[Marxism] The Divide in Yakima Is the Divide in America
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Wed Nov 20 09:25:15 MST 2019
NY Times, Nov. 20, 2019
The Divide in Yakima Is the Divide in America
What the changing demographics of this country look like up close.
By Dionne Searcey and Robert Gebeloff
YAKIMA, Wash. — Dulce Gutiérrez heard the angry voice as she was
speaking in Spanish to a group of students who had volunteered to hand
out leaflets for her City Council campaign.
It came from across the street, where an older white woman stood on her
front porch. Ms. Gutiérrez had endured the taunt before, but this time,
in front of hopeful teenagers, the words felt like fire. They actually
made her hot.
She wanted to scream back. She wanted to call the woman a racist. She
wanted to let her know how hard she, a daughter of migrant farmworkers,
had worked to be here, offering Latinos the chance to have a say in a
community where they had felt shut out for so long.
“Go back to Mexico!” the woman had yelled.
“Ouch,” was all Ms. Gutiérrez remembers being able to muster in
response. “That hurts.”
Ms. Gutiérrez went on to win a seat on the Yakima City Council and
become among the first Latino politicians ever elected in the Central
Washington community of nearly 94,000 where the number of Latinos has
doubled in just one generation, now making up almost half of the total
The changes in this farming valley, known as the nation’s fruit basket,
mirror demographic trends in numerous U.S. cities where the population
is becoming increasingly less white. Ms. Gutiérrez represents a major
shift not only because of her ethnicity, but because of her age — she
was 26 when first elected. In Yakima, young adults are nearly twice as
likely to be Latino as older adults.
In most diversifying American cities, the age dynamics are just as
striking, a New York Times analysis has found. In nearly 100 U.S.
metropolitan areas — from Santa Fe to New York and dozens of cities in
between — whites comprise the majority of residents over the age of 45,
and the minority of adults younger than that.
Demographic changes like those are defining a political moment in
America where the president stokes tensions along racial lines with
immigration crackdowns, plans to build a wall along the Mexican border
and disparaging comments, like telling four Democratic congresswomen of
color to “go back” to their “home” countries.
On a local level, the demographic changes are leading to political
changes too. In Yakima, the same year that the first Latino City Council
members took their seats, the community also voted overwhelmingly for
Donald Trump, though Washington State went for Hillary Clinton. This
year, a heated debate broke out over Immigration and Customs Enforcement
jets landing in the city. On Election Day, Yakima County joined the rest
of the state in rejecting a measure that would have restored affirmative
action, and fewer Latinos will sit on Yakima’s City Council come January.
Five days a week, Dave Ettl, 67, offers a running commentary on the
transformation in Yakima, where he has lived since the early 1980s. He
is the co-host of a popular conservative morning radio show, which he
describes as “good conversation wrapped in our tell-it-like-it-is kinda
style.” Lately, the discussions are centered on “politically driven
social justice warriors” and “certain values we hold dear.” He thinks a
lot about how quickly life in Yakima is changing.
“Old dinosaurs like me and our ideology may or may not have to change,
and I do think there is a time for it,” Mr. Ettl said. “The far left —
they’re pushing too fast too hard. Things might be sliding this way, but
they’re jumping out too far ahead. Our current scenario is getting too
far, too left, too soon.”
The rich, volcanic soil of the Yakima Valley was first farmed by members
of the Yakama Nation before they were forced onto a reservation in the
mid-1800s and then by a Japanese population that migrated here, until
they were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl
Harbor. White workers migrated here, too, fleeing their own parched
fields in the middle of the country that had dried out during the Dust
Bowl era. Many stayed and thrived, buying land and building sprawling farms.
The Yakima Valley bursts with apples, pears, hops and cherries, so much
so that farmers had trouble hiring enough workers to harvest it all. The
work is delicate and difficult — most fruit must be picked by hand — and
often is paid piecemeal. Farmers found a ready work force in Mexicans
who began arriving in large numbers to fill wartime labor shortages in
the 1940s and others who later fled rising unemployment and a financial
crisis at home. Many came to Yakima on temporary visas and returned home
after the harvest.
As farms expanded and refrigerated warehousing offered year-round jobs,
some Mexican workers stayed on illegally. In 1986, many took advantage
of President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program offering the chance for
citizenship. Their families grew, and workers from Mexico and other
Central American countries kept coming.
Latino children — including Ms. Gutiérrez — began populating Yakima
classrooms, some like her, arriving with little or no English. In 1999,
for example, Yakima’s Eisenhower High School listed its student body as
23 percent Latino and 70 percent white. In a decade’s time it became the
opposite, with Latino students in the majority.
But to some longtime residents, the familiar was becoming
unrecognizable. Some white parents grumbled that school presentations
were in both English and Spanish.
Mr. Ettl, the radio host, remembers attending a bilingual presentation
at one school. “It took twice as long as it needed to,” he said.
