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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 SeattleWeekly 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 went to work on the surrounding farms. Whites once made up roughly half Wapato's 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 whites 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 small-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 U.S. illegally in 1980, but later became a permanent resident through a federal amnesty bill signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986. 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 currently has its first Latino mayor, police chief, and fire chief.
Antonio Delgado Sr. is typical of the town's small-business owners. Speaking one evening in his grown daughter's house—located in the nearby town of Moxee and painted in electric shades of red and green seldom seen in the muted Northwest—the 53-year-old Delgado says he too was once illegal and received amnesty in the '80s. For eight years, he worked as a farm worker, and he put in another 10 years at an apple-packing company. Then a friend and fellow Mexican who owned two laundromats in Wapato offered to sell him one.