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Wednesday, June 21, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Part Three

Farmworkers arriving from Mexico don't plan to stay, but they do

By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times staff reporter
TOPPENISH, Yakima County - The changes in this Eastern Washington farm town smile from a photograph that belongs to Arvel Eshleman, owner of the local A&W, who moved here in 1945.

"There was a time when I wouldn't have felt good about this," Eshleman said, pointing to the snapshot of his Mexican son-in-law, arms wrapped around Eshleman's daughter. "But you talk about a wonderful husband and father. I'm not better than he is. I've grown from that. Overcome it.

Also today:

Farm towns undergoing metamorphosis as Mexican workers decide to stay

"The bottom line is the Yakima Valley would not be what it is today without those Hispanic folks."

Not everyone here is so sanguine. There are tensions in the white community over bilingual-language programs in the schools and Spanish-language Masses at the Catholic church.

Mexican immigrants say racism has grown more subtle over time but still exists. Though Hispanics now make up about 70 percent of the population, the historic murals throughout town feature no Mexican faces.

"A person doesn't have to tell you they are prejudiced," said Roberto Alviso, son of migrant workers and the first Mexican-born member of the local School Board. "But it's still in the attitudes. You hear it, smell it, see it in the eyes and in the body language."

Those undercurrents course through many farm towns east of the Cascades, where populations have swung from nearly all white in the 1950s to heavily Hispanic today.

Hispanic population growing

Washington's dependence on Mexican labor dates back 100 years, when workers were recruited first to work the gold mines, then to build the railroads. Since World War II, Mexican immigrants have been the backbone of the state's giant agricultural industry.

While many of those workers come here illegally, more and more find ways to stay. A national amnesty in 1986 legalized 2.3 million Mexicans, including almost 1 million farmworkers.

That trend continues as workers and growers throughout the state push for another amnesty, arguing that the state's $1.2 billion tree-fruit crop is at risk without cheap, abundant labor. In the past decade, the Hispanic population in Washington grew 66 percent - from just under 215,000 in 1990 to more than 350,000 last year.

Hispanics now make up the state's largest ethnic minority.

Workers follow the crops, and friends and relatives follow them, settling together here as they lived together in Mexico, creating underground sister cities.

One-third of the residents of Pajacuarán, a rural village southeast of Guadalajara, move north each harvest season, many to Toppenish.

"When we first came here, we would turn around to see who was speaking Spanish, it was so unusual," said Irma de Prieto Jiménez, who moved here from La Barca, near Pajacuarán, in the 1970s. "By now, it's like another little Mexico."

A town in cultural transition

The colorful murals that grace the historic buildings are a signature of Toppenish, an agricultural hub that grew up around the railroad station built there in 1883.

There is enough grit, from the smell of the meatpacking plant and gang graffiti along back alleys, for the town to live up to its motto: "Where the West Still Lives." Residential streets quickly stub out in fields and orchards, where abandoned sugar-beet silos march to the horizon.

The base population is a bit under 8,000. Every summer, as the crops come in, that swells to 10,000 or more. And in some areas, the reigning language is Spanish.

The inventory at Kraff's, an independent clothing store, is a metaphor for the community's transformation.

Owner Dan Johnson got rid of the Florsheim shoes and suits. Kept the Pendleton jackets and mixed in Mexican shirts with gold spangles and blazing Virgen de Guadalupes, flashy striped zoot suits with wide lapels and high waists, spectator shoes, Stetson hats and sturdy, top-quality leather work boots.

He hired Spanish-speaking help but stopped short of Spanish-language signs.

"I didn't want to lose the white trade and yet get this new business. I was afraid," Johnson said. "But you have to be willing to change. You have to see people as people."

The Rev. Michael Pope, associate pastor at the Catholic church in Toppenish, said he had to learn Spanish to do his job. His pastor is from Colombia. Three Masses are said in Spanish for every two in English.

Increasingly, Mexican immigrants who intended to work here a few years are settling in the region, said Ricardo Garcia, executive director of the Northwest Communities Education Center and a founder of the Yakima Valley's first Spanish-language radio station, KDNA.

"People come thinking they are just going to earn a little money to send to Mexico to buy that little ranch or whatever they have wanted," Garcia said. "But as soon as they have kids, they start to get steady work, their kids go to school, it changes.

"They still go to Mexico every year. But every time, the trips are shorter."

Work force in constant flux

The seasonal work force in Eastern Washington churns constantly. As field workers gain English skills and legal work papers, many move into better jobs as orchard foremen and packinghouse workers. Or they leave agriculture - creating a void to be filled by a new wave of workers.

