When Rogelio Riojas looks at 1950s farmworker cabins, transplanted from Eastern Washington to a new museum of Latinx history in Washington, things quickly get personal.
Two small shingled cabins — outfitted with furniture, dishes and other objects from the time — are not just history for Riojas, president and CEO of Sea Mar Community Health Centers. They’re a snapshot of his childhood.
Taking a break this week from preparations for Thursday’s opening, as workers around him drilled and painted, the 69-year-old Riojas recalled living in such cabins with his parents and 11 siblings. The big family would often occupy two of them. “You would find a place to sleep, sometimes a bed, sometimes on the floor,” he said.
Riojas has long had a dream to build a museum that would tell the story of families like his. He roped several other farmworkers’ children into the project, including architect José Bazan and historians Jerry Garcia and Erasmo Gamboa. And so was born the Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture, a mouthful of a name that avoids the simpler, gender-neutral term “Latinx” in favor of terms used in the periods portrayed.
The project in Seattle is the first of its kind, according to officials there and at other museums around the state. Free of charge to visitors, it fills two large rooms, 8,500 square feet in all, within a newly constructed building on the edge of South Park that also houses a Sea Mar adolescent health clinic, community center and Spanish-language radio station KKMO El Rey.
The telling of this history, through artifacts and photos, has a mission — to document the often-overlooked contributions of the Latinx population and counter the narrative describing immigrants and their offspring as a drain on society.
“We came here to work,” Riojas said. “Over the years, we have been a big part of the success of the agricultural industry in this state.”
The museum aims to tell another story, too, he said, of farmworkers’ children who got an education and became professionals and social-justice activists. It highlights the role of the University of Washington, which in the 1960s started an affirmative-action program that sent recruiters to Eastern Washington towns like Othello, where one of them found a teenage Riojas.
Mexican Americans are the focus, at least for now. Garcia, who worked at Northern Arizona and Eastern Washington universities before joining Sea Mar as vice president of the museum and other programs, said that’s because Washington didn’t get a critical mass of other Latin American immigrants until civil wars sent them fleeing here in the ’80s.
“We’ll eventually tell that story,” Garcia said. “Phase II, as we call it.” He pointed to a wall that he said will come down to make room for additional exhibits.
The museum has a focus in time as well, from midcentury to the present.
Gamboa, UW professor emeritus and adviser to the museum, said people of Mexican descent came to Washington as early as the 1800s, some serving as mule packers during the Gold Rush. You have to remember, he added, that until 1848 (when the Mexican-American war ended with a treaty), the border with Mexico was just south of Ashland, Oregon.
Still, by 1930, according to U.S. Census figures gathered by the museum, Washington had only 562 Latinx residents. In the 1940s, the numbers reached into the thousands. World War II was on, labor shortages hit and the federal government wanted to ramp up agricultural production to feed Allied soldiers. The feds launched the Bracero program, bringing Mexican laborers to the U.S.
Gamboa walked over to a copy of a 1943 advertisement in The Grandview Herald on one wall of the museum. “Mexican Laborers Available,” reads the ad, placed by the Food For Victory Committee. “We are informed by the WFA (War Food Administration) that 200 Mexican Workers will arrive at the Grandview Labor Camp between March 27 and March 28 … If not taken at once, they may be transferred elsewhere and be unavailable when you need them urgently.”
Targeting a different audience —”Mexicanos y Filipinos” — is a handbill from the time, also on the museum wall. Written in what Gamboa says is error-riddled Spanish, it calls for workers to come to beet farms in the Yakima Valley and Bellingham. “Salidas gratis en el tren (free train trips),” it promised.
In that decade, and the years that followed, many Mexicans came to Washington from the Southwest, where they first settled. It’s the story of the “Tejano diaspora,” Garcia said. Excerpts from oral histories, displayed in the museum, help explain this migration. “When we left Texas (1953) my father was making 35 cents per hour,” reads one excerpt. “In Washington his wages jumped to one dollar per hour.”
Fleshing out the exhibits are an array of objects from the period, some donated by Sea Mar staff and community members: farm trucks, tools for harvesting asparagus and beets, antique accordions, costumes worn by Mariachi performers. Then there’s museum director Teofila Cruz-Uribe’s personal favorite, a tortilla maker made by Quaker Oats, the company with a colonial-era man as its logo. To Cruz-Uribe, the branded appliance represents the power of demographics. “We need to start making a tortilla maker,” she said Quaker Oats must have realized.
The civil-rights and Vietnam War era also make a strong showing in the museum. A huge photo, covering one wall, shows a demonstration against the war led by a group of Mexican American students at UW. The United Farm Workers Flag can be seen in the crowd. So can a young and slim Riojas, with longish hair and an intent expression.
The latest census numbers show almost a million Latinx residents in Washington. They include business owners and Seattle City Council members, noted Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, the social-services and advocacy organization, which has a display in the museum. This, she said, is one more “coming of age.”