Aggressive Regionalism: Commentary

12. Ricardo D. Aguilar and Yvonne Yabro-Bejarano, Metamórfosis

The Pacific Northwest had attracted small numbers of Latinos and Latinos before 1940, but World War II marked the sharp acceleration of Hispanic migration to the region. The war created tremendous labor shortages, particularly in rural areas, which in turn led to campaigns to recruit workers to the region. The federal government signed a treaty with Mexico to create the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, which imported Mexican workers seasonally and then returned them to Mexico after harvests were over. The first such workers, called braceros, came to the Northwest in 1942. Over the course of the war Washington received about 4400 workers imported from Mexico, primarily to the Yakima Valley. This amounted to about 6% of all wartime braceros in the U.S. Idaho got about 5%, and Oregon about 4% (Gamboa 1990). The Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program continued to 1964. Both during and after the program’s existence, many seasonal Mexican workers arrived without the requisite immigration documents.

Also during World War II, farm growers in Washington recruited more Chicanos, i.e. people of Mexican descent who had already lived for some time in the U.S., primarily in the Southwest. In contrast to the seasonal braceros, many of the Chicano workers were looking to resettle permanently. They helped to create Latino communities in Washington either by bringing with them, or by creating a new demand for, such Latino cultural institutions as Spanish-speaking priests and radio broadcasts, and groceries and restaurants offering familiar foods. These communities initially had little influence, and their inhabitants remained poorer than most other peoples in the region. By 1990, however, Latinos had become the largest minority group in Washington, surpassing African Americans and Asian Americans. They had also become the majority population in many eastern Washington towns, and were gradually acquiring some political clout to match their numbers.

By 1990 the Hispanic population of western Washington had also begun to grow. Over the previous years, many had arrived through military service, as labor for military-oriented industries in the Puget Sound area, or as college students (Gil 1989). Others now increasingly migrated over the Cascades from eastern Washington, or came directly from Central and South America.  Over time, stronger community institutions emerged, strengthening the sense of ethnic identity among Latinos and Latinas. Yet the Pacific Northwest remained quite distant from the sources of emigration in Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Older family members in the Northwest often still felt the strong pull of homeland ties, while children and grandchildren who had spent most of their lives in the Northwest generally proved less intent on remaining in touch with the countries from which their parents and grandparents had come (Mapes 2000).

College campuses became one place where people of Mexican descent came together to define their community and ethnicity through study and writing. For example, the University of Washington founded a Chicano Studies Program at the end of the 1960s. Chicano students and faculty at the University in 1977 launched a publication called Metamórfosis, which took its task to be strengthening the sense of community by expanding the amount of writing about Latinos in the Pacific Northwest. The writings of Ricardo D. Aguilar, the editor, and the Chicana poet Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano conveyed the strong sense that Pacific Northwest Latinos to a significant extent remained strangers in a strange land.

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Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest