In the heart of Central Phoenix, McDowell Road cuts from the east to the west creating a social-spatial path through a heavily immigrant neighborhood. From 16th Street to 32nd Street, this stretch of pavement is filled to the brim with urban businesses that connect the US to multiple countries. This pathway serves as a kind of local “border” to the globe, an interactive zone of complex crossings where clear signs of migration are displayed, from the Spanish language signage on shop windows, the tiny African clothing store, the vibrant and colorful graffiti on the sides of buildings, to various markets accommodating the sartorial tastes and cuisines of specific ethnic diasporas. Thus represented as a border, McDowell Road enables us to visualize some of the ways that migrants bring their home culture to their new city and blur our nations’ spatial edges.
I explored this border with a group of fellow researchers with hopes to experience the social and geographical space that migrants bring to the city. We met for lunch at a Mexican chain restaurant, Tortas Paqiume. As traditional hip-swaying Mexican music played in the background, the restaurant filled quickly for lunch with customers ranging from Hispanic families to a lone Caucasian businessman. Our group dispersed shortly after eating delicious tortas to conduct our ethnographic research along the McDowell Road border.
We had already researched the demographics of the neighboring residential communities to the north and south of the McDowell Road. As can be seen on the map, US Census data show a high concentration of both immigrants and Latinx located in this area. From North 7th Street to 44th Street, some areas host as much as 86% immigrants and 43% of Latinx along McDowell Rd. Given this intense demographic concentration, we wanted to see if we could detect their presence reflected in the shops and businesses along McDowell border.
We drove along the border, peering north and south to find more evidence of migrants. My teammate Sanhareb and I decided to stop at a promising looking shopping strip.
Red and green Spanish-language advertisements grabbed our attention, plastered across the shop windows of the Carniceria y Panaderia Los Alamos. This Mexican food market is two doors down from Papa Patron, a hybrid of American and Mexican pizza cuisine. A bell rang as soon as we swung open the door of the carniceria, calling the shopkeeper’s attention to the entrance of shoppers. To the right, a bakery section displayed traditional Mexican pastries such as brightly colored conchas, shell-like pastries piled in a glass cabinet for self-serving. To the left, a butcher counter as long as the length of the store offered all kinds of meats, ranging from beef cut in styles preferred by Mexicans to fresh fish. The shelves along the aisles in the middle of the store were filled with various Mexican products. We examined packages of candy and bags of spices used for cooking and discovered that these were American products with Spanish-language labels. In the back of the store a fresh produce shelf was filled with onions, avocado, limes, and other various produce commonly used for traditional Mexican cuisine. At the front of the store was a tiny set-up of chairs and an option to buy tacos. Carniceria y Panaderia Los Alamos is a one-stop grocery market for Latinx residents along McDowell Road, providing an eclectic variety of products and services catering to migrant preferences.
Right across from the carniceria lies another small shop, Isra Market, a Somali-owned grocery store. It is open to the public but within a few minutes after we entered it was evident that the shop mainly caters to local Somali residents. Only three aisles make up the store and the shelves were filled with various food products from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In the back corner a vibrant splash of traditional Middle-Eastern dresses for sale hung on the walls. Shortly after we walked in, a family of shoppers flew right into the store. They shouted phrases to the cashier in a language unknown to us, presumably Somali. We watched patiently as the family interacted with the cashier with convivial familiarity. After some time, I gained courage to interact with the shoppers and began to ask them questions. I was surprised by the eagerness of a young man who spoke with us. He spoke English very well with a heavy Somalian accent.
His name is Abdullah, and his family are refugees from Somalia. They have lived in Phoenix for four years but before here they lived in Kenya for 18 years in a refugee camp, where Abdullah was born. The young migrant was excited to share his family’s story and spoke proudly of his mother’s journey to bring her family here to the United States. Abdullah is a college student like us, but attending Phoenix Community College, and he expressed the desire to move forward in his studies to the university. We left Isra Market filled with joy and gratitude for being able to experience such a fruitful interaction.
Our ethnographic fieldwork just tapped the surface, but it is evident that right in the heart of Phoenix, McDowell Road provides a rich opportunity to visualize the social-spatial impact of immigrants in our community. Our experience enabled us to truly cross a border leading to multiple world regions.