He sits atop the tall grey mortar fence on a rainy early morning, eyes fixed straight ahead on the newly finished tile roof of a half-built luxury home. Though few in the neighborhood know him by name, his worn grey hooded sweater is a familiar sight to commuters who regularly pass the corner of Bell and Cave Creek roads, where he stands most mornings with a few other unemployed Hispanics angling for the chance yardwork job. Not far from them, three or four grey-bearded VFW nativists typically stand, too, holding signs vehemently protesting illegal immigration and shooing away any fellow Anglos looking to hire cheap day labor at the Macehualli Work Center.
The fence the man sits on this morning has twice been repaired for damage and many times repainted to cover the recurring gang graffiti. But today that graffiti is covered by a sign for a new development of 16 luxury homes going up just over the fence, offered by a new Valley realtor named Casa Providencia. The word in Spanish translates to both guardianship and foresight, but the slogan below it clarifies the company’s vision in English: “Bilingual, bicultural in our changing market.”
Somehow, it seems fitting that the young Latino man, driven from his usual post this morning by the weather and the protestors, leaps down from the fence and disappears into one of the half-built half-million-dollar homes for a little shelter from the rain.
It’s no small irony that here, less than two blocks away from the Macehualli day labor center and the predominantly Hispanic square mile of largely lower-income homes and apartments long known as “The Square,” the biggest and most expensive houses going up are being marketed, though not exclusively, toward upwardly-mobile Latinos.
Call them MexMansions. The northeast Valley may be first to experience a Latino-centric luxury home enclave, but Casa Providencia co-owner Gail Buck says other realtors are itching to follow suit.
“Hispanics are getting wealthier,” says Buck, who herself was born in Mexico City to a Latina mother and a father of European ancestry. She cites recent data from Hispanic Business magazine that bears her out: In the past ten years, the number of Hispanic households earning an annual income over $100,00 has increased by a whopping 126%. In addition, Latinos make up the fastest-growing segment of first-time home buyers in the United States, accounting for 40% of new home sales in Arizona alone, according to BizAZ magazine.
It’s a growing population that’s becoming ill-served by Realtors with only the token Spanish-speaking agent.
“It takes more than just speaking the language,” says Buck. “You have to understand the culture.” That means things like holding meetings in bigger conference rooms (“Latino couples tend to bring the whole family”), and building homes centered around the Hispanic experience. Models at the company’s pilot project include lots of fireplaces, patios and “mother-in-law suites” that embrace the larger family circle favored by Latinos.
Neighbors in the adjacent subdivision, a healthy mix of white, Hispanic, African-American and Asian, have already begun voicing their thoughts on the targeting indicated by the sign. “Uh-oh, look out,” cracks a woman to her husband as the couple walk their dog past the new development, apparently envisioning a cul-de-sac of Tony Montana wanna-bes buying up the new ‘hood. “Mexicans with money!”
Buck laughs heartily upon hearing the comment, offering herself as a perfect example of the perceived anomaly.
“Look at me: Mexican born, American educated – yes, I’m a Mexican with money!” she says. “But that is actually the invisible majority of Hispanics that are in this Valley. It’s a large market spread out all around here that nobody’s paying attention to.”
The affluent Hispanic population in the Valley is so invisible, in fact, even other affluent Hispanics have trouble seeing it.
“In my neighborhood, there are maybe three or four other Hispanics that I know of,” says José Burruel, looking out the window of his luxurious home in the Arcadia neighborhood on east Camelback Road, nestled just across the street from the entrance to the five-diamond Phoenician Resort.
“Arte Moreno used to live three doors down from me,” Burruel says, referring to the billionaire basketball franchise owner who made history as the first Hispanic to own a major sports team when he purchased the Anaheim Angels from Disney in 2003. “But now where does he live? Up in the Biltmore area. And who is he entertaining? It’s not the Yaquis anymore – it’s the O’Malley’s. See, what happens is, as Hispanics acquire wealth, they tend to meld into the dominant culture.”
Burruel, a former assistant dean at Arizona State University who recently authored a book, “Mexicans in Scottsdale,” detailing the oft-overlooked contributions of Mexican immigrants to that city’s development, admits he’s a prime model of the socially-mobile Mexicano who’s happily followed the path of assimilation into Anglo-dominant high society.
Born 83 years ago to first-generation Mexican immigrants in the area now known as Old Town Scottsdale, Burruel raised himself up from dirt-poor cotton picker to become the first Mexican-American to earn a Ph.D from ASU. But he candidly admits he didn’t make the quantum leap to Phoenician-neighborhood wealth until he divorced his first wife, a Mexican woman he claims was insecure with his widening social circle – “a common problem with Latinas” – and married into a rich English-Irish-Norwegian family (although Burruel says he didn’t realize Frances, his wife of 34 years, came from money until he met her mother).
