Wapato is a town in the Yakima Valley. It was founded as Simcoe in 1885. The name was changed to Wapato in 1903 to eliminate U.S. postal confusion with Fort Simcoe. The town was platted that year and incorporated in 1908. Migratory and immigrant agricultural labor came to the town beginning the 1920s. Hispanization resulted from the institutionalization of cheap labor that accompanied the growth of agribusiness from the 1940s to the present.
Wapato is located in South Central Washington state, 11 miles due southeast, following the Yakima River, of the most populous city in Yakima Country -- Yakima. Because it is so close to Yakima Valley's main metropolis, Wapato is in a unique position for agricultural commerce. Also like its more populous southern neighbor, Toppenish, it is located on the Yakama Reservation. Wapato is among the oldest cities in the Yakima Valley, which made it a prime location for early agricultural activity.
Wapato originated from land allotted from the Yakama Nation from the Allotment Act of 1887, also called the Dawes Severalty Act. (The act divided reservation land among individual tribal members, who were ultimately allowed to sell their land, resulting the loss of reservation land.) Located on the Northern Pacific Railroad, it was originally a railroad station named Simcoe. By 1908, the year of incorporation, it was a small town. All businesses were conducted on the railroad right-of-way and the additional land was leased for farming.
From its earliest days Wapato had an agriculture-based economy. The Irwin Canal, one of the few in the valley in 1902, made Wapato-Harrah a lucrative region for agriculture. By 1896 irrigation water from the Irwin Canal was supplying farms near Wapato. Although Indian trading postmaster Alex McCredy founded Wapato, never was the economy dominated by anything but agriculture.
By 1907 Wapato was a booming town with well over 300 people. In 1910, more than 1,500 loads of fruit, potatoes, hops, and melons were shipped from Wapato. Growth of railroad branches from Wapato to neighboring towns of Toppenish-White Swan grew with Wapato’s agricultural economy.
As agriculture developed, more land was bought from Native Americans, due to the passage of the 1906 Jones Act. Although the 1906 Jones Act encouraged the Yakamas to sell land to Anglos, usually Anglos obtained land through other means, including marrying Yakama women, thus obtaining rights to his wife’s allotment. From 1910 to 1920, the Wapato Irrigation Project expanded building of canals, laterals, and drains. In the beginning Wapato’s dominate crop was alfalfa hay. Later more labor-intensive and profitable crops emerged to dominate the economy, such as sugar beets, sweet corn, and hops.
Wapato’s large expansion in agricultural development in the early twentieth century made it a prime source of labor recruitment. Because the town was originally part of the Yakama Reservation, farmers traditionally sought out Native Americans to work in agricultural. Both Native Americans and migrant Anglos dominated agricultural labor up until the 1920s. By then the expansion of the agricultural market allowed many Anglos to move up to more skilled jobs, leaving a labor shortage in low-skilled work.
Native Americans were used for farm labor up to the 1940s. However the Native American community failed to meet the growing demand for labor. The failed federal policy on Native Americans that emphasized assimilation from the 1880s to the 1930s ravaged the community and pushed many toward alcoholism. Many farmers looked elsewhere for farm labor, including Japanese and Filipino labor.
Wapato's Japanese Community
Wapato’s vibrant agricultural economy attracted many immigrants and migrants, but none were as successful as the Japanese. Japanese were recruited earlier in the history of the Yakima Valley to clear land and plant crops. As early as 1905, more than 40 Japanese from Hawaii were recruited by the Northwestern Land Company to work on a nursery south of Wapato. The Japanese in Wapato did not stay as farm workers for long and quickly rivaled the success of Anglo farmers.
An example of this transition is Kay Morinaga who began farming in 1910. He later joined with Joe Kamihira to create the J&K Produce Company that was famous throughout the Northwest. Many Yakamas preferred to sell their land to Japanese rather than to Anglos, because many Japanese offered more money. The Japanese success in Wapato produced Japanese-oriented businesses. From 1916 to 1918, “Japanese Town” developed in Wapato around present-day West 2nd Street. Japanese Town was described as “the physical placing of shops, businesses, churches and other building catering to 1000 Japanese and descendants living in the Yakima Valley” (Kondo 20). Wapato quickly became the hub of the Japanese community in Washington state, second only to Seattle. The success of the Japanese brought harsh resentment in the Anglo community that would culminate in internment during World War II.
