A Northwest Region's Family Ties to Mexico

In a valley near Canada, a quarter of the residents are Hispanic

ONE of the most concentrated and fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the United States is nowhere near California or Texas, but less than 200 miles from the Canadian border in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.

The story goes back nearly half a century to the federal government's bracero program of the early 1940s, which brought farmworkers north from Mexico under contract to help harvest the cornucopia of cherries, apples, grapes, pears, hops, mint, and other crops now ripening in the orchards and fields here.

The bracero program ended decades ago, but the need for farmworkers - legal or illegal - did not. With the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to thousands of illegal aliens in the United States, the numbers not only continued to grow but many families in the valley began working toward US citizenship and fulfilling their own version of the American dream.

Today, a quarter of the year-round population of 190,000 in Yakima County is from Mexico, and the proportion can nearly double during the peak summer and fall harvest when migrant workers join permanent residents. Many of the Hispanics here come from the Mexican states of Michoacan and Jalisco, drawn by the promise of jobs (broadcast over some radio stations there) or in order to follow family members and friends.

Augustin Suarez's story is typical of many. He crossed into California illegally as a 17-year-old in 1980, then worked in a clothing factory until 1985 when he moved north. Granted amnesty under the new immigration reform law (along with more than 20,000 other people in the valley), he obtained his resident alien "green card" status and now is working on becoming a citizen.

At night Mr. Suarez is a janitor at a research and development company. During the day he takes English language and citizenship classes, and he plans to get his high school equivalency diploma. He has become active in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, where he teaches adult Bible classes every Saturday.

He lives in a modest three-bedroom apartment with his wife, Maria (who sorts apples in a produce warehouse), and their two small children. The rent is partially subsidized by the Yakima Housing Authority, but Mr. Suarez hopes to be able to buy a house in two years. Meanwhile, he regularly sends money and school supplies to his brother in Mexico, who is studying engineering. Last year, Suarez was able to buy a car. (A 1990 Pontiac Le Mans, he proudly points out.)

"The United States gives a lot of opportunities for our children," he says. "If you want to become something, you can do it. You can become whatever you want."

Like Augustin Suarez, Ranulfo Perez frequently uses the word "opportunity" to describe why he left his position as a medical doctor in Mexico, a profession he hopes to continue.

Since he is not yet qualified to practice medicine in this country, he and his wife and two children must live in a rundown cottage in a dangerous neighborhood while he works as a medical assistant in a Yakima clinic and fulfills the requirements for US citizenship.

For Dr. Perez, it has been a long, hard struggle. In Los Angeles, he sorted fruit and worked in a furniture factory before finding a job in a pharmacy. Once he becomes a US citizen, he will need to take exams in basic medical science and clinical procedures before he can apply for a license to practice medicine here - all of which could take another six or seven years.

But the wait and effort are worth it, he says, because of "the opportunity to have a better life."

Veronica Alcaraz is a 16-year-old high school junior in Yakima and second-generation American who still returns to Mexico every year with her family. Her parents emigrated to East Los Angeles, where she was born before they moved to Yakima. Her father works in the fields here and her mother is a beautician.

Veronica is an honors student taking advanced-placement classes who feels two kinds of cultural and social divisions at school and within the community: Between Hispanics and Anglos, and also between "the Chicanos who were raised here and the migrant students." There are "deep divisions" between the latter two, she says. "Those who have been here feel the ties they have tried to make to the dominant white culture are undercut by the newcomers."

Ms. Alcaraz also is concerned about the increasing drug and gang activity in the Yakima Valley, which she associates with a level of emigration to the area from Mexico that "has just increased tremendously." That illegal activity in turn has meant increased discrimination against all Hispanics, she says. "Sometimes it hurts to think people judge you by your looks or your skin color," she says.

"It's too bad that other communities, other races, see Hispanic people this way," agrees Miguel Balderas Rocha, who came from Mexico five years ago and is the single parent of a six-year-old daughter. "I know a lot of people who are good people, good workers. But because of a few bad people we lose respect."

Mr. Rocha worked for a year in the fields before he was injured in a fall from a ladder. Now he helps out in a friend's auto-body repair shop and works from 5 a.m. to midnight Saturdays and Sundays at a local Spanish-language radio station. He would like to have his own business importing Mexican products to the small towns like Granger and Toppenish that are predominately Hispanic, a desire that may more likely see fulfillment with the new free-trade agreement between Mexico and the US.

Like many Mexican citizens living in the valley, Rocha hopes the Mexican government will open a consulate here. Most such consulates are in border states, and Mexicans living around Yakima must travel 150 miles to Seattle to obtain proper travel documents and other services. This can be a long and difficult trip, particularly over mountain passes and icy roads in the winter when farm work slows down and many want to visit their families back home.

In April the local advocacy group Mexicans United for Fair and Just Treatment and the Liberators' Cup Soccer League held a march and rally to promote the consulate. Group leaders presented Mexican consul general Enrique Hubbard Urrea with petitions requesting the consulate. Mexican soccer idol Enrique David Borja Garcia held workshops for children and the league players.

"Although you are far away from Mexico, we don't forget you, any of you," said Mr. Garcia, who played in several World Cup soccer matches in the 1960s and '70s. "Your country has open arms to you."

Most living here already know that, since they still have close family ties to Mexico.

"I miss my family, my parents, my brothers, my friends. I miss them a lot. Everybody loved me there," says Miguel Balderas Rocha. But he believes his daughter, Alma Angelica, will have better opportunities in the US and wants to see her grow up here. "It's a country where we can make our dreams," he says.

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