Burruel notes he’s an odd exception to the rule. “Usually it’s the Latina women who marry Anglo men,” he says, pointing to a statistically-supported reason why marketers have trouble identifying the Hispanic market by surname. But Burruel’s observed that even the most high-achieving immigrants don’t ascend to his level of wealth without in some sense “marrying” into the majority population.
“The way it goes is: the first generation speaks a lot of Spanish and some English,” Burruel says. “The second generation starts to lose a lot of the Spanish. And by the third generation, the Spanish is gone.” English-only zealots who complain Mexican immigrants resist acculturation are “full of hogwash,” says Burruel, an admitted Republican. “You have to learn English to survive here.”
Mario Romero, an independent Valley Realtor who says maybe 10% of his luxury home sales are bought by Latino families, agrees with the findings cited in Hispanic Business that roughly three-fourths of Latinos in Arizona today are fluent in English.
But Romero’s quick to add that the cultures and traditions of the Hispanic people – which can comprise ancestors from Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela and more than a dozen other countries – survive any outward assimilation.
“The Spanish may disappear,” Romero says, “but the culture remains. I have Hispanic clients who like to live at the top of the mountain. But inside those houses, it’s still all about the family and the food.”
For that reason, it’s important that home builders eager to serve the upwardly-mobile Hispanic market incorporate in their designs some touchstones of Latino living.
“Builders here have been slow to ditch the separate living room and family room,” says Romero. “But they’re beginning to design big spaces where the focal point is the kitchen, with room for entertainment, leading out to the back yard – where everything happens. And there has to be a logical flow from the kitchen to the back yard.”
Lots of bedrooms, often one or two on the ground floor of a luxury two-story, are also important, says Ana Delgado, another Valley broker specializing in homes for the Hispanic market. “That’s ’cause we multiply like rabbits!” she cracks.
Illustrating her point with humor, Delgado, who runs the Phoenix franchise of Casa Latino, a national chain that advertises itself as “America’s Leading Latino Real Estate Brand,” says she’s often offended by the “you people” labeling of Hispanic marketing. “It’s almost like stereotyping,” says the young University of Barcelona graduate.
Still, Delgado admits dealing successfully with Hispanics requires at least some acknowledgement of the racial divide.
“It’s hard to gain the trust of Latinos,” says Delgado, who notes that having Hispanics in upper management and in partnerships certainly helps. “You have to be honest, and there’s no beating around the bush. But once they trust you for one thing, they trust you for everything. They’re your clients for life.”
Maintaining a presence in the neighborhoods is also key. “We host a community cook-out once a month, to kind of say, ‘We’re here, we’re real people with real families – just like you.’”
Financing can also be an entirely different game. “A lot of Hispanic people don’t trust the banks,” Delgado says. “So they pocket the money in the pillows or between the mattresses. I see a lot of that still.” As a result, Hispanics are often able to come up with bigger-than-average down payments in exchange for a lower monthly rate.
“The culture is very, very different,” says Delgado. “But the Valley is 49% Hispanic now,” she adds, citing the latest census figures, which also predict the population to grow by 68% over the next decade, compared to 5% for whites. “It’s about time we all try to understand it.”
Wayne Miiller stands on the second floor of the partially completed model in Casa Providencia’s pilot neighborhood, Aire Libre Estates, and looks out past the outdoor fireplace on the patio to the overgrown, garbage-strewn yard just over the subdivision’s fence.
“This makes it harder for me to sell,” frowns the company’s co-owner, pointing to the dilapidated property in the once agriculturally-zoned area, whose owner, a man named Eduardo, stubbornly refuses to budge. “The objection we hear, from people who don’t understand the neighborhood, is always, ‘I don’t want to spend $500,000 and have to look at that!’”
Because of that, and the other funky property that sits steadfastly at the opposite corner of the z-shaped subdivision, Miiller says his target buyers for the homes are people from the neighboring communities who want to move up in – but not out of – their comfortable surroundings.
“They’re people who already have their kids in the schools, they understand the neighborhood is a mish-mash of zoning and housing, and they just want a nicer and bigger house,” says Miiller.
Developers call this kind of mish-mash “suburban infill,” and it’s a hot trend in Phoenix, where urban sprawl has pushed many new homebuyers too far away from where they work and play. Smart growth proponents applaud the practice, which dictates building new homes in vacant spots left over from earlier subdivisions, for reducing automobile usage, maximizing the use of existing utilities, and avoiding the further gobbling-up of greenfield land.
