Origins of Scottsdale: Mexican families piece together Old Town history

Old family photos tell the story of some of the first residents of Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Circled around a large wooden table, enjoying their morning coffee in a meeting room at a local church, a world of knowledge unknown to the everyday Scottsdale resident is being shared about the origins of the city.

From afar, the sound of deep-belly laughter and teasing can be overheard, while a close familiarity can be felt by a stranger passing by.

The weekly Tuesday morning meetings at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, 7655 E. Main Street, is not the run-of-the-mill meet-up for Scottsdale residents. These individuals have deep ties to each other, and the Scottsdale community.

Just a stone’s throw from where the group meets every week, are the locations of where their family and childhood homes once stood.

Along Old Town roadways — Main Street, First Avenue and Drinkwater Boulevard — where municipal buildings, restaurants, art galleries and various other shops are now embedded, for a time, used to be a tight-knit community of residential homes where Mexican families planted roots.

These Mexican immigrants arrived to the area in the early 1900s, and started their families.

When Scottsdale incorporated in the 1950s, and the decision to set up the city’s headquarters was finalized some years later, the family homes were replaced.

Although, small traces of the original Adobe structures created back then still remain today.

One such structure, the Old Adobe Mission, built by hand by the men in the community — fathers, uncles and grandfathers of today’s residents — has been bestowed a national recognition earlier this year, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

Decades since their childhood homes once stood, the old neighborhood children and relatives of those first Scottsdale residents have found their way back to each other with one common goal: to make a written record about their Scottsdale roots.

Sally Anne Thompson, a self-proclaimed outsider to the group and Paradise Valley resident, has been working on a book about these Mexican families for the past nine years. In recent years, the group has formed — including two sets of siblings, cousins, old neighbors and friends — to share stories, track down family records and mostly, remissness on their memories of the original Scottsdale.

Ernie Corral, on left, and his younger brother Jay Corral, on right, hold up images of their ancestors. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

‘Three communities, one family and a rich American story’

There are about 34 recorded original Mexican families who can be attributed to establishing the Old Town Scottsdale area, Ms. Thompson says.

“Everybody here was born here, they’re all born in Arizona, in Scottsdale,” Ms. Thompson explained of the weekly Mexican group. “Born and raised, and were here until they tore their houses down and put up the City Hall, library and everything. The neighborhood was gone.”

Ernie and Jay Corral’s grandparents came to Arizona in 1919; their father was 7 years old at the time. Ms. Thompson recalls there was only one house to be had then, and the Corrals, who had the biggest family, lived in it.

“There was a spigot outside for water, and everybody else who came after that — the house and all the tents — were along Second Street,” she said. “That’s where seven of the original families settled; so they were all together, cooking outside, living in tents, doing everything out in the open.”

That original house where the Corral family lived, still stands today, and is a part of Los Olivos restaurant, 7328 E. 2nd St.

Sally Thompson has been working on a book about the early history of Scottsdale and the families who lived there for nearly a decade.
(Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Siblings, Raquel and Robert Leyva’s maternal grandfather arrived to Scottsdale in 1920, at the age of 60, leaving 15 children in Mexico.

“Their grandmother was my God Mother,” Ernie Corral noted, of the family history.

Raquel and Robert’s father came from Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, and is related to two other members of the group: Marjie Leyva Gardella and Nellie Ulloa.

“There were three women, all single. Their grandmother, Robert and Raquel’s grandmother, had been married twice and both husbands were killed in the mines down in Cananea,” Ms. Thompson said.

“When the opportunity came, she had five children at the time, and a widow for the second time. The other two women, their mothers or grandmothers were not married — those three women came up here with five children. When you stop to think about, ‘could I do that?’ In the same era, they were not mousy women. They had to have been so strong to be able to make the decision to come.”

Rouben Gardella’s ancestors are believed to be one of the first people in the city.

“In writing the book, and the more people I talk to, the more we research, Rouben’s maternal family had to have been one of the first people in Scottsdale. Even though they lived in north Scottsdale,” Ms. Thompson said.

“Rouben’s great grandfather lived in north Scottsdale, and he’s on the U.S. Census from 1880 as living up near Fort McDowell. He homesteaded up there and had 12 children.”