A part-time magician who calls himself a conservative, not a Republican,
Mr. Ettl arrived in Yakima in 1983. Mexican-American entrepreneurs were
setting up businesses — taquerias and shops selling quinceañera dresses
and cowboy hats.
He remembers in the 1990s when National Guard helicopters buzzed
overhead in an effort to curb drug crimes that had become so prolific in
Yakima, it earned a derogatory new nickname: Crackima.
He decided to get involved in politics and in 2009, won a seat on the
nonpartisan City Council and began work on initiatives to fight gangs,
which were operating on the east side of the city, home to many Latino
Mr. Ettl and many other white residents blamed the growing Latino
population for the proliferation of gangs in the city, located along an
interstate connecting drug traffickers to eastern routes. The anger ran
deep; readers of the local paper called to complain when photos of
Latino children appeared on the front page with Santa Claus.
Ms. Gutiérrez also recalls life in Yakima at the time. She remembers
going to see Santa when she was little. Her mother had enrolled her in a
program where Santa distributed gifts to underprivileged children.
But it’s not what the east side residents say they were promised.
In the mid-2000s, with a recession settling over the nation, Yakima
closed two pools on the east side, saying they weren’t used enough to
justify the cost. City leaders promised to replace the pools when the
economy improved and built a small splash pad with arched sprinklers as
Discussions about a new pool had twisted through rounds of debate for
years on the City Council. As donations poured in, along with a Y.M.C.A.
partnership, officials decided to build the $22 million facility on
Yakima’s north side, essentially the town’s geographic center, so the
whole city could benefit from it. That’s not how east side residents
“It’s intended to serve the white population of town,” Ms. Gutiérrez
said, noting that it’s too far for children on the east side to walk to.
Yakima’s social divide has long been defined by a physical one. Numerous
white families live on the west side. There, amid the brick homes and
green lawns, the city operates a community center — decked out with
Western art, a billiards room and a two-story, stone fireplace — that
serves a large senior population. On the heavily Latino east side where
in some neighborhoods children make up nearly 40 percent of the total
number of residents, the city’s two community centers cater to children
— and have the charm of a hospital, with linoleum floors and fluorescent
While all of Yakima’s community centers receive public funding, the west
side’s senior center has benefited from more private donations, city
Mayor Kathy Coffey, whose grandfather also served as a mayor of Yakima,
said she does not believe inequities exist in city services between the
community’s Latino and white population. But she understands that “in
perception there are those who feel there is a real issue there.”
Those perceptions prompted an A.C.L.U.-backed lawsuit in 2012 arguing
that Yakima’s at-large voting system for its City Council diluted the
Latino vote, blocking minority representation. Plaintiffs pointed out
that no Latino had ever been elected to the City Council in the 37-year
history of the current system, even though Latinos at the time accounted
for more than one-third of the city’s voting-age population, and one
quarter of eligible voters.
A federal judge sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that Latino voters
were at “a steep mathematical disadvantage” and that their votes had
been “unlawfully diluted.”
Mr. Ettl — who was then still on the City Council though he isn’t any
longer — and other council members pushed for an appeal, and the city
spent more than $1 million on an ultimately unsuccessful fight.
Yakima was carved into districts, offering the east side a chance for
two seats on the seven-member council. Ms. Gutiérrez filed her candidacy
to represent one of the east side districts and began a bilingual
campaign in the spring of 2015.
Her campaign materials pledged she would improve the city “neighborhood
by neighborhood, block by block.” At least you have real eyebrows, one
white resident told her on the campaign trail, and not painted on ones
like those other Mexican women. Another white resident asked her why he
had to vote for a Mexican. She reminded him he could have run for City
From the beginning, she knew she would be battling low voter turnout
among Yakima’s Latino population, as happens across the rest of the
Older white voters are far more likely to turn out on Election Day than
younger, minority voters, a Times analysis found. In the 2018 midterm
elections, 70 percent of eligible white seniors voted compared to only
one-third of Latinos under 45 who showed up at the polls.
Yakima’s Latino residents are about two times more likely to live below
the poverty line than white residents, and about half of the Latino
population here lacks a high school diploma. Some of Ms. Gutiérrez’s
constituents don’t know what a City Council is, she said.
“It’s not an obstacle for white folks who subscribe to the newspaper and
are literate in English and are comfortable around authority figures.
They have a strong sense of entitlement to government and feel like they
can come to City Hall and yell at us and be angry at us,” said Ms.
Gutiérrez, who worked in warehouses as a teen during cherry harvest season.
For her Latino constituents, that comfort level is lacking. “People
don’t know what they can ask from government officials. They have no
connection to them,” she said.
