Latino Civic Engagement and Community Disenfranchisement in Washington State
Bellingham, WA – The last time that I voted for a political candidate was fourteen years ago, during the Presidential election of 2000. It was clear to me by that point that the Electoral College was not an adequate representation of the democratic will of the people. Though I had voted neither for George W. Bush or Al Gore, it was clear to me that Bush had not been legitimately elected president by the people of the United States. I swore to never participate in U.S. political elections again and I only ever voted to kill or pass bills afterwards.
My politics are anarcho-syndicalist in the tradition of Ricardo Flores-Magon, Lucy Gonzalez Parsons and Peter Kropotkin, when I am feeling a bit academic; the autonomist Marxist side shines through, in the tradition of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (Grace Lee Boggs & CLR James). I have friends who say to me every time I talk about voting, that the U.S.’s two party system is like the choice between lanes both going to the slaughter at best, at worst that we participate in perpetuating the legitimacy of the very white supremacist patriarchal settler colonialist state we seek to overthrow. Each time I ask them for their patience, or tell them to look up the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Mississippi.
When I move between worlds amongst the brown managers and professional classes that my level of education and my years of experience has given me access to, at best they say my decision not to vote secures my silence, and at worst that not voting hurts the very people I fight alongside every day against an oppressive capitalist food regime and a state that destroys our families, many of whom do not have the right to vote.
For the farmworkers that I work with and the immigrants I engage most days of the week, my voting or lack thereof is benign, much like the natural world around us. This is interesting to me, as my formative years informed me as well, that the U.S. political system is not democratic, and it feigns no democracy for those who do not conform to the order and will of capital, to the order of pre-mature death or the threat thereof. Many of us who have had the privilege to witness real democracy, to live it, to breath it, will understand my refusal to vote in the U.S. and my underlying indignity that this essay seeks to flesh out for a receptive audience who may also be, for lack of better words undecided or concerned.
There is a third path.
There is an alternative.
Democracy does exist and we can exercise it to make our lives better.
THE PEOPLE’S POLITICAL MUSCLE IN WASHINGTON STATE
We are powerful when we work together.
In the year 2000, in Tri-Cities, we registered an unprecedented number of new Latino voters in the city of Pasco, close to 1,000 people. We had also supported the campaign of a congressional candidate from Walla Walla, Yolanda Cortinas-Trout who had worked as a farm worker as a young adult. A year later the same group of folks formed HISPAC (Hispanic Political Action Committee) a non-partisan Latino political organization, supporting the candidacy of five Latino candidates for local government positions in the city of Pasco.
In a Latino Hyper growth urbanizing community where the Latino population had grown exponentially since 1980, the future looked bright in terms of representation, community political power, and the glory of the 1999 shut down of the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Locally we had also convinced the Pasco City Council to name a school after a Latino, we wanted farm worker leader Cesar E. Chavez, and they compromised by naming a middle school after Latina Astronaut Ellen Ochoa in the section of Pasco that was predominantly Latino.
In the spring and summer leading up to the November elections of 2000, our community had formed an intergenerational space we called “Noches de Cultura, Pan Dulce y Café” (Culture, Coffee and Pastry night) a weekly meeting space where the content depended upon the participants who rotated leadership every week and included everything from poetry reading, to history, to the proposal to organize ourselves to build local political power for Latinos beginning with voter registration and education. We aligned with Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, we had discussed both SVREP and another Latino voter education project from the Midwest as possibilities.
That summer we changed the political climate of that region. The republican vice presidential and presidential candidates made unprecedented appearances in our community. Even they had noticed that we were organized. That change came with great cost to my community. With many of the younger generation of community leaders going off to college, infighting along old factional lines escalated as our first attempts at flexing our power as a community was met with fierce and organized repression, primarily from the mostly white and grower dominated Republican party as almost all of the candidates we ran as a community were affiliated with the Democratic party.
The repression came in a subtle way, the newly emerging HISPAC was dissolved because of the factionalism, and a weak attempt to regroup by moderate members into the notoriously anti-immigrant League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) also fell to similar internal divisions.
