Finding Mexico -- in Detroit

You don't expect to stumble into a little piece of Mexico right on the U.S.-Canadian border. But after I crossed the bridge from Windsor, Canada, into southwest Detroit, that's exactly what happened. I saw a "mercado" sign, and then a few blocks on there was La Jaliscience tortilla factory, the Mexican Village restaurant and La Colmena/Honey Bee grocery store.

Over the last decade, I've encountered Mexican immigrants from Grand Forks, N.D., to Clinton, Ill. But Mexicans traveling thousands of miles to live in the most maligned city in the United States?

No one should be surprised. As early as World War I, thousands of Mexicans came to southeast Michigan in search of work. Though most were drawn to the region's sugar beet fields, many stayed to join the diverse labor force that served Detroit's booming auto factories. By the late 1920s, Ford Motor Co. surpassed Inland Steel Co. to become the largest employer of Mexicans in the Midwest.

For the most part, early 20th century Detroit -- like Chicago -- offered a kinder social climate for Mexicans than did much of the Southwest. In the Midwest, Mexicans faced less discrimination and had more opportunities to cast themselves as Americans. Not seen by Anglos primarily through the prism of race and conquest, they tended to be perceived as just one more set of Catholic, working-class immigrants. Consequently, by the 1940s, the Mexicans drawn here by wartime industrial jobs had higher rates of naturalization than did their brethren in the Southwest.

This is not to say that Mexican Detroiters were immune from anti-Mexican sentiment. During the Depression, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera -- whose glorious fresco cycle "Detroit Industry" graces the Detroit Institute of Arts -- lent his fame to an inglorious campaign by the city's "Mexican Bureau" and the Mexican consulate to ship Mexican relief applicants back to Mexico. (Detroit wanted to rid itself of unemployed workers; Mexico wanted its lost manpower back.) Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo, attended a "celebratory" Detroit send-off for Mexicans who had been frightened into "voluntarily" returning to their homeland.

Like other immigrant groups, Mexicans have tended to view Detroit as a gateway to the leafier suburbs. By the late 1980s, such suburban out-migration, coupled with the city's infamous economic collapse, pretty much left southwest Detroit as little more than a few long-standing Mexican restaurants. Immigration had long since slowed to a trickle.

But that all changed in the mid-'90s, when immigrants -- many of whom hailed from the highlands of Jalisco -- came looking for jobs in landscaping, construction and automobile-related light manufacturing. Even as Detroit experienced a net loss of both white and black residents over the last two decades, the Latino population doubled from 1990 to 2007; it now represents 6% of the city.

Within a few years, Mexicantown and surrounding southwest Detroit were reborn. "Other than downtown, this is the only neighborhood that is succeeding in Detroit," Steve Tobocman, state representative for this part of the city, told me over lunch at Taqueria Lupitas on Bagley Street. "Sure, you can find a couple of blocks here and there, but you can't find an entire residential community and say that the quality of life has actually gotten better over the past 15 years."

Demographer Kurt Metzger agrees. Over the last decade, downtown Detroit has seen renewed investment and gentrification, but "in terms of density, entrepreneurship and diversity," Metzger says, "southwest Detroit is the most vital part of the city. And in a city where people shop for food at corner 'party stores,' it's the only area where you can find fresh fruits and vegetables."

More significantly, the Mexican part of town is not just for Mexicans. Tobocman's district is the most diverse in Detroit. Southwest Detroit is roughly 50% Latino, 25% black, 20% white and 5% Arab American. The high percentage of both blacks and whites is not an accident.

"Mixed black-white neighborhoods are traditionally unstable," Metzger explained. "As soon as one group hits the tipping point, one group or the other tends to leave. But in southwest Detroit, Hispanics tend to act as a buffer between black and white. And that's how the neighborhood has maintained its diversity."

Nor has the small but growing Latino population here had the same tensions with African Americans that are talked about in L.A. and other cities. Maria Elena Rodriguez, who ran the Mexicantown Community Development Corp. for 10 years, says it's a function of demographics. "This is a majority black city. Blacks have the political power. That's the lay of the land, and you have to work with it. The black-Hispanic thing is really not an issue here."

So are Mexican immigrants and their children destined to shape the future of Detroit? Probably not. Talk to people in Mexicantown and they'll generally tell you they want to make a move. The rents are cheap in southwest Detroit and the businesses remind newcomers of home, but the best jobs have headed to the suburbs and, like everywhere else in this city, crime haunts residents.

"I'm 100% certain that I'll leave Detroit," 32-year-old Yadira Garza told me in Spanish from behind the counter at Xochi's Gift Shop. She came from Mexico City four years ago, but, she says, "I'm not going to raise my kids here. And it's not because of racism. This city is just not safe."

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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