Esparza, who holds dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship, came to as many others have: on a whim, in the 1970s, planning to stay for “just six months."
He found work as a janitor and later in restaurants at the Captain Cook Hotel. For the past 10 years he’s been an organizer for Local 878, a union that represents restaurant and hotel workers in Anchorage – many of whom are Hispanic.
The American dream is by no means easy to achieve in Alaska, he says (holding down two jobs is standard) but it’s still possible here.
And a handful Anchorage businesses increasingly cater to the growing community: There’s a place to buy a Quinceanera dress or pan dulce on Saturdays.
And if Esparza is craving tacos de cabeza, a dish from his childhood in Zacatecas, he can head to Mountain View’s Red Apple to buy beef cheeks.
“It’s the kind of thing your mama used to make in a small tiny village in Mexico, and you can find it in there,” he said, shaking his head.
And the population, leaders say, is as diverse as the blanket term “Hispanic”: It includes people from South America, Latin America and Mexico living and working in Alaska in a variety of professions, from petroleum engineers to teachers and commercial fishermen. While many of the people Esparza represents are working several lower-wage jobs to make ends meet, going back to school is another major trend.
“It personally makes me very proud,” he said. “We aren’t just coming to work in the service industry – we’re getting educated.”
His own sons are serving in the Army and working as a teacher and head football coach at West Valley High School in Fairbanks, respectively.
“I am so proud of them” he said. “I get excited because I’m so passionate about this community.”
Javier Abud is the Mexico consul for Alaska. His government opened a consulate in downtown Anchorage after noting the increase in Mexican citizens and Mexican-Americans living and working in the state.
Some of his countrymen have found that Alaskan jobs, particularly those in the fishing industry, offer higher wages than would be available in the Lower 48.
“For example, going to collect fruits and vegetables in California or Arizona – well, they get paid better here in Alaska,” Abud said. “Almost double of the wages.”
And he thinks that word of opportunities in the North spreads among close-knit families.
People are coming “because they want to contribute to the Alaskan economy,” he said. “It’s a win-win situation.”
While the growth has been concentrated – by 80 percent – in population centers like Anchorage, Fairbanks (which will get its own consulate outpost in a few months) and the Mat-Su, rural areas have also seen growth. Kodiak and Dutch Harbor have long been destinations for those who want to work in the fishing industry.
Eddie Hunsinger a state demographer with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development says that while demographic changes usually happen gradually, the Census, with its 10-year increments, offers a high-contrast snapshot.
As Census data is revealed, one thing will become apparent, he said.
“Just like the nation as a whole, Alaska’s population is becoming more and more ethnically diverse.”