Ms. Gutiérrez set up a mentorship program to pair disadvantaged children
with council members. She fought for more sidewalks, crosswalks and
streetlamps in east side neighborhoods. Critics labeled her divisive. A
man known to have ties to white supremacist groups called City Hall and
asked for her. She got a dog to protect herself.
The election of President Trump, she said, seemed to unleash a new anger
Across the nation, families were being separated. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement was carrying out raids of undocumented people. Ms.
Gutiérrez was worried about her constituents, many of whom had family
who were in the country illegally. They were afraid. About one-quarter
of Latinos in Yakima are not citizens, according to Census Bureau data.
But amid the rekindled fears, local nonprofits reported an increase in
attendance at citizenship classes, driven by people who wanted to
register to vote, they said.
On a recent morning, huapango music wafted over the grape vines in an
orchard outside of town where Alexandra Ornelas, 23, was snipping
clusters with a small pair of scissors.
She works a full day in the fields and squeezes in courses toward
certificates in viticulture and treetop production so she can become an
orchard manager. She said the president, who rails against immigrants,
doesn’t understand how hard they work or what they are seeking in America.
She helped her mother become a citizen not long ago, she said, in part
so she could vote against Mr. Trump in 2020.
Progress ‘block by block’
In 2017, the Latino City Council members tried to rally support for a
“welcoming city” resolution, which stated that Yakima would accept
anyone regardless of immigration status. They were outvoted. Ms.
Gutiérrez kept pushing, calling for a policy that offered assurances
that the police wouldn’t arbitrarily ask for a person’s immigration
status. The council voted to end discussion on the issue for good.
Meanwhile, 180 miles away, contractors at Boeing Field near Seattle took
a stand on immigration and began refusing to fuel jets that Immigration
and Customs Enforcement officials were using for deportations and
detentions of undocumented immigrants, largely from Central America. The
move effectively shut down ICE flights to the state. The agency turned
to Yakima to ask if the planes could land on its runways.
Ms. Gutiérrez was outraged. The way she saw it, a community that is
nearly half Latino, that has welcomed immigrants to work in its fields
for decades was now going to allow planes carrying out inhumane
deportations. Her constituents were outraged, too.
“ICE is coming to airports and picking up a population of people who
look like us here,” said Juan Beltran, 20, who had helped Ms. Gutiérrez
canvass for voters during her campaign.
Ms. Gutiérrez tried to rally fellow council members to stop the flights.
But some of them worried the city could lose federal funding if they did
so. Surely they could find a way to resist, Ms. Gutiérrez pleaded. The
debate culminated in a four-hour meeting in July where dozens of
citizens crowded the City Council chambers.
One woman sobbed that her own father had been deported on a similar
flight. Some people said the city was prioritizing profits over
humanity; the city gets a landing fee for each flight. Mr. Beltran
wanted to be at the meeting, but it was harvest time and he was working
a late shift in the accounting office at a cherry warehouse. He watched
a recording of the proceedings after work online.
The council voted 4-3 to allow the flights. Planes now land almost
weekly at the Yakima airport, loading Central American migrants wearing
leg shackles and handcuffs to and from buses bound for a federal
immigration facility on the other side of the state.
But in some ways, Ms. Gutiérrez sees the outcome as a victory. The issue
would never even have come up for a vote five years ago, she said.
Ms. Gutiérrez decided not to run for re-election, so will leave office
when her term is up later this year. She’ll be on the outside as the
city debates whether to change how it picks its mayor — a move she says
would dilute the political power of east side voters. And the newly
elected City Council is set to be less diverse. But Ms. Gutiérrez plans
to enroll in law school, move to a bigger city, maybe even Washington,
D.C., where she can get involved in federal politics and then return to
She is using the rest of her term to continue to make good on her
campaign promise to improve the city “block by block.”
On a recent afternoon, Ms. Gutiérrez was out visiting a constituent who
had called her office to lobby for a new streetlight. The councilwoman
knew the house. She took a deep breath and marched onto the porch — the
same porch where Margery Guthridge had yelled at her to “go back to
Mexico” four years earlier.
Ms. Guthridge is a white minority in the mostly Latino district. She has
lived in her house for seven years, and shares it with a
Chihuahua-Yorkie mix named Miss Tipsy Two. An American flag is propped
up out front, and the yard is surrounded by a chain-link fence that she
sometimes padlocks shut. She said the neighborhood was rough when she
first moved in, but lately, things have been calmer.
Her Spanish-speaking neighbors bring her plates of food when they
barbecue. With her push for better lighting and new curb cuts, Ms.
Gutiérrez has made the neighborhood safer. Ms. Guthridge said she
regrets yelling the taunt.
“I want to forget that. I really didn’t mean that,” she said. “I’ve done
quite a bit of growing up since then. I understand people more. And I am
Dionne Searcey is a politics reporter at The New York Times where she
has worked as the West and Central Africa bureau chief and a reporter
covering the U.S. economy. @dionnesearcey • Facebook
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