U.S. Army Chaplain Winfield Scott, the city’s namesake, is believed to have landed in Scottsdale in 1888.

The group credited Mr. Gardella’s grandfather as being “the first cowboy,” in the Wests Most Western Town.

Mr. Gardella’s grandmother went to school in the Cave Creek area, and is lauded as having put a priority on education.

“I’m thinking, from where they lived, where was the school? Cave Creek was still quite a ways away … Just to get to school every day from where they lived, that took a whole lot of work. It’s not like a bus was going to come pick her up in the 1890s.”

Two of Mr. Gardella’s uncles fought in World War I.

“My question sometimes is, if you look at Scottsdale today, how many people can claim that their ancestors living in Scottsdale fought in World War I?” Ms. Thompson opined.

Family photos spell out the history of early Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

A history before 1950

Ms. Thompson is now looking for a publisher for her book.

“Everyone who has read it, feels there is a need to record the history that hasn’t been recorded,” she explained. “The mayor, when we talked to him well over a year ago, he said ‘I can read all the history of Scottsdale, most of it starts in 1950 when it became a town.’ He said, ‘there’s nothing written that paints a picture of what it was really like with the early people.’”

Before 1950, there is little evidence to describe Scottsdale, besides a history of the city’s founder, Mr. Scott.

“Reuben’s father has just been a font of information,” Ms. Thompson said, noting that Tony Gardella is heralded as “the last cowboy.”

Ms. Thompson and Tony spoke for a few hours that first time they sat down to talk about the local history, she said.

“We started writing this book with six people who volunteered their help at the Mission. We said we really need to write a book about the Mission, as it transpired, it just got bigger and bigger. Our feeling was, we have this church over there, which we think is beautiful, but it’s just a building and it’s the people who make the church — not the church who make the people.”

With the help of Cruz Medina, another Scottsdale resident from the old neighborhood, as well as Jay and Ernie Corral, Ms. Thompson says they were able to identify nearly all the original family names.

“Stories keep coming up,” Ernie Corral said, as Mr. Gardella noted, “Families come up too.”

Unearthing history

Jay Corral says he was first invited to the group meeting when a friend told him his family was being discussed for the book.

“Maybe you can know something or know somebody, whatever, so me, Sally, Ernie and Juan are pretty much the originals, everyone else is fairly new in the last two years, I think,” Jay explained. “Every time someone new shows up, something new shows up on our information.”

Through talking to the different relatives in town, and counting on local memories, the group is piecing together the few records that exist of the families in Scottsdale.

Nellie Ulloa (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The Camelback Cemetery, across the street from Kiva Elementary School on McDonald Drive has been one resource for the group in finding lost and unknown residents.

“We have to talk about, Juan … the one that has the baby in the cemetery, a day old,” Ms. Thompson told the group during a March 5 meeting.

“Oh, Nellie knew who that was,” Mr. Gardella responded, when the group remembered the man was from the Casteel family.

In discussing how to get a phone number or contact information for the family descendant, the group believed they could track down another source for their book.

“It’s one more person in the cemetery — that’s where I first got the name from,” Ms. Thompson said during the discussion.

Local history says no Mexicans were buried in the Camelback Cemetery, Ernie Corral noted.

“Until we all went out there, how many were there? 30 I think,” Ernie said.

Raquel Leyva (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The group has found a photo for a man named Juan Casteel, but they don’t know anything about him.

“But Raquel has a lead to him, when I described him, she said ‘I think I know who that is,’” Ms. Thompson said.

At a recent AARP event held at Los Olivos to honor the Mexican descendants of Scottsdale, Ms. Leyva happened to begin talking with a man in attendance, who told her his grandfather came from the Casteel family. Turns out, Ms. Leyva and the gentlemen knew each other from years past.

“But while Raquel is telling us this, Reuben goes outside and calls his family to find out what they know about Juan Casteel; Nellie does the same thing with her family,” Ms. Thompson said. “So now we’ve got three people telling us the same story, all right here when I ask the question.”

From the beginning

It’s believed most of the Mexican settlers came to Scottsdale around 1919 because the area needed workers.

“No one came illegally, all came legally with their papers,” Ms. Thompson noted in her description of 1900s immigration.

“By the time they wanted to build a church, it was almost the depression. There was no money, jobs were at a premium and the town was just beginning.”

Ms. Thompson says in 1900, there were about 70 people living in the area, and a majority of the people had Tuberculosis, Emphysema or some other type of breathing problem.

“When you measure out the fact that there was no one here, one grocery store, a couple of small buildings — they had to come with money,” she explained of Western settlers who came from the Midwest or east coast.

“Some stayed longer than others, but most moved on as far as we could tell — there are a few that have been here from the very beginning — mostly, the Mexicans have been here from the very beginning.”

Ms. Thompson estimates that there were 34 original families, but says she can’t state an exact number because they’re not sure of all the names.

“You can’t do much research on them because there’s nothing written — their history has never been written down,” she explained. “When they wrote about the people of Scottsdale, it was all the whites and the farmers. These (the Mexican families) were the people that built the original village.”

Built in 1932-1933, the Old Adobe Mission served as the religious center for the Mexican community in Scottsdale who worked on local farms, ranches and construction sites in the area. Dona Dolores Rivera de Ochoa led the effort to raise money for the building and provided food and water to the workers as they built the church. Jesus Corral was instrumental in assembling men to make the adobe bricks and build the structure. (Photo courtesy of Scottsdale Public Library)

From the ground up

The property where the Old Adobe Mission sits, 3817 N. Brown Ave., was purchased by a bishop from Tucson. He reportedly told the local people that he would give them the land, but they would have to build the church themselves as money was sparse.

The Mission was built out of Adobe brick, a building material made from earth and organic materials. The word is Spanish for mudbrick.
Adobe is among the earliest building materials, and is used throughout the world.

Ms. Thompson says a total of 14,000 Adobe bricks were made, and extras went to creating homes as settlers were able to buy little lots of land within the village.

“It was all around the church, and the school, so they lived in close proximity to each other,” Ms. Thompson noted. The Little Red School House, was a landmark in town, having opened in 1909.

The Scottsdale Historical Society was established in 1969 to save the Little Red Schoolhouse from being demolished for the development of the Scottsdale Mall.

“In my younger days, I remember the big hole behind our house where my dad was making Adobe bricks,” Jay Corral said. “And, I believe there was a truck down there at the bottom, or a car down there, to haul them out. That big hole was there — and right now, they’re fixing up some of the ground there at Civic Center in Scottsdale, it’s still kind of leaning down over there. I tell everyone, that’s where our old hole was.”

Jay was around the age of 5 at the time his dad was making bricks in the backyard, he says.

“So I do believe the reconstruction of the bridge there at Civic Center is partly due to that hole,” he said, with a smile on his face.

His brother Ernie says his dad was “obsessed with Adobes.”

In photos of the family house, their father’s admiration for Adobe is evident, as they showed off architectural pieces he installed inside and outside with his love of building.

Disbanding a community

The Scottsdale Mall — now known as Civic Center — encompasses City Hall, Civic Center Library and a variety of other municipal buildings and open space.

The entire 14-acre Civic Center complex cost $2.54 million in 1968.

It was this area that the Mexican families had created their homes, and now were forced to move.

Margie Leyva Gardella (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“What was interesting, when we got a report on the price the city paid all of these people for their property, was nothing,” Ernie Corral said. “Some, $200 per lot, stuff like that.”

Some of the families hired lawyers during that time, the group said.

During that time, according to Ms. Thompson, it was difficult to decipher who owned what lots.

Ms. Gardella said her grandmother did pretty well on her deal, and the city paid for her new house when she relocated.

“The hard part, I think, was seeing a community dissolve. You were there for 50 years, and you’re all related in some way — whether it’s God parents, or wedding, it’s just a close knit community. You cry with everybody, you laugh with everybody,” Ms. Thompson said.

Ms. Gardella agreed, saying when she sees her childhood friends, not much has changed.

“When something happens, we all come back,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like 10 years went by, or whatever, when we see each other. We just pick up where we left off; we still see a lot of each other in a lot of places.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at or can be followed on Twitter at

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