By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Jill Stewart
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Hispanic immigrants are propping up small-town real estate markets too, even if they have to dig into what Nestor Hernandez, a real estate agent and president of Yakima County's Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, calls their "mattress money." Indeed, Hispanics are virtually the only people buying property in a whole series of farming towns east of the Cascade mountains.
Meanwhile, politicians who like to celebrate small towns and family farms in their political rhetoric are also the ones calling for a crackdown on illegals. Speaking at the GOP convention in 2008, for instance, Sarah Palin famously declared: "We grow good people in our small towns . . . They're the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars." (She was, in part, quoting late anti-government journalist Westbrook Pegler.) But this May, she stood with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer at a press conference and declared her support for the new state law requiring local law enforcement to question suspected illegal immigrants.
Missouri Congressman Sam Graves, who's running for re-election this year and whose bios highlight his status as a "sixth-generation, full-time family farmer" from the tiny town of Tarkio, has proposed shutting down even legal immigration until the borders are secure, according to The Washington Post Company Web site Who Runs Gov.
In Washington state, U.S. Senate candidate and tea party favorite Clint Didier is playing up his roots as a "Home Town Farm Boy" — indeed, those are the first words to load on his home page. His posted bio lauds him for returning with his family, after a professional football career, to the farming life in eastern Washington that he knew as a child. Yet he suggested last month at the Republican state convention in Vancouver that the United States stop granting citizenship to the children of illegals — a position more radical than Governor Brewer's. Didier, whose Pasco farm is roughly 75 miles from Marquez's orchard, grows grains such as wheat and barley — crops whose harvest is heavily mechanized, with considerably less need for cheap labor.
When the Washington Farm Bureau's political action committee met last week, neither Didier nor presumed GOP front-runner Dino Rossi managed to get the two-thirds majority vote necessary for a primary endorsement. And Didier's immigration views might well have worked against him. Steve Appel, a Palouse farmer who heads the Bureau, tells
Village Voice Media that Latino immigrants "are vital to the economies of entire communities" in eastern Washington. "If agriculture dries up and goes away," he says, "those communities go away. It's just that simple."
Bordering the Yakama Indian Reservation, Wapato has for decades drawn Native Americans, as well as Filipinos, Japanese, and Hispanics, many of whom work on surrounding farms. Anglos once made up roughly half its population, says Mike Gilmore, 59, who grew up in the town and now is the head of the Yakima Valley Savings & Loan.
The demographics of Wapato have changed gradually, Gilmore says, as older Anglos passed away or moved to nursing homes in bigger cities, while younger ones left for school and never came back.
But the promise of farm work and small-town life never got old for Hispanic immigrants, who kept arriving. WSU's Flores explains that most of the newcomers hail from rural towns in Mexico. He says everyone there had a plot of land to produce food for the family — "corn, beans, tomatoes, jalapeños, squash" — and make a little money if they had produce left over. So it's only natural that they should turn to farming here.
In fact, you only have to cross the road from Sergio Marquez's orchard to find another Mexican-born farmer—and another example of a formerly illegal immigrant turned businessman: Manuel Herrera. Speaking through a translator, Herrera says he always wanted to work in the fields — that's how he grew up, on farms owned by both his parents and his grandparents. The 46-year-old father of seven says he crossed into the United States illegally in 1980 but, later, became a permanent resident through the federal amnesty bill signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1998. He recently bought a 15-acre plot and leases another 47.
But it's not just agriculture — the whole town's economy is built on Hispanic commerce. The signs on the establishments lining Wapato's handful of commercial blocks tell the story: Jose Hardware, Alfonso's Sports Bar, Martinez Body Shop & Auto Sales. The town also boasts Mexican-owned bakeries, laundromats, a butcher shop, and a construction company.
The local Catholic church — officially called St. Peter Claver Parish but known as "San Pedro" to much of the congregation — is also presided over by a Mexican immigrant, who delivers services in both Spanish and English. One Wednesday evening, a Spanish-language mass draws some 50 people, many of whom rise to the pulpit to deliver impromptu words of praise for the Lord — like the woman who repeats "Gracias, Señor" over and over again until her emotion reaches a fever pitch.
Hispanic immigrants do not exactly run the town — but the children and grandchildren of immigrants do. Wapato has its first Latino mayor, police chief, and fire chief.