-We did not cross the border, the border crossed us."
CALDWELL, Idaho - The
front room of Manuel Garcia's tiny apartment at the Farmway Village
labor camp resembles a flea-market booth. Stacked from floor to
ceiling are toys, dolls, blankets, model cars and trucks,
children's and baby clothes, musical crib mobiles, a lamp with the
image of the Virgin Mary, clock radios, Dutch ovens, pots and pans,
a stir-fry wok kit, fingernail polish in every shade of red, makeup
compacts, and musical jewelry cabinets.
Somewhere underneath all the merchandise is a couch and a
Deepfreeze. The freezer once held shrimp that Garcia sold to other
Hispanic farm workers, until a state health official caught wind of
the business and closed it down with the threat of a $10,000 fine.
Garcia, who is 55, laughs: Where would a poor farm worker get
By this time at night his head usually
feels like it might explode, but Garcia is happy for the company
and can't stop talking about his dream to someday open a small
variety store in Caldwell. For now, he sells and trades at area
flea markets when the weather is good. He wants better and calls
the tarp covering his outdoor booth "embarrassing."
Through an interpreter, he says he came to the
United States illegally from Mexico in 1981 and stayed on when
amnesty was offered. He's primarily worked the fields since then,
but two years ago an irrigation pipe he was unloading from a truck
slipped and struck him in the head. He remembers waking up under
the truck, bleeding through the mouth. He drove himself to the
hospital. Garcia said his employer sent him $900 to cover medical
expenses, then sent him back to work. Some mornings he can hardly
get out of bed because of severe head pain.
of English and poor health are only two of the obstacles Garcia
faces in the pursuit of a better life. He, and thousands of others
that work and live in this part of southern Idaho, must also
confront discrimination and lack of educational opportunities for
their children. The struggle is arduous and only a few farm workers
But the fact that Garcia has this
dream indicates that radical changes are happening in southern
Idaho. Not far from Farmway Village, Hispanic-owned businesses have
sprung up in the towns of Caldwell and Nampa, and the surrounding
area of Canyon County, and many of them are thriving. The Hispanic
Business Directory for Idaho lists dozens of businesses and trades,
from law and medicine to trucking and mariachi. The Idaho
Commission on Hispanic Affairs lists 11 radio stations, two
newspapers, and one television station.
used to be a temporary stop on the agricultural migrant labor route
(from Mexico and Texas' Rio Grande Valley to this area's hop, beet,
potato and onion fields, then up to the orchards and asparagus
fields of Washington and Oregon) is now a permanent "settling out"
point for Hispanic families. Idaho's Hispanic population has grown
from 52,927 in 1990 to 85,997 in 1997, a 61 percent jump, according
to the U.S. Census Bureau. The largest number of Hispanics live in
southern Idaho's Canyon (20,425) and Ada (10,039) counties.
This growing Hispanic community is still
largely separate from the dominant Anglo culture. But where some
see an unbridgeable divide, others see the beginnings of a union
that will radically change the face of south Idaho in the decades
to come. Interracial marriage and expanding job opportunities are
slowly breaking down traditional barriers.
"In 1975, we lived outside
the community. There were many labor camps or motels or trailers
that were all outside the community, where most of our families
resided," says District Court Judge Sergio Gutierrez. "That has
Gutierrez is the first, and still the
only, Hispanic judge elected in Idaho. Mexican born, the son of a
farm worker and a mother who was institutionalized, his life was a
series of sad events, until at the age of 16 a stint in the Job
Corps in Oregon changed his life.
says, "we have attempted to become part of the community, to stop
migrating, to keep our kids in the schools year round."
Breaking a stereotype
The Hispanic presence in southern Idaho began
in earnest following World War II. The farm camp where the Garcia
family lives was one of several in the area that housed braceros,
agricultural workers contracted from Mexico to the United States in
a time of labor shortages brought on by the war. (The camp also
housed Japanese-American internees during WWII.)
The bracero program lasted from 1942 until
1964. Historian Erasmo Gamboa credits braceros with making "the
difference between lost production and harvested crops in ...
