In a very short span of time, a generation of Mexican American families were uprooted from familiar spaces in other states and brought to a new environment in the Yakima Valley. Agriculture cemented the new arrivals to the farm labor economy, but their lives became much more than that. These pioneering families formed tight knit Latino communities. In the process of adapting their lives to the new environment, these pioneers brought their strong hands, started their own businesses, and introduced Latino culture, in the process transforming the Yakima Valley in profound ways.
The information below is adapted from a longer report by Dr. Erasmo Gamboa, Professor Emeritus, University of Washington. The full report can be downloaded from the Washington Dept. of Archaeology & Historic Preservation.
Originally inhabited by the Yakama people, the Yakima Valley started receiving missionaries and white homesteaders beginning in the 1850s. Forced to cede large areas of their ancestral lands, the Yakamas had to relocate to a reservation south of the Valley. Construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad and a regional irrigation system along with the climate and fertile soils drew farmers and development to the Valley. By the early 1900s, the Yakima Valley started to gain a national reputation as an agricultural paradise. Today, it is still an extremely productive area for a variety of vegetables, fruits, and other commercial crops.
The Valley’s low-density population meant that as commercial agriculture developed in the early 20th century, it became inextricably tied to non-resident farm laborers. Early on, they included Native Americans, migratory white workers, and Asian Americans. In the 1930s-40s, the demand for farm products and migratory labor waned and waxed, driven by the Great Depression and World War II. With the exodus of many workers to wartime industry jobs outside the Valley or military service, Yakima farmers faced an unparalleled labor shortage, a crisis largely met by Mexican and Mexican-American laborers.
While Latino settlement began in Yakima County in the 1930s, it reached a pinnacle during WWII. In addition to the Mexican Americans relocating from other states to the Valley, there were also temporary Mexican laborers, known as braceros, contracted by the US government to alleviate labor shortages between 1942-47.
After World War II, Yakima Valley farmers faced another labor shortage crisis, due to multiple factors. To address this shortage, the Yakima agricultural industry began to participate in a national domestic farm labor program focused on the recruitment of Mexican American migratory workers in labor-saturated areas to states in need of farm workers. The post-war labor program, a public-private partnership, effectively transferred an entire generation of Mexican American families, generally referred to as Tejanos, from south Texas to the Valley.
Community and Culture
By the late 1950s, culturally vibrant Latino communities had developed throughout the Valley, with the earlier arrivals concentrated in Wapato and Toppenish and the more recent Tejanos located in Toppenish and points east in Granger, Sunnyside, Mabton, and Grandview. The cultural imprint of the Latino community in the Yakima Valley had morphed to the point that many people began to consider Yakima their home and stopped migrating to Texas or Wyoming.
Another indication of how quickly the Latino community considered themselves as social citizens of the Yakima area came when Latinos joined together and entered Mexican-themed floats or dressed in Mexican attire and rode horses in events that consisted of largely white and Yakama cultural representations. In many respects, the Latino community could not have chosen a better day to assert their cultural identity than during local Fourth of July parades that wove through downtown Toppenish, in the middle of the Yakima Valley.