From AZCentral.com, Dustin Gardiner, The Republic, 15 Feb 2012.
When Margaret Leon Espinoza’s family first moved to Surprise in the 1950s, the community was an agricultural blip on the map compared with other Phoenix suburbs that were beginning to bustle.
The primary occupation was cotton farming. There were no traffic lights until you hit Glendale. Virtually no one had air-conditioning (residents hung wet sheets around their porches to stay cool, hoping a breeze would blow the moisture).
Her father, Fidel Leon, was one of the many migrant farmers who found opportunity in Surprise and the far West Valley. A Mexican immigrant, he began working cotton fields in the area around the 1930s. He later saved enough to buy machinery and start his own farming operation.
Leon’s entrepreneurial spirit persisted. In 1974, he opened one of the first recreational-vehicle courts in the area, Leon’s Park West RV Park, to cater to crowds of retirees flocking to nearby Sun City. The business flourished and the family ran it until they sold in 2005.
For Espinoza, vice president of the Surprise Historical Society, her father’s story is just one of many that tell the role migrant farmers played in building the West Valley. They came to harvest crops and ended up laying down roots of their own.
“If he had a third-grade education, he was lucky,” Espinoza said of her father. “He was a self-educated, persistent man. He helped establish the city.”
Several of the region’s cities, now booming with large populations and major sports venues, began with small groups of farmers who came to harvest cotton, citrus and vegetable crops. They often settled along waterways, such as the Agua Fria River, and were an early backbone of Surprise, El Mirage, Avondale and other communities.
Avondale Mayor Marie Lopez Rogers is the daughter of migrant workers and has spoken widely about how she grew up picking cotton and onions in the fields where City Hall sits. In July, President Barack Obama recounted her story as an example of the “promise of America.”
However, some have been critical of how predominately Latino neighborhoods founded by original migrant workers have fared as larger, more affluent subdivisions have sprung up around them. In both Surprise and El Mirage’s original town sites, there are dilapidated buildings, many residents are low-income and some lament that they have been left behind.
Surprise Councilman Roy Villanueva, who began representing the city’s old town area in 1978, has stressed the need for more revitalization efforts. He has advocated for the council to once again dedicate a portion of its property-tax revenue to old-town improvements.
Before the economic downturn, about 10 percent of property tax revenue was reinvested into the neighborhood through capital improvement projects, he said. New streetlights and street signage have been added in recent years, with help in the form of federal grants.