In the nearby Palomino neighborhood – the Valley’s most densely populated square mile, bordered by Bell Road and Greenway Parkway to the north and south and 32nd Street to Cave Creek Road on the east and west sides – infill housing has also been aggressively used to revitalize the once blighted barrio of slum-lord-run apartments and trailer parks.
“Infill, to me, was a way to attract people to build new housing in there,” says District 2 vice mayor Peggy Neely, whom school and police district officials credit with turning the formerly crime-ridden area around. “The biggest thing that I felt could make that area successful was single family home ownership. Because once you have a home, you have a pride in ownership and you begin to take some responsibility for the area.”
Today, the land around Palomino Elementary School and the neighboring park – the heart of activity for the area – is filled with attractive townhomes and two-story houses. And community pride is indeed up: school and business leaders say residents no longer view the neighborhood as a place to escape, but rather prosper within.
But the newer homes are still surrounded by Section 8 subsidized apartments and trailers occupied by low-income residents. And, as both Miiller and Romero suggest, it takes a certain kind of buyer to be okay with that. Coincidentally, both Realtors say it’s usually not the wealthy white couple from Anthem or Troon North.
“A lot of those people have never lived south of the 101,” says Miiller. “And they don’t know what to make of this environment.”
“If you look at studies of where people live as opposed to where they work and shop, you find most Anglos use their home as a crash pad,” adds Romero. “The Hispanics – and also African-Americans – tend to stay in the community.” It doesn’t matter what income levels they’re surrounded by, Romero says. “It’s all about coming home.”
José Burruel says Mexicanos, in particular, are quite familiar with that mixture of housing.
“In Mexico, it’s not unusual to have a mansion right next to a damned hut,” he says, while instructing his own Hispanic housekeepers – two women the couple consider “family” but lament can’t afford to live in their posh suburb – in Spanish. “That’s because the wealthy Mexican likes to keep his help close by.”
In the Palomino area, that means living close to the day laborers, something Salvador Reza, the well-known migrant workers’ activist who oversees the Macehualli Work Center, attests not all Anglos are willing to do. After all, it takes some knowledge of Spanish to know Macehualli translates to “those who deserve honor for their work.”
“It’s idealistic to think if you bring nice houses in, people feel better,” Reza says. “But if you don’t solve the immigration debate, it’ll never work. You can’t have a stable neighborhood without a stable population.”
Home builder Sherry Vallejos, whose 36-unit Palomino Casitas were the first of the nicer duplexes to go into that neighborhood, rejects the notion that she’s building mini-MexMansions designed mainly to keep Palomino’s upwardly-mobile Hispanics from fleeing the area.
“To me, it’s an appealing place for anybody to live,” insists the builder, who’s remained an enthusiastic cheerleader for the district. “If you look at how close it is to schools, its access to the freeways and city services, it’s attractive for a lot of young families. And the multi-culturalism that is provided there is, to me, just such a positive addition.”
Still, with the nearest grocery store being a Food City and the streets lined with panaderías, carnicerías and Latino ice cream pushcarts, living in the area requires the average Anglo to abandon the security of feeling part of the majority population – something Vallejos believes, happily, is finally beginning to happen.
“A lot of young people, especially, are embracing diversity – and that’s really what makes a community,” she says. “Plus, now we have so many mixed families who are creating incredibly gifted children. Can we really say ‘Latino families’ or ‘Anglo families’ any more?”
Wayne Miiller calls the non-Hispanic population around such neighborhoods “Latino-adjacent,” and the definitions for the term could inspire a whole new line of Jeff Foxworthy jokes. If you turn up your nose at Taco Bell and instead drive to the carnicería for an arrachera burrito and a Coke from a Mexican glass bottler, you might be Latino-adjacent. If you find yourself developing a fondness for accordion music and lollipops laced with chili powder spicy enough to melt the acid off your car battery, bingo!
“I think we are all heading in that direction, either by choice or through the simple immersion of daily life, says Miiller, himself a product of 100% German ancestry who served on the police force in Palomino for a while before becoming so immersed in the music of the neighborhood he left to play drums in a Cuban band. “We are all Latino-adjacent.”
Whoever may be moving into the bigger homes around Palomino, the revitalization has already had a positive effect on the population most cherished in all Latino neighborhoods: the children.
“Now you hear the kids telling their friends, ‘We moved into a house!’ or ‘We bought a new townhome!’” says Molly Kemp, grant manager at Palomino Elementary School. “And that opens up possibilities. We do field trips where we take the kids to ASU. Because if you tell kids they need to go to college, but they can’t visualize it, it’s hard to reach for that goal.
“Well, now they can also visualize what it’s like to own a nice home – because they see it all around them,” Kemp adds. “And that gives them a broader sense of what they can achieve. Right here, in their own neighborhood.”