More than a year after police shot and killed a Mexican farmworker, a proud, vibrant community tries to come together.
ON A SCORCHING summer afternoon in downtown Pasco, the high midday sun shines so brightly on the intersection of North 10th Avenue and West Lewis Street, you almost have to squint to protect your eyes from the glare off the pavement.
CATCHING UP WITH (Dec. 20, 2018): Family of a Mexican farmworker fatally shot by police in Pasco receives a $750,000 settlement
On the northwest corner, a Mexican bakery selling cookies, pastries and breads sits next to a Mexican-style tienda selling ice-cold slushies known as raspados in flavors like mango and tamarind. Both promise a respite from the heat and harsh light.
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But this corner never seems to dim.
At this site on Feb. 10, 2015, three police officers shot and killed 35-year-old Mexican farmworker Antonio Zambrano-Montes, who reportedly was throwing rocks at passing motorists and later at the officers.
For weeks, protesters demonstrated outside City Hall and at the shooting site to decry the use of deadly force against Zambrano-Montes and express general concerns about aggressive police tactics against local Latinos, who make up about 60 percent of the population.
Journalists as far away as Great Britain wondered whether Pasco, located among sun-parched buttes at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, would become the desert version of Ferguson, Mo., site of the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white officer. That incident touched off street protests and riots.
“Black Lives Matter. Hispanic Lives Matter,” the Pasco protesters chanted, giving a Latin spin to the now-famous rallying cry.
In what has become a recurring feature of police-involved shootings of black and brown people in America, grainy phone videos recorded by bystanders circulated online, showing the officers chasing and twice firing at an erratically behaving Zambrano-Montes.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
With 17 gunshots, one of the fast-growing cities in Central Washington’s agricultural heartland became famous — but for all the wrong reasons.
Multiple investigations have found that the officers were justified, that Zambrano-Montes failed to follow police commands and posed a physical threat to them.
A wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Zambrano-Montes’ parents, arguing that Zambrano-Montes was actually trying to flee and then surrender, continues to move forward.
It’s clear that the city’s broader Hispanic community was left hurting in its own way.
Vinicio Marin, the soft-spoken baker in front of whose shop Zambrano-Montes fell, places his hand over his heart when asked about it.
It was a very sad day, he tells me in Spanish. Someone died.
Marin says that after the shooting, he wanted to relocate far away from the misery of what happened out on the sidewalk.
A memorial to Zambrano-Montes stands where the bakery and frozen-treat shop meet — a cross, some plastic flowers, a candle with Jesus on it and a figurine of an angel with a heart in her hands.
The question now is whether Pasco can make a new day rise from a tragedy burned in the collective consciousness.
MANY LATINOS HERE see the Zambrano-Montes controversy as a galvanizing moment, an opportunity to expose disparities and push for change.
Despite making up a majority of Pasco’s population of about 70,000, Hispanics are largely absent in the halls of power, including local government, the police force, the school board and in the upper echelons of business.
The west side of Pasco is decidedly Anglo. A popular shopping mall, baseball diamonds and putting greens peopled by white golfers greet visitors driving in from the idyllic wine country.
The downtown and east side are dominated by mostly Mexican and Mexican-American households and businesses.
At the Franklin County Historical Society and Museum just off Lewis Street, you’ll learn that Lewis and Clark stopped by; that native trappers once hunted in the valleys; and that lava flows molded the otherworldly, barren hills.
But when I visit, there’s no obvious mention of how an influx of mostly Mexican immigrants in the past three decades has reshaped Pasco.
However, on Lewis, Pasco’s version of Broadway, Mexican butchers, bakeries and party-supply stores compete for attention against shops selling quinceañera ballgowns bulging with chiffon and tuille.
Along the canopied passageways of the lively, huge flea market east of town, Latino families shop for everything from elaborately detailed cowboy boots to speakers that look like wheel rims. At a food stall called Plaza Oaxaca, the affable owner grills chickens seasoned with smokey chilies and serves quesadillas filled with cheese and squash blossoms, a regional specialty.
At St. Patrick’s church on a Sunday afternoon, the sanctuary overflows with young Latino couples comforting crying babies as a white vicar conducts Mass in Spanish.
Josue Guevara, 19, worked at the Fiesta Foods grocery store across from the Zambrano-Montes shooting site. He was off that day but witnessed the subsequent protests.
He takes me for a walk under the soaring blue bridge crossing the Columbia River that demarcates east and west.
His family lives in a middle-class home a few blocks from the meandering river and a row of lavish riverfront estates, on the racially mixed borderline between the two sides of town.
Just east of the bridge, there’s a mobile home park.