The history of the Japanese in Wapato is ultimately a sad one. Many Anglos resented the success of the Japanese farmers and the fact that the Yakamas tended to sell their land to the Japanese. Also Japanese tended to employ Filipino farm workers competing with Anglo farmers and increasing ethnic tension. During the 1920s, there was a major push to prevent Japanese from leasing land; in 1921, the Alien Land Lease was passed. Many Japanese put the title of their land under their American-born children to counter the effects of land-right restrictions. The Japanese were victims of hate crimes throughout 1920s to 1940s, including the burning of their temple and schools. Thomas H Heuterman thus far has the best account of the Japanese Experience in Wapato in The Burning Horse. Heuterman describes a vibrant Japanese community that was the victim of Anglo oppression. Ultimately, in 1942, following Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, the Japanese were forced to evacuate from Wapato during World War II.
The expulsion of the Japanese left a precarious situation in the economy of Wapato. It came at the worst possible time for farmers. The U.S. commitment to supplying its European allies in World War II with agricultural products put large pressure for farmers throughout the Yakima Valley to produce.
The U.S. entering the war only made matters worse. During the Japanese internment, Wapato was producing record crops. The total crop value for Wapato was $5,261,233 in 1940 compared to a little over $3 million in 1931. Illustrating the labor crisis is the June 25, 1942, edition of The Wapato Independent. The cover displays a farmer drowning in a wheat farm with “Record Crop$” sketched in the fields (Independent).
In addition, during the Japanese internment Wapato began harvesting the labor-intensive sugar beet crop at an all time high. Mechanization of sugar beets would not occur until the late 1940s. The internment made a growing labor shortage worse. Crop production and demand was at an all time high, but the unavailability of farm hands threatened it.
The need for farm labor dominated Wapato news throughout World War II. The many attempts to get farm workers needed to plant, tend, and harvest crops included using a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp, situated between Wapato and Toppenish. More than 600 Germans resided in the camp and they were periodically used as farm workers up until 1946. For example 90 German POWS were used in April 1945.
Even the interned (but not yet expelled) Japanese were used in farm labor in Wapato up until their expulsion in April 1942. However, the demand of labor was never met. Even with the help of Japanese and the POWs, farmers needed more workers. The salvation of labor came from Chicano migrants and the Bracero program (1942-1947), changing the course of Wapato’s cultural history.
The Bracero Program
The Wapato farm-labor crisis was happening throughout the U.S. and became a national-security issue because of the wartime need for high farm production. In response, the U.S. and Mexico agreed on a guest-worker program called the Bracero Program. In the Pacific Northwest, the program lasted from 1942 to 1947 (in the Southwest it would last until 1964). Braceros would be in use in the Yakima Valley up until 1948 and once again in the early 1950s.
According to data obtained by Dr. Erasmo Gamboa, from 1943 to 1947 more than 15,000 Braceros were hired in Washington state. Of those hired, a majority were in the Yakima Valley. But Braceros and German POWs were not the only workers coming to the Yakima Valley in high demand; Chicanos also came in large numbers. By the mid-1940s. Wapato was composed of a multi-ethnic farm workforce composed of Braceros (Mexican guest workers), Chicanos (Mexican Americans), Germans, and Filipinos. However, in the case of Wapato, only the Chicanos would settle.
Foundations of Hispanization
According to Wapato History Committee's 1978 book, Wapato: History and Heritage, the first Mexican in Wapato was Juan Salinas. Salinas came to the Yakima Valley in 1907 and moved to Wapato with his wife in 1944. However, there is oral history evidence and pictures that date the Mexican Community in Wapato back to at least 1929.
An early family to arrive in Wapato was the Ybarra family who came from Wyoming in 1940. Other families followed in 1942 when up to 16 families migrated to Wapato. The families include the Vasquez, Gutierrez, Farrias, Salinas, and Hernandez families. The Utah Idaho Sugar Company and Wapato Coal Company were responsible for most of the Chicano labor recruitment in Wapato. This was in response to two major events in Wapato: German POW removal, and the Japanese internment of 1942. The Yakima Valley was in farm labor crisis, which made Mexican American migratory labor the principal source.
