[Marxism] The Divide in Yakima Is the Divide in America

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
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 
a substitute.

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 
viewed it.

“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 
officials said.

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 
Council himself.

 From the beginning, she knew she would be battling low voter turnout 
among Yakima’s Latino population, as happens across the rest of the 
nation, too.

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 
in Yakima.

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 
real sorry.”

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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