Guevara, an Army reservist who specializes in Shadow drone maintenance, has dreams of going to college in Seattle and maybe becoming an architect.
His father runs a landscape-design contracting business, and he recently decided to quit Fiesta Foods to work for his dad. His grandparents worked in the local potato and meat industries.
His family also is a bridge — between the old, working-class Hispanic community and the more prosperous one built on the foundations of his grandparents’ generation.
Guevera’s also at a crossroads: stay away after college, or come back to Pasco, where architecture jobs are few?
His family, his friends and his culture are all here. He’d rather not leave them.
Plus, “I like being in the majority,” Guevara says with a grin.
Jacob Gonzalez, a regional planner with the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments, says Pasco is a classic tale of two cities within the collection of towns known as the Tri-Cities — Richland and Kennewick making up the other two.
Since 2000, only 2 percent of all new buildings in Pasco were built in the overwhelmingly Hispanic downtown area, while 60 percent were constructed on the mostly white and more bustling west side. Downtown Pasco more or less shuts down at night.
Gonzalez says he’s hopeful that upgrades to Pasco’s sidewalks, street lighting and the downtown park where a farmers market takes place will make the area feel more comfortable and safer.
“When you see physical change to the built environment, it’s uplifting,” he says.
But he doesn’t want “improvement” to mean diluting downtown’s Latin flavor.
“There’s something to be said about a city in our region that’s completely different from anywhere else in terms of cultural intensity,” noting this year’s lively Cinco de Mayo celebration in Pasco. “You can smell it when you walk down the street — the fresh bread, the fresh fruit. There’s definitely a sense of, ‘Yeah, I know Pasco, Washington.’ ”
When Gonzalez, 32, went away to college in Seattle, he didn’t imagine he’d return to Pasco. He changed his mind three years ago.
“There’s a sort of pride in knowing you’re helping the community you were born in or raised you,” Gonzalez says.
MIREYA RODRIGUEZ MOVED to Pasco 16 years ago from the nearby town of Othello, where she grew up. Other relatives followed.
On a Sunday afternoon, she and three sisters sit with their mother by a shady tree at her home in a middle-class neighborhood east of downtown.
Her 15-year-old daughter had her coming-of-age quinceañera celebration the night before. Judging by a mobile-phone video of the party being passed around at this backyard barbecue, and Grandma’s satisfied smile today, she outdanced everybody.
Rodriguez, 36, works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a fruit inspector and understands well how the Hispanic community helps keep the local economy running.
“There’s every type of job here, from pickers to professionals,” Rodriguez says.
It’s her job to make sure not a single bad apple makes it into shipments headed to Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, India, China and beyond.
“It doesn’t go out without my signature,” she says proudly.
On this visit, the region’s cherry and berry harvests are in full swing, and peaches, plums and apricots are starting. Young wine grapes and apples still hang tiny and green in the sun.
The Port of Seattle says that Northwest cherries alone, many of which are picked in orchards surrounding Pasco, generated $85 million in airfreight revenue at Sea-Tac Airport last summer, when a total of 30 million pounds of cherries flew out to points around the world.
Rodriguez says the fastest fruit pickers, many of whom come up from Mexico for a few months at a time, can make upward of $1,500 working six or seven days a week, eight to 12 hours a day.
At sunset one day, Mexican seasonal blueberry pickers living in temporary bunkhouses sit by a road east of town to receive a better signal on their phones — and have some privacy — as they speak to loved ones back home.
At dawn the next morning, the grass fields and fruit orchards east of Pasco roll toward the pink and purple distance.
Scattered puffs of clouds stream overhead as in a painting, from what appears to the eye a single point on the horizon.
Soon the sun rises in an explosion of light, and everything turns orange and gold, right down to the silvery-grey leaves of the apple trees.
Groggy-looking workers load into waiting shuttle buses for the commute to the orchards.
Dave Manterola, a white farm owner who operates 360 acres of alfalfa fields east of town and who grew up in the local farm industry, watches his workers drive giant tractors in a golden-yellow crop circle with attachments that spit out hay bales the size of SUVs.
He describes his mostly Mexican-American crew as family. Riding in the fields in their tractors, they rave in English and Spanish about him, too.
“One thing I hate is when Mexican workers are called ‘unskilled labor,’ ” Manterola says. “Oh, that pisses me off like no other.”
These workers perform some of the most complicated and technical jobs in the agriculture business, he says.
Manterola says his workers’ dreams are similar to those of others who’ve settled here in search of a better life.
He notes that one of his Mexican-born employees had to take a day off a few days before — not because he was sick, but to attend a son’s college graduation ceremony.
