YAKIMA — 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. 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 Gutiérrez remembers being able to muster in response. “That hurts.”
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 population.
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. 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, New Mexico, 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,” 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.”
Work in the nation’s fruit basket
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 workforce 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 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% Latino and 70% 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.
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, 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 that 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 families.
Ettl and many other white residents blamed the growing Latino population for the proliferation of gangs in the city, located along I-82, an interstate highway 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.
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.
City’s east side vs. the west side
The new aquatic center in Yakima has everything.
An eight-lane lap pool, giant water slides, a special pool just for physical therapy and a lazy river.
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 YMCA 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,” 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% 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 lighting.
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 American Civil Liberties Union-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.”
Ettl — who was then still on the City Council though 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. 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.
The voters who know to yell at City Hall
Gutiérrez measures progress here in baby steps.
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 New York Times analysis found. In the 2018 midterm elections, 70% 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 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 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.
Gutiérrez set up a mentorship program to pair disadvantaged children with council members. She fought for more sidewalks, crosswalks and street lamps 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 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 people in the country illegally. 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 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. 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 immigrants in the country illegally, 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.
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 Gutiérrez canvass for voters during her campaign.
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, 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. 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, Gutiérrez sees the outcome as a victory. The issue would never even have come up for a vote five years ago, she said.
Gutiérrez decided not to run for reelection, 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 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 Yakima.
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, 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.
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, Gutiérrez has made the neighborhood safer. 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.”