The Colorado/Wyoming Connection
The restriction of immigration in the 1910s, which slowed Asian and European entry into the U.S. created a major push for Mexican labor during the 1920s in Colorado and other mountain states. Through word of mouth, many families left for Wapato. But also, agricultural companies in the Yakima Valley recruited many Chicano laborers. This 1942 community formed the basis of Wapato's Mexican American community, and it mostly originated from Wyoming.
Wyoming, as reported in the 1930s census, had more Hispanics (Mexicans) than did Washington state. Wyoming had 7,174 Hispanics compared to a little over 3,000 in Washington. Most Mexicans in Wyoming were displaced Mexican farmers from New Mexico, Tejanos from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, and Mexicans who had been displaced during the Mexico Revolution (1910-1917). The Union Pacific Railroad and the Great Western Sugar Company recruited a large number of Mexicans. The recruitment by companies disbursed Mexicans from Texas to Montana. Many would re-establish themselves in Wapato.
The Mexican American migrants who left the mountain states, in particular, Wyoming, were more than eager to leave. The Chicano experience in Wyoming, specifically Worland, Torrington, Rock Springs, and Laramie was one of racial discrimination. Worland and Torrington stood among the towns with the worst anti-Mexican discrimination. Worland even had separate schools for Mexicans.
The sugar beet industry attracted Mexican migrants from Texas and northern New Mexico. Many also came to Wyoming, Montana, and Northern Colorado directly from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. The motivation of anti-Mexican sentiment in Wyoming can not be overstated. Wyoming, just like Washington state, was undergoing a wartime boom in the 1940s, which influenced many Mexicans to migrate to Wyoming. However, for the established Chicanos in Wyoming, the news that Mexicanos were treated better and there was an abundant need for labor motivated an entire community to head to Wapato.
Wapato's Mexican Community
The families migrated into North Wapato mostly in an undeveloped portion of town. Mexican residents deemed this area of Wapato “Dog Town.” North Wapato was in an incorporated area of Wapato that until 1946 was the home to a farm-labor camp. Other camps included a Bracero camp in Yakima and the German POW camp between Wapato and Toppenish. The other area was located next to the burnt down mansion of Wapato’s founder, Mr. Alexander E. McCredy. The remnants of the entrance still stand today on 3rd Avenue in Wapato. As for the other community in “dog town” or across the tracks in Wapato, this was originally the labor camp designed for migrant workers who came to work in the farm industry.
The Wapato Independent from 1940 to 1945 shows how desperate farmers were for labor. Schools were cancelled so children could work; the cover stories focused more on farm labor than on the war itself. However, there is an absence of actually naming Mexican migrants or Braceros coming to Wapato. Instead, the Mexican community who arrived was referred to as “farm workers.”
The Mexican community in Wapato was just not farm workers. Many represented Wapato in World War II. Wapato ran an “Honor Roll” form for all those who were serving in the war. A number were Spanish surnamed and were not Filipino.
The mention of Mexicans-Americans in Wapato does not arrive until 1945. The Wapato Independent relates a story of a Mexican laborer from North Wapato facing a murder charge:
“Juarez was born December 11, 1911, in Mexico, and had lived in this district a year. His family includes the widow, his mother, Mrs. Jenny Juarez of Worland, Wyo,: 3 brothers, Tony and Lawrence of Wyoming and Elislo of Wapato ...”(Wapato Independent, September 27, 1945).
The article is important because it confirms the oral histories of Mexican American families from Wyoming coming to Wapato and positions a large Hispanic presence in North Wapato. It is important to note that the Mexican in the Wapato Independent was not a Bracero. According to the Wapato Independent (November 19, 1942), a labor camp was constructed in North Wapato, to house “farm workers,” not Mexican Braceros.
Churches and Church Records
Settlement of Chicanos in Wapato is confirmed as early as 1941, though the exact number of Chicanos from the mountain states is unclear. However, according to baptism records from the Diocese of Yakimain, in 1945, 48 Spanish surnamed children were baptized and in 1950, 75 Spanish surnamed children were baptized. According to the December 1946 issue of the Wapato Independent, the Romero family from Wyoming had resided in Wapato for more than seven years. Although the baptismal data does not prove settlement, it does show a growing Hispanic presence.