PASCO HAS LONG been a quiet haven for migrant workers of color.
In the middle of the last century, African Americans from the South helped build the nearby Hanford nuclear reservation, but they were not welcome in Richland or Kennewick. Most settled in East Pasco.
Old-timers recall that a sign once hung on a bridge across the Columbia River leading to Kennewick warning blacks they had to be out of that city by sunset.
Pasco’s black population dwindled, and a new cultural presence with its own traditions, frustrations and aspirations emerged.
At Tierra Vida subdivision, 166 houses and a 95-unit condo complex occupied mostly by Hispanic households rise like a mirage from a dusty, isolated plot east of downtown.
Homeownership coordinator Ruben Alvarado shows off the spotless curved streets with middle-class homes boasting fantastically green, manicured lawns, along with a community garden on raised beds, a playground, a cafe and a youth activity center.
An intentional community in which residents have a say on most matters, it was started by the owners of Broetje Orchards to give Mexican-American farmworkers a chance to settle down by purchasing their first homes. The community is more mixed today.
Alvarado moved to Pasco from Los Angeles in the spring to take the job at Tierra Vida.
He says he was amazed at how many people he met in the Tri-Cities said they’d never been to Pasco.
The city suffers from a stigma — it’s a place to avoid, he says.
Tierra Vida defies that bad reputation.
“This was a wasteland — industrial,” Alvarado says of the grounds. The development “redeemed a place that was almost untouchable.”
Local activist Rolando Rodriguez says that if you enter the Supermex grocery store near downtown with your eyes closed and open them once inside, you’ll think you’ve been teleported to Mexico.
The supermarket is a spectacle of hanging paper streamers, piñatas, stacks of canned goods from south of the border, spiky fruits not seen at your typical QFC and every conceivable cut and innard of pork.
Pasco has Mexican-infused local flavor to spare.
What the Hispanic community needs now are economic power and political influence, Rodriguez says.
He’s worried that young people who go away to college and return home afterward aren’t equipped with the skills that employers here require, be it Hanford or the agriculture industry.
“In every community that looks like us, there’s limited opportunity,” he says. “We have to make sure that our kids graduate college ready” to work locally.
Rodriguez runs Sol Case Management, a for-profit agency that offers the area’s first bilingual driving school for the Hispanic community, academic tutoring and counseling, assessments for students seeking vocational training and culturally relevant mental-health evaluations.
Rodriguez was part of a group that met with city officials weeks before the Zambrano-Montes shooting to discuss the treatment of Hispanics by officers and city employees and to push for reforms.
Rodriquez came away convinced that city officials were in denial that any problems needed fixing.
He says the shooting emboldened a new generation of Hispanic activists in the city.
But a sizable population of undocumented workers with limited English skills avoids making waves here. A lot of eligible Hispanic voters aren’t registered. Change might be gradual.
Last year, Rodriguez says, six Latino candidates ran for city council, which had only one Latino member at the time. None of them won.
Police chief Bob Metzger and city manager Dave Zabell, who are white, both point to a longtime emphasis on community policing in Pasco and site reforms made since the shooting, including the hiring of more Spanish-speaking police officers, the creation of a city Facebook page in Spanish and changes to city hiring that should make it easier to recruit bilingual employees.
Zabell says he has been impressed by the activists’ discipline and civic pride, even when they’ve confronted him face-to-face to air grievances.
Metzger adds that it was members of the police force who urged Marin, the baker at Vinny’s, not to move after the shooting.
Marin says that since the shooting, officers stop in regularly for his Cuban sandwiches. He’s glad he stayed.
One of the protesters who demonstrated at the site last year, Leo Perales, reacts to those goodwill gestures and initial steps with skepticism.
Perales, 29, grew up in Pasco but now lives and works for an engineering firm in mostly white Kennewick.
The day we met, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane announced that it, too, could not find fault with the officers who shot Zambrano-Montes.
Perales says he disagrees, but adds, “I’d be lying if I said I was surprised” by the finding.
He and other activists are working with the American Civil Liberties Union for more systemic change. They’re pushing Pasco to follow Yakima’s lead and adopt a district-based elections process, which could increase Hispanic representation in city government.
When a white city council member in Kennewick shared an anti-Latino Facebook post this spring, accompanied by his own snide remarks about Pasco being overrun by undocumented immigrants, Perales says he was among many, Latino and white alike, who rebuked him.
“ ‘You know what? We’re a new breed, and you’re not going to talk that way about us,’ ” Perales says he told the councilman. “ ‘Things are gonna be different.’ ”
For starters, Perales says he’s planning to run for Kennewick City Council.