One of these divisions was a feud between a leader in the democratic party, Gabriel Portugal and a leader in the republican party, David Cortinas. The feud had its origins along party differences, but more immediately, it was driven because of the use of the Spanish-language newspaper run by Cortinas in breaking the wildcat strike at a nearby meat processing plant which was owned by Iowa Beef Processing (IBP) at the beginning of the fight, and was bought by Tyson meats in the middle of the struggle. In an interview with Portugal in 2005 he briefly mentioned the incident, one which Cortinas later elaborated upon in a separate interview where he argued that his involvement was personal, as his niece was dating the main organizer at the plant, who had lied to him about the strike. The strike in question was a wildcat strike against the contract negotiated by the mostly white led Teamster’s union, it was the beginning of a longer struggle where this group of workers, concerned over saftey on the taylorized meat processing plant that led to speed ups on the production line, would also take over the leadership of their union. La Voz, the only Spanish-language newspaper in the region, was caught up on both sides of the PR wars, at first on the side of the workers, and in the end on the side of the corporation.
The lack of institutional support outside of these factional lines of the political parties almost completely arrested the ability of the community to advance. Both parties, having learned of the capacity of the Latino community to effect an election brought the consensus that district lines would be redrawn in 2001 to make it impossible for Latinos in Pasco to dominate any district, in particular the east Pasco district where many lived.
By 2006, when many of the local community was eager to participate in the massive immigrant rights movement that was emerging. The void allowed for extractive organizations such as One America to enter the community, recruit people to be arrested for their cause, and leave the community when the funding was gone for their campaign. One long-term resident shared his concern, as an individual who worked directly with impacted members of the community, that this type of extractive politics was perpetuating the disenfranchisement of the community from reaching political potential, even though behind the closed doors of their homes, the community was vibrant and engaged.
The Rainbow Challenge
Of course, this wasn’t the first time that a progressive group of people in Washington State had flexed their political muscles. After all, Washington was one of three states that were organized and won for the Jesse Jackson campaign in 1984 to bring the first black presidential candidate into serious running for the presidential race. Over 2 million new voters were registered, the movement was black led and people of color, including many of the leaders from Tri-cities witnessed the capacity of organizing constituents at the precinct level.
How did they do it? How did they win Washington for Jesse Jackson? It had a lot to do with the Democratic party of Washington’s bylaws and structure that allowed full participation of the public on the precinct level where each neighborhood had the ability to elect delegates to participate in the party’s caucuses.
The Whatcom County Rainbow Coalition, through the leadership of several people of color established platforms that were to be some of the first progressive economic analyses against the globalization of capitalism based upon the economic works of Immanuel Wallerstein. Damani Johnson would write on behalf of the organization,
American national politics and our own Washington State Rainbow Coalition are products of these global dynamics. We are veterans of the entire panoply of “new social movements” that have emerged outside of the formal political system over the last generation. We are also part of a counterculture which has mounted a compelling critique to every aspect of the American way of life. Our politics has had one foot in, and one foot outside of the system, because we understand the coopting powers the system comes to exert on those who play the game. Yet, we have tended to show by our political praxis that we still believe that “the state apparatus is the key to everything else.” I want to propose that in response to rapidly shifting national and international situation we pursue a two-pronged strategy: 1) emphasize “cultural work” around Rainbow issues in local areas over electoral politics; 2) devise a people-centered strategy for local economic self-sufficiency in this globalized economy. I am making these proposals, because I am increasingly coming to believe that “everything else is the key to controlling the state apparatus.” (Damani Johnson, “The Rainbow Coalition and Politics of Localglobalism and Culture” pp 1-2 in the Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore Papers, UW Libraries Special Collections)
A huge part of this cultural and economic work came in the form of Rainbow Coalition task forces. The Political Action Task Force piloted the regions first political platform to integrate the homeless and unemployed, the most often disenfranchised voters at the time, into the civic development of the region. The Labor Action Task Force became the strongest and most organized boycott committee of Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest wines in support of a group of unionizing Mexican farm workers in Sunnyside, Washington.
The localglobalism model of organizing that the Whatcom County Rainbow Coalition infused into the rest of the state through its progressive cultural and economic initiatives that emerged through self-reflection after the defeat of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign led to Washington State’s first bon-a-fide union contract at Chateau St. Michelle under the support of Whatcom County Rainbow Coalition organizers Rosalinda Guillen and Joseph Moore.
Union Democracy in the Yakima Valley
Their experience in doing the will of the people led the couple to accomplish a very difficult task when faced with the corruption of brown managers who had been the stewards of the UFW union headquarters in Sunnyside, WA. Under the leadership of the rank and file workers at Chateau St. Michelle, three union organizers exercised the democratic process of the UFW union bylaws in order to elect a new President and board for the union.