However, the establishment of the Mexican Baptist Church, in North Wapato does confirm Chicano settlement in Wapato. Many of the Chicano migrants from the Mountain States, especially Wyoming, did not belong to the Catholic Church. Instead, they belonged to the evangelical Mexican Baptist Church. Today the church is still in Wapato, but is referred to as Templo Cristiano: Spanish Assembly of God. It was established in North Wapato in 1942, and is today located at 501 W. 2nd street near an area known by locals as "Tortilla Flats" because of its historic high concentration of Latinos.
According to oral histories, the assembly was the first congregation to offer Spanish mass in Washington state. In addition, it was the first Chicano establishment of its kind in the Yakima Valley, and signifies permanent settlement. Chicano permanent settlement in Wapato did not assuage the demand for labor during the war; instead demand influenced more Chicano settlement after the war.Post-War Wapato Agriculture
By the end of the 1940s, the agricultural crop of Wapato was valued at $15,860,783. The number of crops had almost doubled from 1940. In addition, labor-intensive crops became the Number One source of revenue in Wapato agriculture, including hops and sugar beets.
By 1947, the Bracero program in Washington state had ended. The German POW labor that assisted in the farm labor crisis closed down by 1946. According to the Wapato Independent (June 20, 1946), by April 20, 1946, over 600 German POWs contracted by the Utah-Idaho Sugar Co. left Wapato. The farm labor shortage after the war combined with record crop production and an established Chicano population in Wapato ushered in waves of Chicano labor throughout the Yakima Valley.
Latinos to Wapato, 1950s-1970s
In 1950, 59 percent of all Catholic baptisms in Wapato were Spanish surnamed. The total number and percentage of Spanish baptisms was greater than in neighboring Sunnyside and Toppenish. The closing of the German POW camp and the end of the Bracero program prompted many farmers to pursue Chicano labor in the Southwest. We've seen how already in the 1940s, Chicanos were recruited from Colorado and the Rio Grande Valley of Texas due to the oversupply there of laborers.
In the 1950s, farmers became dependent on migratory Chicano labor and more importantly, the abundance of such labor encouraged farmers to plant crops that were more labor intensive. Thus, at the dawn of the 1950s Chicano labor and the development of agriculture in Wapato were linked. As agriculture revenue and crop-diversity increased, so did the Chicano makeup of Wapato. Crop revenues in 1956 had mounted to $21,155,118.
Mexican settlement continued, but during this decade, Wapato experienced its first major population flight. Between 1940 and 1950, according to the 1950 U.S. Census, the population had increased from 1,483 to 3,185. By 1960, the population had fallen to 3,135.
Many Anglos had left Wapato during World War II to pursue higher paying jobs in Western Washington (namely at Boeing of Seattle). Of those Anglos that stayed in Wapato, mostly all were bound to the agricultural economy as farmers. Spanish baptisms in Wapato would also fall, as even Chicanos left to pursue higher wages elsewhere. Many of the Chicanos who came to Wapato during the 1950s were migrant laborers; they did not settle in the large numbers that accompanied Chicano arrivals of the 1940s. Although the population of Wapato was decreasing, members of the community felt that Wapato was a well-off town economically.
It was a time of economic stability and civic celebrations. It was also a time of Latino out-flux and influx. The children of the Latino families who had migrated to Wapato in the 1940s quickly moved out of the farm work their parents did and went to Western Washington and other cities, as the agricultural economy of Wapato began to decline.
In Wapato, the Mexican American community (the label preferred by the group), was celebrated on the streets. Wapato had two major parades, one in September and October. One of the floats displayed was the Mexican American community float, similar the Filipino American float of the time. Such activity by the Mexican American community illustrates a quick integration into Wapato popular culture. As Chicanos integrated into the Wapato community, their settlement spread across Wapato.
And too, the Chicano community of Wapato spread across the Yakima Valley. In terms of Catholic baptisms, the Spanish population did not increase much during the 1950s; however, the Spanish Assembly of God began to establish churches in other towns such as Warden and Royal City. The church followed former Wapato residents throughout the valley. Many Chicanos of Wapato began a pattern of settlement elsewhere in the Yakima Valley. They assisted in creating a migrant farm-worker labor circuit throughout the state. As the overall population of Wapato declined, the Chicano community expanded in Wapato.
