After three Mexican citizens were killed by police in the United States in the past month, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry says the U.S. Justice Department should step in.
A migrant worker whose life ended in Washington after police shot at him 17 times. A father of four killed by an officer during a traffic stop in Texas. A man killed during a robbery investigation in California.
Police shooting exposes wounds in a changing Pasco
BY FRANCO ORDOÑEZ/Tri City Herald
Some call downtown Pasco “Little Mexico.” It’s not hard to see why.
Step off the corner of Fourth and Lewis streets, once the hub of the town, and the unsuspecting may be confused by all the Spanish signs and storefronts better suited south of the border than Main Street U.S.A.
Like many communities that have experienced dramatic demographic shifts, Pasco has faced its share of challenges. But those pale in comparison with the challenge it faces today as the killing of an unarmed Mexican, caught on video by witnesses, has inflamed tensions between the Latino community that now makes up the town’s majority and the non-Hispanic whites who hold most of the power.
The shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, who was in the country illegally, also reflects a dilemma some agricultural communities face: coming to terms with their need for foreign labor and their conservative positions against illegal immigration.
“A lot of people think we’re taking other people’s jobs,” said Livier Lopez, a hairdresser who works at a salon around the corner from the Feb. 10 shooting. “They see us as a threat to them.”
The shooting has been a frequent topic at Lopez’s salon, La Tijera y Mas, for several weeks. Business is down because clients are afraid, said owner Lupita Ayvar. People are more distrustful than ever of the local police, she said.
The area’s conservative leaders have had to walk the fine line on immigration. The new congressman, Rep. Dan Newhouse, a farmer, went to Capitol Hill saying Congress needs to address the nation’s labor shortage and give more foreign workers the right to work in the fields.
Still, he joined Republicans who voted in favor of a proposal to end a program that shields from deportation young immigrants brought to the country by their parents. A spokesman for Newhouse said he was unavailable for an interview.
The congressional district is one of the most conservative in the state.
“People listen to Rush Limbaugh. They listen to Glenn Beck. They listen to Lou Dobbs. And they listen to Sean Hannity,” said Tom Roach, a longtime Pasco immigration attorney. “And it has an effect on them, as far as those guys never say anything nice about the immigrant community.”
At the same time, Roach said, people understand it’s an agriculture community.
“This community would collapse without these people here doing the work that Americans refuse to do,” Roach said. “At some level people do understand that.”
A cultural shift
The demographic shift in Pasco was not an overnight phenomenon. It dates to 1941, with the completion of the Grand Coulee Dam — the resulting irrigation water transformed the sand and sage desert into an oasis for fruits, vegetables and other crops.
“It’s amazing what’s growing up here,” said Jim Rabideau, a former Franklin County prosecutor who serves as the Franklin County Historical Society emeritus trustee. “As a consequence, it required an enormous amount of hand labor.”
The social and cultural challenges that the Tri-Cities faces are hardly unusual for a community that’s seen a significant wave of immigration. Pasco is nearly 2,000 miles from the southern border, yet Hispanics make up the majority of the 68,000 residents.
Some longtime residents long for the past. Many say they think uncontrolled growth has pushed out American small business owners. They worry about crime and gang and drug-related violence.
“There has been a dramatic, overbearing change and culture shock here,” said Romy Rossi, 23.
Rossi said his family’s real estate business had been largely pushed out of parts of Pasco because of the rise of Latino shops and stores.
“Small businesses don’t have a chance. A lot of the Hispanic culture is taking over all the business here. There is not much left for hardly anyone,” he said.
Shelby Hangartner, 22, a certified nursing assistant, said she’d missed out on jobs at health facilities because she doesn’t speak Spanish.
“They tell me I’m qualified, but due to the fact I only know English, they can’t hire me,” she said.
At city hall, apparent cultural conflicts have manifested themselves in fights over stricter regulations for taco trucks and more recent concerns about the expansion of a homeless shelter in an area that’s close to Mexican businesses. City leaders said taco truck regulations were intended to help existing businesses, including Latino businesses. And plans for the homeless shelter have been in the works for years.
The back and forth has led some more established Mexican families, who faced their own set of challenges assimilating, to step up and advocate for the rights of newer arrivals.
Ruben Peralta, a former school board member whose family moved to Pasco in the 1970s, has always felt welcome in the community, he said. But he’s seen a rise in the rhetoric recently. He’s encouraged leaders to embrace the Mexican culture. He’s proposed that the city adopt Colima, Mexico, where much of the Pasco community is from, as a sister city.
But he thinks choices that are being made, such as some of the revitalization proposals and decisions about downtown events, reflect a subtle resistance at City Hall and among other business leaders to what’s already happening to the community.
“We’re here already. Get used to it,” he said. “They’re kind of fighting that reality.”
For sure, not all Latino professionals feel this way.
Ofelia Ochoa, whose family was among the first Latinos to open a store downtown 25 years ago, owns a quinceañera, prom and wedding dress store. She hears the gripes and concerns from both sides. She wants the Mexican businesses to be supported, but she also thinks that diversifying downtown could help.
“In reality, I don’t want this area to be full-blown Hispanic,” Ochoa said. “I’m not for that. I’m more toward togetherness.”
Government’s to-do list
Peralta was one of the few Latinos who’d moved into a position of power, albeit temporarily. He notes that he was appointed and then ran unopposed in his re-election to the school board.
The city council has one Latino member. Of the 71 officers in the Pasco Police Department, 14 are Hispanic and 12 are bilingual, police officials said.
Leaders such as Felix Vargas, chairman of the local advocacy group Consejo Latino, have pushed the city to hire more Spanish-speaking officers in order to facilitate better relations with the community and Hispanic business owners.
“We saw that one of the reasons you don’t have this communication with the Hispanic business owners downtown is because you don’t have police officers who speak the language,” Vargas said.
City officials such as City Manager Dave Zabell are quick to point out that Pasco has more Spanish-speaking officers than neighboring cities. The Kennewick Police Department, for example, a much larger force, has eight Hispanic officers and six Spanish speakers. Kennewick is only 17 percent Latino, however, according to census figures.
Pasco leaders are working on changing representation in City Hall after the American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit against the city of Yakima, which had no Latino representation despite a large Latino population.
Pasco City Council members are discussing options to give two of the five voting districts Hispanic majorities.
“This is a crisis moment,” Mayor Matt Watkins said. “There is a big light shining. There are opportunities and challenges.”
At the hair salon, Lopez understands the reservations that people might have about rapid changes, she said. But she hopes people will look past the few bad apples in the immigrant community and see that most simply want to work and raise their families in a safe environment.
“There are bad Hispanics out there,” she said. “But there are also good people. They’re workers. They’re not just all gang members.”