Idaho, Oregon, and Washington." Gamboa writes in Voces Hispanics:
Hispanic Voices of Idaho, that "Between 1942 and 1947,
approximately 15,616 Mexican men (braceros) were contracted in
Mexico for temporary farm employment in Idaho." When the program
ended, the U.S. Department of Labor official in charge of the
program, Lee G. Williams, summarized it as "legalized slavery."
Many of these men, although required to return
to Mexico, stayed in Idaho - many in the Caldwell-Nampa area. Most
continued to toil in the fields, but others had business
Like Jose Valdez, whose Casa Valdez
Tortilla Factory sits next to the Union Pacific railroad lines, the
de facto dividing line between the Hispanic and Anglo communities
in Caldwell. Valdez migrated to Idaho as a farm worker from the Rio
Grande Valley of Texas, but he quickly saw a market for a tortilla
business. In 1974, local banks turned down his application for a
start-up loan. The economy was bad, Valdez remembers, and no one
was anxious to loan money to a farm worker who had no collateral.
"You have to scratch your own
back," says Valdez, who is the president of the Caldwell Rotary
Club and a past school board trustee and city council member.
He eventually scraped together enough money to
start his business. "(At first) it was hard to get in the big
stores because of my background, being a Hispanic," he says. "I
don't know what it was ... they didn't know how much business there
was with the Mexican trade. And even then they didn't know how good
the tortilla market was."
Today, Valdez has 50
full-time employees and distributes corn and flour tortillas
throughout Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. He provides
health and life insurance for his employees. Looking over his
factory, where tortillas are spitting out of four industrial-sized
machines, Valdez says, "After five years or so, people saw I was
here to stay and I was doing a good thing for the community as far
as putting out a good product, providing jobs, and getting involved
in community projects."
Ray Veloz had a similar
experience in 1989, when he started RV Furniture Center near Nampa.
"I went to the Small Business Administration. I went to the banks.
Nobody would loan me any money. It's hard for anybody to start a
business, let alone a person of color. So I had to do some creative
Veloz is the president of the
Hispanic Business Association, founded in 1991, which awards
college scholarships to high school students. In the last three
years, the HBA has awarded between 15 and 20 scholarships, mostly
for students to attend Boise State University. Recently the
association signed a memorandum of understanding with the Small
Business Administration to provide technical assistance for small
business start-ups and help them find and create capital.
Mayor Garret Nancolas sees Caldwell's diversity
as an advantage over most of the rest of Idaho. "By being a very
diverse community it gives us opportunities that a lot of
communities don't have. Retail opportunities: you couldn't set up a
Hispanic clothing shop in, let's say, Riggins, (a town in central
Idaho with a low Hispanic population) and expect it to succeed."
Diversity also creates employment opportunities
for those who can speak both English and Spanish, he says. "Most
businesses are looking for bilingual employees to help mend and to
bring together both communities."
Racism of many hues
the success stories, racism exists in Caldwell, and it is felt by
Hispanics at all economic levels.
"The challenge we have ... is
that anybody that sees a Latino in the street - whether you are an
attorney or a doctor or a professional - there's still that
mentality that you're a farm worker," says Humberto Fuentes,
executive director of the Idaho Migrant Council (IMC) in
Ray Veloz says he is still taunted by
locals. "I sense it (racism) coming back. People say it's not, but
it is coming back. I can feel it, because of the white
supremacists," he says.
In the summer of 1997,
a rash of hate crimes hit Canyon County, some committed by kids
from nearby Middleton, Idaho. In one case, three of the kids forced
a car of three Hispanic youngsters and one Anglo teenager off the
road, and proceeded to beat them at
necessarily affiliated with any kind of national movement and they
weren't affiliated with the folks up north," says Canyon County's
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney John Bujak, who helped send six
defendants to long prison sentences under federal civil rights
violations. "They were just some local guys that got together and
thought they'd form a gang organized around the hatred of
Racism is also subtle. Sixty
percent of all housing transactions involving Hispanic home-seekers
involve some element of illegal discrimination, according to the
Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs in its 1996-97 report to the
Richard Mabbutt, director of the Idaho
Fair Housing Commission, says that one-third of the complaints his
office investigates involve Hispanic tenants. One Caldwell landlord
was charging Hispanic families an extra $25 per
"We had a case right
here on the (Caldwell) Boulevard in which our testing showed that
the owner of a trailer court would allow you to sell your trailer
to Anglos but not to Mexicans," says Mabbutt. "We home-tested it,
had an Anglo call and he was told the price was negotiable; the
Mexican tester was told the price was non-negotiable. The U.S.