In 1957, another Spanish church established, again in North Wapato; currently it is the House of Miracles. The Spanish Assembly of God moved to an area of West Wapato known as “tortilla flats” due to the high concentration of Hispanics. Ironically, in the late 1930s "tortilla flats" was part of the area known as “Japanese Town” due to the high concentration of Japanese.
During the 1960s, the agricultural economy of Wapato began to slow down and many residents, both Chicano and Anglo, began to leave. The revenue from crops in 1964 was $23,420,665. Considering the growth from 1940-1950, the crop production Wapato was dismal during this period. A large number of Chicanos left Wapato for Seattle during the late 1950s/early 1960s and are among the first Chicano settlers of that area.
Much of this transition resulted from the industrial boom of the Korean War in Western Washington from 1950 to 1953 and after that from the postwar depression. By the late 1950s, demand for agricultural products was down and many residents including Chicanos began to leave. The second-generation Chicanos of the Wyoming families began to marry Filipino and Anglo residents of Wapato. The intermarriage of the two groups encouraged many Chicanos to leave Wapato with them. The Anglo exodus of the 1950s only increased during the 1960s, and by 1970 Wapato had its lowest population since 1940.
The 1970 Wapato Chamber of Commerce described Wapato as the “Economic Hub of the Great Irrigation Project,” at the same exact time Wapato was becoming a Mexican Town. Until the 1970s, only one major Hispanic group settled in Wapato and that was the migrants from the mountain states and others from the Southwest. However, economic developments in the 1970s enticed more Hispanics to settle in Wapato. Observing a map of Wapato in 1970, you see none of the cold-storage facilities that dominate Wapato today.
Cold-storage facilities such as Inland Fruit, Yakima Fruit, and many others, made Wapato a hub for produce storage. Produce storage made agricultural work in Wapato available all year round. Many Chicanos who left Wapato during the 1950s/1960s returned in the late 1970s.
In addition, peppermint/spearmint were introduced into Wapato agriculture, causing crop revenues to reach an all-time high of $63,403,101. Many found work in the fruit-packing warehouses. However, this 1970s shift in the economy attracted settlement that is more Mexican and discouraged Anglos from returning to Wapato. Once again their population began to decline.
1980s-1990s: A Mexican Town
During the 1980s and 1990s, Wapato experienced a population boom second only to the boom between 1940 and 1950. This occurred during a time of massive white flight and economic depression. During the 1990s alone, more than 400 white non-Hispanics left Wapato. They were supplanted by Mexican immigrants from traditional states such as Michoacán, Zacatecas, and Jalisco, as well as by indigenous Mexicans (Zapotecs, etc). Meanwhile changes in economic and social infrastructure ushered in an agriculture that would produce a city very dependent on its Mexican (Latino) populace.
Up until the 1970s, the Hispanic presence in Wapato consisted of Chicano farm-worker migrants. During the late 1970s, it changed to Mexican immigrants. Unlike the 1940s, when agricultural production was in desperate need for labor, by the mid-1980s Wapato had lost its status as “economic hub of the great irrigation project.”
There are numerous reasons for this, but the construction of Interstate 82 and highway US 97 contributed greatly to Wapato’s economic woes as Wapato was bypassed by traffic from Yakima to the lower Yakima Valley. In response to new commercial traffic, many of Wapato’s businesses shifted towards US 97 and this developed into an almost vacant downtown by the 1990s.
These economic woes did nothing to deter the influx of Mexican immigration, which would create a dominant Hispanic community by 1990. During this time, unionization attempts failed, as many Chicano/Mexican workers became disillusioned as the Teamsters union and United Farm Workers competed for workers.
In the late 1970s, Wapato was still an Anglo-dominant community, but by the 1990s, it no longer was. Wapato School District Enrollment for 1976-1977 showed that Hispanic enrollment was 28 percent compared to an Anglo enrollment of 45 percent. By the year 2000, Hispanic enrollment would constitute 61 percent of the entire school district. Wapato during the 1980s experienced an economic depression and a population boom. In 1980, Wapato had a population of 3,100 with a Hispanic population of 50 percent. By then, Wapato officially was a Hispanic town. During the 1990s, the economic woes of the 1980s only worsened as the Anglo population decreased considerably.