A reform team was established, adhering strictly to the bylaws, and began the constitutional process of electing a new leadership by calling for a union convention and following protocol. This reform team was made up of Rosalinda Guillen, Joseph Moore, and Kurt Pederson.
The union had 78 long-standing dues paying members, many of who had participated in over 30 hops strikes in the Yakima Valley in 1986-87 and some who had been active as far back as the 1970s hop strikes at Yakima Chief Ranch. Face-to-face meetings with each of these dues paying members were conducted by the lead organizer, Rosalinda Guillen, where they were each personally invited to a union convention that was to be held in the school gym of a Sunnyside elementary school.
Almost all of the dues paying members attended, including the rank and file farmworkers from the Chateau St. Michelle and Columbia Crest struggle. Several of the dues-paying farmworkers had decided to run for the board of the union, an action that was unprecedented for outgoing board members, many of whom were no longer farmworkers, who were used to running unopposed.
At the convention an altercation broke out between the soon to be removed President, Manuel Cortez his assistant Bill Nicacio, the reform team and the former union president Tomás Villanueva. Cortez had called upon representatives of the Washington State Labor Council and Seattle’s El Centro de la Raza who were loyal to him to intervene, and even called the police. The police officer was shown the constitution by the union steward and then told Cortez there was nothing he could do, that Cortez as a non-dues paying member could only participate as a member of the public since he had not paid dues for years.
The convention was facilitated by Juan Jose Bocanegra, and upon settling the earlier disruption by Manuel Cortez there was a great debate on the floor between the board members regarding the election and the outgoing president’s accusations that Rosalinda Guillen had stolen his union from him.
Soon afterwards a secret ballot was held, and through the democratic process provided by the union convention a new president and new board was elected, which included greater representation of the rank and file members who were fighting for a union contract at Chateau St. Michelle winery. This win also came a great cost.
Shortly after the election, Manuel Cortez chartered an independent farmworker union backed by El Centro de la Raza and had taken a $10,000 check made out to the official union. The union stewards convinced Cortez to return the funds to the rightful union, and he complied. Roberto Maestas, a supporter of Manuel Cortez and head of El Centro de la Raza, began a union busting campaign against the official farm workers union on behalf of the new union, he was quickly pushed out of the fields by the farmworker union rank and file. After seeing this division, the winery attempted to negotiate a sweetheart contract with FLOC a farm labor union out of the Midwest, this was also quickly defeated by the farmworker rank and file who had become strong leaders, their own advocates.
They won their contract shortly after in 1994.
COMMUNITY DISENFRANCHISEMENT IN WASHINGTON STATE
In 1968, the ACLU began a Farmworker project in Yakima Valley. At the time, Washington State had a literacy requirement for voting. The ACLU strategy was to test the policies to find out how they were enforced. This testing began in Toppenish, where several people were taken to register to vote. At the auditor’s office, the clerk would point at a sign on the wall and ask the person to read. The clerk would then determine who would pass.
According to Guadalupe Gamboa, who worked for the ACLU at the time, a republican registrar and auditor tightly controlled voting registration. As a result of the Farmworker project, the ACLU documented several people who did not pass the literacy test. The ACLU then filed a federal lawsuit was filed based on the 1965 voting rights act, and the case went to hearing. Before a decision could be made in the case, a superseding decision declared literacy tests unconstitutional, making the case null and void.
Prior to the decision, however, the community had begun to exercise their political power through civic engagement. The community demonstrated at the county auditor Dean Nass’s office against voter disenfranchisement. At that protest over 200 people demanded to register to vote in Spanish. Nass, though angry at the crowd, was forced to make changes that included hiring Spanish-speaking staff to register voters. The community, building upon their political momentum registered 1000 new voters in the lower Yakima Valley that year.
One of the principal ways that the United States’ two-party system has maintained its dominance is through redistricting. Redistricting is the process of drawing electoral district boundaries.
In Washington State, a bipartisan redistricting commission is responsible for determining these lines. This commission consists of 4 voting officials (who are not elected to public office) appointed by the majority and minority leaders of the house and senate with a fifth non-voting chair of the commission elected by the four selected officials.
Even though the bipartisan redistricting commission seems less biased on paper, the fact that democrats and republicans dominate the political system makes it almost always likely that there will be at least two republicans and two democrats deciding where to draw the line.
