Mexican American Women in Washington

  • By Elizabeth Salas
  • Posted 12/30/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5629
Mexicans first moved to Washington Territory in the 1860s, one family raising sheep in the Yakima valley and another operating a mule pack train. In the twentieth century, particularly after the start of World War II, Mexican migrants  from the Southwest and immigrants from Mexico, including women, made up a large part of the labor force that brought in Yakima County's harvests.  In the last half of the twentieth century, Mexican American women assumed prominent roles in communities and in politics.  They were an important part of the 329,934 people of Mexican origin in the state as of the 2000 census.

Early Days

Spanish exploration into the Pacific coast regions of Washington began in the 1790s with the appearance of sailing ships and a few settlements. The rosters of the Spanish expeditions are scarce, but the crews included "Spanish colonials" -- men from the region now known as Mexico, which  Spain occupied from 1521 to 1821. The crews were all men with no women family members aboard. By 1795, the last garrison contingent of 20 soldiers left the Nootka settlement.

The turmoil of the Mexican American War (1846-1848) and its aftermath drew Mexican families to Washington. Rosario Romero from Sonora, Mexico, settled in Yakima during the 1860s. Although credited with starting the region’s sheep herding industry, she, like many others, did not remain in Washington as a permanent resident. Carmelita Colón, also born in Mexico, settled in Walla Walla with her husband in the 1860s. Together they ran a mule pack train from Walla Walla to Idaho. When their business failed, they stayed in the area to operate a Mexican restaurant. Their descendants lived in Walla Walla until the 1950s.

Yakima's Agricultural Valley

The twentieth century witnessed a significant increase in the number of Mexican migrants and immigrants to Washington, people who would stay on as permanent residents. Since the 1920s, Yakima County has ranked among the 10 most productive agricultural counties in the United States and thus, has required large numbers of workers, predominately Mexican, from the April asparagus harvest to apple picking in October. About 8 percent of farm workers are women.

The level of hardship and segregation earned Yakima County the unflattering nickname "Little Mississippi of the Northwest." Mexican American migrants came from New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming, and immigrants arrived from Mexico. In recent times, immigrants from Central and South America have joined them.

Life in Toppenish

Migration from U.S. southwestern states and immigration from Mexico and South America began to increase dramatically to Washington during the 1940s. This was in part due to the demand for labor created by the departure for the war of men from the region, and in part due to significant racism toward Asian and Native American laborers.

Newly arriving Mexicans found conditions to be harsh.  In a letter to her daughter Antonia, Irene Castañeda detailed the family's move from Texas to Washington during the 1940s. Castañeda criticized the labor contractor for lying to the family that conditions in Toppenish were good and fair.

The family experienced horrendous hardship arriving in "bitterly cold weather" after traveling on a flatbed truck. The Castañedas discovered their housing to be "some old shacks, all full of knotholes in Brownstown -- about twenty miles outside of Toppenish."  Irene recalled working in hops fields in which women were paid 75 cents per hour whereas men received 85 cents per hour.

By the 1950s, the character of the settled Latino communities became evident in the celebration of cultural and religious events. Días de las madres became an important annual event in Mexican communities. In Toppenish, Washington, on September 15-16, 1952, Margarita Rodríguez was crowned "Queen Liberty" in celebration of Mexican Independence Day. As part of this cultural preservation, Herminia Méndez began Spanish radio programming in the Yakima Valley in 1951.

The Legacy of Frances Martínez

With the number of farm-labor jobs decreasing year by year because of the decline in prices for the crops, unreliable water supplies, and farm land prices, increasing numbers of Latinas are migrating from small towns to urban areas. In Seattle, El Centro de la Raza established the Frances Martínez Community Service Center in 1983 as a tribute to the tireless activism of Martínez and her valiant struggle against leukemia. A former farm worker, she worked until the end of her life helping Latinos find jobs, housing, and counseling. Through El Centro de la Raza, she organized emergency food programs and classes, and secured legal advice for recent arrivals to Seattle.

Activism can be a family affair. Two women, Ninfa Tanguma and her daughter Yolanda Alaníz, provided determined leadership for Latinas in their transition from rural to urban areas. In 1970 Tanguma took her turn at picket duty in a hop-ranch strike in Yakima. Latinas were at the forefront of the strike and seemed "more willing to sacrifice than many men when it comes to supporting the union." Daughter Yolanda joined the picket line at the age of 6. In 1993 she ran for Seattle City Council as a socialist. She was by far the most important leader for the group Radical Women until the late 1990s when she left Washington to become an activist in California.

Moving into Politics

The 1980s witnessed Mexican American women winning public office. In 1988, Margarita López Prentice, a Democrat, won a seat representing the 11th District in the state House of Representatives; she was later elected to the state senate from that district. Before going into politics Prentice worked as a registered nurse for 30 years, and health care and worker protection were major concerns for her in the legislature. In 1989 she sponsored a bill that would require doctors to report pesticide poisoning cases to the state Department of Social and Health Services.

Republican Mary Skinner was first elected to represent the Yakima-area 14th District in the state House of Representatives in 1994. Skinner grew up as a farm worker and worked as a junior high school teacher and community volunteer. Democrat Phyllis Gutiérrez-Kenney was appointed to represent the Seattle's 46th Legislative District in 1997. Born into a farm worker family, she was one of eight children. Gutiérrez-Kenny remembered picking asparagus for "seventy-five cents an hour and no bathrooms in the field." Her first stint at organizing began when she co-founded the Migrant Daycare Centers of Washington. She also co-founded the Educational Institute for Rural Families in Pasco.

Community Organization and the Arts

Latinas continue to form groups that seek to better their situation in the Pacific Northwest. Hortensia Villanueva formed a mothers' club in December 1994. The wife of a union leader in Eastern Washington, Villanueva used space at the Farm Workers' Clinic to organize the mothers of children who came down with contagious virus infections. Latinas have been leaders in groups such as United Farm Workers of America; Mexican American Women's National Association (MANA), and the Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs. Currently Rosalinda Guillen serves as Washington's Regional Director of the United Farm Workers and Mona Mendoza is the co-founder of "Hands Off Washington" a gay/lesbian rights organization.

Artist Cecilia Concepción Alvarez arrived in Washington State in 1975 and developed a national reputation for her paintings. Her art reflects her experiences as a Chicana/Cubana as she expresses her own vision of beauty and strength. Latinas living in the Pacific Northwest reflect in a variety of ways Alvarez's views about combining selected cultural traditions with environmental concerns for today and for the future.


Sources: Elizabeth Salas, "Mexican-American Women Politicians in Seattle," in More Voices, New Stories: King County, Washington’s First 150 Years ed. by Mary C. Wright (Seattle, Washington: Landmarks & Heritage Commission, 2002); Isabel Valle, Fields of Toil: A Migrant Family’s Journey (Pullman, Washington: Washington State University Press, 1994); Villarroel Luz E. and Sandra B. Fancher Garcia. "A Cultural Profile and Status of Chicanas in the Northwest" in The Chicano Experience in the Northwest ed. by Carlos S. Maldonado and Gilberto García (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1995).

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