Changes in the 1980s and 1990s
If the Bracero program formed an agricultural dependency on the farm labor of Chicano migrants, the 1980s ushered in an era of dependency on undocumented Mexican immigrant labor. The undocumented labor included Mexican indigenous tribes from Southern Mexico. This influx of Mexican immigrants into Washington state was influenced by the economic depression of Mexico due to the petroleum boom of the 1970s.
Mexican immigration would increase as Mexico devalued the peso in 1994 in response to the massive debt accumulated during the 1980s. The devaluation of the peso resulted in Mexican immigration into the U.S. at a level not seen since the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). During the 1990s Wapato experienced a population boom, in which its population increased by almost one-third to 4,572 by the year 2000. The largest component of the population increase was due to Mexican immigration.
The influx of Mexican immigrants accompanied a large depopulation of Anglo citizens. As of 1990, the Anglo population of Wapato was 979; by 2000 it was 554. In contrast, the Hispanic population in 1990 was 2,450; by 2000 it had grown to 3,795. The 2000 Hispanic population almost equaled the entire Wapato population of the year 1990. The 2000 U.S census reveals that almost 40 percent of this Hispanic population is foreign born. Of the Hispanic foreign-born population, almost half came in the 1990s.
This large increase in Hispanic population during the 1990s accompanied an economic depression and Anglo flight that left its downtown sector almost non-existent. The vibrant Wapato community of the 1970s was gone by 1990s. The decade witnessed the downtown sector of Wapato reduced to few restaurants and barbers. Furthermore, the 1990s experienced the closure of two major fruit packing/cold storage facilities.
Wapato became a city unwelcoming to professionals and upper middle-class people. It is not clear whether Anglos left with the businesses or vice versa, but it is clear that as agriculture in Wapato became increasingly mechanized and dependent on ever-cheaper labor, the economy declined. By the turn of the twenty-first century, Wapato looked like a ghost town. Nevertheless, at such a bleak economic time in Wapato’s history, Hispanics transformed a city that had experienced the largest population boom since 1940s.
Wapato today has not reached the level of economic stability of the pre-1980s, but its highest non-agricultural businesses are Hispanic-oriented. The white flight and downtown economic slump created an opportunity for Chicanos and Mexican immigrants of Wapato. Because Hispanics dominated over 76 percent of Wapato’s population, naturally, they took over the economy.
Today, DLI construction and Las Palmas Cantina are the highest-grossing businesses in Wapato. Hispanics own both. Downtown Wapato has seen a Hispanic revival on a small scale. Currently, all businesses except for Johnny’s Clothing on Wapato’s downtown strip are Hispanic businesses, namely taquieras (taco restaurants) and panaderías (bakeries).
And although Wapato’s agricultural economy is still dominated by Anglo farmers, Chicanos are beginning to buy farms. An example is Gonzalez Farms in Wapato, which is one of the few Hispanic-owned farms in the Yakima Valley. Hispanic culture dominates the local grocers who now sell Mexican produce and the local video store with a large selection of Spanish videos and DVDs. Wapato today is a “Mexican Town.”
Native American and Anglo residents openly acknowledge a dominance of Hispanics in Wapato, but Hispanization has affected the old Chicano community also. The Chicanos of Wapato, namely the migrants from pre-1970, were a group that identified with an Anglo Wapato. Many were accultured to Anglo society such as preferring English to Spanish, and preferring Anglo customs to their own. This is not unique to Chicanos of Wapato but characteristic of most people of color during the pre-Civil Rights era.
When the large influx of Mexicans came to Wapato, Chicanos were forced to undergo a process of reverse linear acculturation. (Linear acculturation means adopting a single cultural identification over time.) Chicanos readapted to Mexican culture, adopted Mexican characteristics, and integrated into Mexican immigrant society. This is not to say that the Hispanics of Wapato are homogenous. Many Chicanos and earlier Mexican immigrants self-identify themselves differently from the recent arrivals. Still, the process of Chicanos adapting more Mexican characteristics reveals the current Hispanization of Wapato.