The fallacy of this has had a negative effect in the Yakima Valley since the voting rights battles of 1968, where even though there is now a clear majority of Latinos in the area, very few Latinos are elected.
A tale of two cities
In Pasco, after the 2001 HISPAC campaign that was a heated race that ended in loss for most of the Latino candidates, redistricting officials split in half a district in east Pasco that was predominantly Latino, making it so that there was no district in Pasco where there was a clear Latino majority, which helped Republican Doc Hastings win a close election the year that redistricting occurred.
In Yakima, the ACLU sued the City of Yakima due to its at-large elections system that makes it more difficult for Latinos to be elected. Yakima’s demographics have changed from being predominantly white to being predominantly Latino. In the case of Yakima, the absence of voting districts via the at-large system allows for the white population to be overrepresented.
According to the ACLU, “In a community as large and diverse as Yakima, the at-large method of electing City Council members drowns out the voice of the Latino community by making it impossible for them to elect representatives of their choice.” A federal judge ruled that the at-large election system violated the voting rights act on August 22, 2014.
Here we see the two ends of the effects of redistricting policies, both of which arrest the civic participation of Latinos in cities where they make up a considerable population.
Barriers to voting
Felipe Rodriguez Flores identified nine barriers to electoral participation by Latino voters in 2014 that are important to name here:
(1) complex and intimidating electoral system, (2) uncompetitive races, (3) cynicism towards politicians, and a complete lack of the following: (4) knowledge or awareness of the electoral process, (5) influence/usefulness of voting, (6) Latino candidates, (7) campaign outreach to Latinos, (8) Spanish-language campaign materials, and (9) civics education.
Maru Mora Villalpando, of Latino Advocacy, LLC mentioned that the primary obstacles were poverty and a lack of education. Flores also identified that there was a distinct lack of institutional resources for the political activities of Latinos in eastern Washington. This combined with the dominance of white supremacy in eastern Washington often expressed through hostility and intimidation at all levels of civic life.
The predominance of white supremacy in rural areas of Washington is not limited to the civilian population. At Community to Community Development in Whatcom county, the organization conducted intakes of its membership on harassment and hostility by law enforcement agencies based upon perceived citizenship status and found that most violations occurred near the workplace, market and on the way to and from home.
These complaints led to a class action civil rights lawsuit against the rural cities of Lynden, Sumas and Blaine for disenfranchising the community from having access to equitable law enforcement.
The result of barriers meant to discourage Latinos from voting, and further from participating in civil life casts a doubt upon the position that my radical friends hold that voting isn’t political and casts serious doubts upon the sincerity of my more mainstream friends in their insistence upon the benevolence of the dominant parties towards Latinos. With either of the two prescribed paths my community, which is powerful and highly democratic, is disenfranchised from being able to fully participate in such quotidian endeavors such as going to work without facing exploitation, without getting pulled over by the police for how they look, to go to the market without getting harassed, to be able to call for an ambulance when they need one, or to have the ability to speak to an elected official that feels accountable to them.
These dominant political parties, and the corporate interests that own them, have gone out of their way to repress certain groups of people’s ability to exercise the right to vote.
A large proportion of the Latino and African American population is being held back from any possibility of voting through their overrepresentation as convicted felons due to racial profiling in law enforcement. Many of the very private interests that seek to limit their ability to vote are the very corporations who own the private prisons they fill.
New immigrant voters are also being disenfranchised pre-emptively through the expansion of the Prison Industry Complex above through the systematic criminalization and detention of undocumented immigrants and refugees. New Americans and immigrant voters have increased by the millions and represent a considerable population.
Voter repression, however, is not limited to non-citizens or felons. Take the recent voter identification requirement established in Texas. This policy, coupled with increased vigilance upon fraud perpetuated by doctors committing fraud in the 1980s in the issuing of birth certificates, has led to a recall of identification such as passports of anyone who holds a birth certificate validated by this doctor, including U.S. citizens who just happened to have been born at that hospital. This extra verification process requires the surrendering of multiple identification materials and testimony, leaving any person having to go through this process without valid identification, thus unable to vote, even if previously registered.
Voting may not be the only pathway, but it is important for us to act in solidarity with our community, to discuss the matters with other people who can’t vote, before deciding whether or not to vote at the very least. There is something happening here when political parties and corporations are going out of their way to keep certain people from voting.