About 100,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers labor in Yakima, Franklin and Grant counties from April through the end of October, according to estimates by Alice Larson, an expert on Washington farm-labor demographics.

That press of workers, whether here for a season or for life, brings an equal press for services.

Federally funded programs for migrant students - from teacher aides to instructional materials - cost $13 million a year and serve 41,500 students statewide.

State spending on bilingual education has jumped from less than $5 million in 1984-85 to $34.5 million last year. Agricultural areas post some of the highest percentages of students enrolled in bilingual education.

Of the 307 new students entering school last fall at all grade levels in the Toppenish district, 236 spoke little or no English.

In Margarita Tobias' junior-high class, the lessons are basic: How to say "What is your name? How old are you? What grade are you in?" All but one of her students moved here from Mexico within the past year. When the first snow fell last winter, they all rushed to the classroom windows.

Some came from villages so remote they had to be taught that toilet paper can and should be flushed, and that there is plenty of hot water for washing their hands.

The Yakima Valley Farmworkers Clinic in Toppenish sees a 40 percent increase in demand for health, dental and social services during the peak agricultural months.

"Third World medicine is practiced here," said clinic director Carlos Olivares. "You see things like TB, parasites, a tremendous amount of diabetes and asthma. Some of these families have never been exposed to Western medicine. You have to teach people that live on the river bank that they can't drink the water."

Summer means scant housing

A massive summer-housing crisis has become as predictable as the seasons in Eastern Washington. Toppenish code enforcer Noberto Balderas said it will be common to find four farmworkers living in a 5-by-8-foot tool shed, each paying $50 to $75 for a bunk.

The situation is most acute during the labor-intense cherry harvest. In coming weeks, an estimated 8,000 pickers will sleep in their cars or squat along irrigation ditches.

Towns like Mattawa, Grant County, where the population doubles each summer, brace for harvest as if for a natural disaster, spending $18,000 in state funds for blankets, potable water, antibiotics and first-aid kits for workers camped by the Columbia River.

The situation grew so desperate last summer that Gov. Gary Locke pledged $40 million over 10 years to build farmworker housing. In the meantime, the state opened an emergency labor camp at Mattawa, converting shipping containers into lodging. And in Wenatchee, the state will spend $600,000 to erect a 50-tent labor camp at the airport.

Growers are not required to provide housing for their workers. If they do, they must meet an array of health and building codes - requirements they say serve as a financial disincentive to help homeless workers.

But just as the need for housing grows extreme, requests for welfare drop in the harvest months when work is plentiful.

Farmworkers with legal papers make up an estimated 70 percent of the welfare caseload in Toppenish. In the past year, that caseload dipped to a low in July, when 608 households received cash assistance, and peaked in January, when 786 got help. The numbers dropped again in April with the asparagus harvest.

Crime rates in Eastern Washington are dropping as they are in much of the country.

Toppenish Police Chief Jim Andrews said the crime rate is down 30 percent since he took the job 14 years ago; calls for service are down 15 since last year.

"When people have money in their pockets, they do things other than fight and make trouble," he said. "And it's shifted from people who would stay only three or five months and had no buy-in to the community."

Crime has dropped 50 percent in Pasco in the past 13 years, according to Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim. And in Yakima County, Undersheriff Steve Robertson said the crime rate is down 15 percent from last year.

Change not entirely welcome

As the Hispanic community matures, the political landscape changes with it.

The Toppenish City Council has two Hispanic members. Julian Torres, assistant superintendent of the school district, is the son of migrant workers.

And this September, a new mural will be added to the local collection, acknowledging an important chapter in the town's history. The mural, to be painted on the back of the Red Apple grocery, will show braceros arriving by train from Mexico to work in the fields.

"We are going in the right direction," said Alviso, the School Board member. "I know a lot of families with three kids in college."

Yet Alviso said some in town still believe America should be "just white, English only."

Few white people attended the town's Hispanic festival last autumn. And Pope, the Catholic priest, said some longtime residents chafe at the new language that fills his church.

"There are underlying tensions, feelings that some are getting more attention," he said.

Alviso hopes those tensions will ease by the time his five American-born children are grown.

"We just want to share, to be a community," he said.

This son of migrant workers is now a U.S. citizen. And he marvels that his eldest son visited Mexico as part of earning a degree in anthropology.

"He has a big horizon," Alviso said. "He can do whatever he wants. That's the kind of America I want to see."

Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is

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