Out of the fields: South Idaho's Hispanics create acommunity

  • Caldwell, Idaho

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Ray Veloz

    Stephen Lyons photo
  • Estella Zamora

    Stephen Lyons photo
  • Janie Archuleta

    Stephen Lyons photo
  • Judge Sergio A. Gutierrez

    Stephen Lyons photo
  • Manuel and Eloisa Garcia, with daughters Fanny and Yamuri

    Stephen Lyons photo

Note: a sidebar article, "Inspired by Cesar Chavez," accompanies this feature story.

"We did not cross the border, the border crossed us." --Erasmo Gamboa

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 $10,000?

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.

Lack 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 succeed.

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.

What 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 changed."

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.

Now, Gutierrez 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 aspirations.

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 financing."

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

Despite 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 Caldwell.

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 gunpoint.

"They weren't 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 minorities."

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 governor.

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 child.

"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 well

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 Education.

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 DeLeon.

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 area.

"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 our abilities."

A watershed moment?

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 involvement.

"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 optimist.

"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."

Manuel 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 Boulevard.

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 someday?

"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.

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