PATHWAYS TO DEMOCRACY IN WASHINGTON STATE
Even with all of the barriers put in place to discourage Latinos from realizing their political capacity as a class, the creativity of our community has come away with a few direct contributions that have shaped true democracy in Washington State.
In the aftermath of the 1970 hops strike at Yakima Chief Ranches, where 15 different hops growers faced a one week strike during a traditionally three week harvest. UFW organizers in Washington, having been routed by growers communicating with California growers, who had come back to engage in an anti-union campaign using the Tri-City Herald and anti-union consultants that helped the company to blacklist striking workers. The UFW trained three organizers, Michael Fox, Guadalupe Gamboa and Roberto Treviño to do house meetings and sent Fred Ross, Jr. with them to support their house meeting campaign.
The result of these house meetings was greater civic engagement on the part of the community. This community organization lasted even after the organizers left in 1977. About ten years later, in 1986-87 the very same hops farmers faced 30 strikes during the harvest and in turn, the growers formed the Washington Growers League to coordinate their crushing response. Shortly after this development, in 1988 the Chateau St. Michelle struggle began because of sexual abuse and harassment at the workplace.
Again, house meetings became a central tool for civic engagement and the strength behind the union where farm workers were able to work out their differences and build unity in struggle against the root of their oppressions at the workplace that extended into their homes. Before winning at the workplace, farmworkers, in particular female farm workers had to win in their homes. House meetings facilitated this by building communities of workers who had once been isolated from each other and pitted against each other by their supervisors.
House meetings were also used in the Skagit Valley to support farm worker organizing at the turn of the 21st century.
But everything changed after the defeat of the WTO in Seattle in 1999 that was shortly followed by the first World Social Forums in Porto Allegre, Brazil from 2001-2003. It was there that the People’s Movement Assembly was brought into the repertoire of Washington state democratic processes.
People’s Movement Assemblies
A PMA is a community gathering where participants develop collective political agreements and positions and make action plans in order to work together. It is a process of direct democracy that was forged by the intersection of multiple traditions, but fine tuned at the World Social Forums and later by the US Social Forum.
It wasn’t until January 2014 that the PMA model could be used as a political tool with farm workers, and later in June 2014 the PMA was used to advance the Immigrant Rights struggles against deportation and the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center. In between there were several PMA’s that attempted to call together a broader audience leading up to the People’s Social Forum in Canada and the Pacific Northwest Social Forum in Portland. Got Green held the most recent PMA on Climate Justice in November 2014.
Each of these PMAs has led to powerful actions by the community engaged. The farmworker community, for example, took the fight for immigration reform to the Sumas border patrol field station, making it necessary for the agents to create relationships with community liaisons if there was to be peace. The same group of mostly Mixteco speaking workers held a three-day strike at a large raspberry farm in Lynden later that spring, securing an increase in their wages and other concessions.
Democratic processes such as the PMA’s strengthen the movements from which they come by creating an avenue through which a community’s collective intelligence can be used to move forward together. Best of all, anyone can do it!
The Tequio and the Transformation of Union Shop floor organizing
In 2013, Familias Unidas por la Justicia was formed in Burlington, Washington by over 500 indigenous Triqui and Mixteco speaking migrant farm workers. Often referred to as drunken, beastly, and illiterate by their supervisors and members of the rural community, this group of farmworkers has also changed the democratic process of union organizing, much like their counterparts along the rest of the Pacific rim.
The Tequio, for example, is the cultural practice of community collaboration to accomplish a task for the public good. The tequio has been traditionally used to erect schools, or hospitals, in communities for the entire community to use. In an unprecedented act of transnational place making in this strike, this cultural practice has become the basis for workplace democracy in particular through the distribution of food and other aid.
Full transparency and face-to-face communication on the berry fields is another tradition that has been deployed. In Oaxaca, your word is your bond. Contracts between people are made face to face. This is one of the reasons that the farmworkers have demanded to meet directly with the Sakuma executives and not with third party mediators. Disrespect for this tradition “uso y costumbre” is also a legitimate cause for offense, which according to documentation of past labor disputes, is something that the Sakuma owners have known about for quite some time, at least 10 years.
As Rosalinda Guillen observed of the unions democratic process, “this is not about money, this is about something much more fundamental, this struggle is about dignity.” It is in this struggle for dignity and against the destruction of the fabric of the community, where we can all reclaim democracy regardless of whether or not you choose to vote.