Justice Department wants to start the lawsuit at $1.4 million."
Teach the children
Perhaps nothing lays out the economic and
social distance southern Idaho's Hispanics still must travel to
reach the American Dream than the statistics on child poverty.
State data show that Canyon County has higher
levels than the state for teen births, mothers without adequate
prenatal care, child deaths, juvenile violent crime arrests,
children under the age of 18 living in poverty, and school dropouts
ages 16-19. The Hispanic population in the county fares even worse.
The dropout rate for Hispanics during the 1996-1997 school year was
33 percent, according to Idaho's State Department of
Farm worker advocate Maria Gonzales
Mabbutt says the "dropout" rate should be called the "push-out"
rate. "They are pushing us out. Without education, what is the
chance? You keep them working in low-paying jobs, because if they
were educated, they would be capable of earning more."
Mabbutt says young people face a combination of
obstacles that include a shortage of bilingual teachers, high
discipline rates targeting Hispanic youth, low career expectations
- especially among Hispanic girls - and the transient nature of
many of the students.
Of the 5,200 students in
the Canyon County school district enrolled in fall 1998, about
2,200 have Hispanic surnames, according to Jesus DeLeon, the school
district's director of federal projects. Of those, approximately
700 are considered migrant students (students who move with their
families seeking field work). The 37 bilingual teachers in the
district can't keep up with the 900 Hispanic students who have
limited ability to speak and write English, says
But the Hispanic community is pushing on
the schools. In 1993, a group of parents brought a class action
lawsuit against the district, which charged, among other things,
that Hispanic youth were being singled out for discipline by
teachers. In a 1996 court settlement, according to DeLeon, the
district agreed to create a "Safe School Committee" to monitor
discipline; to expand minority teacher recruitment by creating a
"minority recruiter" position; and to continue to develop an
English as Second Language (ESL) program.
Changing policies at the schools may help give Hispanic students
more even footing, but some say the Hispanic community needs to
rally behind education. Blanca Lopez, a premed student at the
University of Idaho in Moscow, is the first from her family to
attend college. "Expectations are sometimes very low among the
Mexican community in Caldwell," she says. "It's unusual for girls
to move up." When neighbors ask her parents, "Where's Blanca?" they
assume she got married and left the
"At times, it feels like
people in Caldwell don't expect a Mexican to become a doctor, but I
want to give our Hispanic community a sense of pride and a proof of
This past November, south Idaho's
Hispanic community showed signs that its new economic and
educational muscle will eventually translate into political power.
Estella Ozuna Zamora ran for county commissioner and even though
she was defeated by a two-to-one margin by Republican Zelda Nickel,
many saw the election as a watershed moment for Hispanic
"What I found
really rewarding ... were the numbers that came out and worked with
me on the campaign, and the young people and the interest that they
took," says Zamora, the coordinator for translators in the Canyon
County courts. "My hope is that it's a beginning and that they will
start getting involved in things going on in their community."
Janie Archuleta also hopes to be a major player
in Caldwell and Canyon County's future. She's a new member of the
town's Planning and Zoning Committee and the chairperson of the
Hispanic Issues Committee. Although she cries when she remembers
the discrimination her parents went through, she is also an
"This is a new era
for our community," she says. "I feel very positive and I don't
know if it's because I'm involved. But I know I can walk into the
mayor's office and ask questions."
Garcia may never walk into the mayor's office, but late last year
he realized his dream and opened a modest store on busy Caldwell
Garcia says he does not regret the
hard field work that shaped his life before he started his
business. But would he want his daughters, now ages 4 and 7, to
follow his footsteps and work in the fields
"When they're old
enough, it may be good experience to work hard. Because the world
is hard. If they go to the fields and see how hard it is, then they
will work harder at school to avoid the fields. Working in the
fields is like getting burnt by the fire."
Stephen Lyons is a journalist and essayist who
lives in Washington state. He is the author of Landscape of the
Heart, a single father's memoir.