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Census shows growing Latino population in Eastern Washington

EWU senior Cristina Acosta volunteers on Sunday mornings to teach an informal English class before the Spanish-language Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Spokane. The Yakima Valley native is a Spanish major with a double minor in Chicano Studies and ESL. (J. Bart Rayniak)

When Ana Zaragoza Mandziara moved to the Spokane area last summer, her first impression of her new home was, “Where are all the Mexicans?”

Latino population in Washington does not come close to that of her native California, but her adopted state has seen a 71 percent increase in residents of Hispanic origin since 2000, according to newly released U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Nearly 756,000 Latinos now live in Washington, more than 21,000 of them in Spokane County, accounting for 4.5 percent of the county’s population.

Though most Latinos living in Washington are in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties on the West Side, the most recent census numbers show Hispanic densities by county are becoming more equally distributed between east and west. Two East Side counties, Franklin and Adams, are now majority Hispanic.

Zaragoza Mandziara, 35, who settled in Greenacres with her three children, said she came to the Inland Northwest to be near her parents, who moved to North Idaho 10 years earlier to escape Southern California’s higher cost of living.

Her plan was to have her mom and dad’s love and support while she went through a divorce, then return to California. But she came to embrace Spokane.

“I want to plant my new roots here,” said Zaragoza Mandziara, who works in the office of a plastic surgeon. “I am pleasantly surprised with the diversity, opportunity and growth Spokane has to offer.”

Mike Gonzalez, a television news reporter and president of the Hispanic Business Professional Association of Spokane, said more Hispanics are coming to the Inland Northwest from California, Seattle and central Washington. They are looking for jobs in the service, construction and professional sectors.

Some, he said, were stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base and decided to make Spokane their home.

“I know a Puerto Rican guy who decided to stay after retiring from the Air Force,” Gonzalez said. “He liked what Spokane had to offer. He met his wife here and had no reason to leave.”

Others came to the Spokane area via Eastern Washington University, attracted by its Latino president, Rodolfo Arevalo, and supported by its Chicano education program.

A new generation of Latinos, often the first of their families to go to college, is taking advantage of “opportunities here that are not available where they come from,” said Martin Meraz-Garcia, EWU assistant professor of government.

Meraz-Garcia came to the United States from Mexico at age 12. His mother worked harvesting grapes in the Tri-Cities.

At St. Joseph Catholic Church in north Spokane, the number of people attending Spanish-language Mass on Sunday has increased from a handful 10 years ago to more than 200, said deacon Chalo Martinez.

However, the integration of Hispanics into Inland Northwest culture has not been without bumps along the way, said Dan Valencia, a Hayden businessman and president of the Inland Northwest Latino Chamber of Commerce.

The 40-member organization raises funds for Latino students and is involved in the EWU Hispanic Legacy Fund drive.

Valencia cited recent picketing by white supremacists at North Idaho taco stands, and said his chamber is cooperating with the Human Rights Education Institute to promote ethnic harmony.

Greg Cunningham, director of refugee and immigration services for Catholic Charities of Spokane, said the Hispanic migration to the Inland Northwest is a relatively recent phenomenon mirroring the rest of the nation.

It is driven by socioeconomic and political forces.

Immigration reform in 1986 provided legal residency and a path to citizenship for nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants, including agricultural workers in Washington state. Their children and grandchildren are now seeking better job opportunities in urban areas.

After further reform in 1996 tightened border enforcement, many Mexican nationals who once traveled back and forth chose to stay in the U.S. and send money back to their families in Mexico. They needed year-round jobs, and it was no longer necessary to confine their search for employment to the American Southwest, Cunningham said.

Hispanic growth in Spokane may be limited by the region’s economy, said Annabel Kirschner, a professor in the Washington State University Department of Community and Rural Sociology. Other urban areas, such as Seattle and the Tri-Cities, have weathered the recession much better than Spokane and are more likely to attract immigrants or their children from central Washington, she said.

Still, Kirschner said three factors are contributing to the increasing diversity in the Spokane area: immigration, age and birth rate.

According to 2000 data collected by the Washington Office of Financial Management, more than 45 percent of the state’s Latinos were foreign-born.

“Most immigrants are young adults, and young adults are the ones most likely to have children,” Kirschner said.

The average number of children a Hispanic woman will have in her lifetime, known as the total fertility rate, is 2.8, higher than that of any other ethnic group.

As fast as the Hispanic population is increasing statewide, it is growing even faster in the state’s schools. About 15 percent of students in kindergarten through 12th grade are Hispanic.

In Spokane Public Schools, Latino students have increased 91 percent since the 1993-’94 school year, said Phil Koestner, English language development coordinator.

Yet the number of students who list Spanish as their primary language has not skyrocketed.

Studies have shown that more than 95 percent of first-generation Mexican-Americans are proficient in English. By the second generation, more than half do not speak Spanish.

In fact, Spanish trails Russian and Marshallese in languages other than English spoken in the homes of Spokane public school students, Koestner said.

But despite demonstrating English-language proficiency, fewer than half of Latino students enroll in college, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. Hispanic students received only about 5 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in Washington in 2009.

Such numbers concern Uriel Iniguez, executive director of the Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

“We can turn into a Third World nation very quickly if we don’t start educating our ethnic youth,” Iniguez said.

If Latino children are to move out of the agricultural sector and into other jobs, the state must ensure they have equal access to education, he said.

“After all, they are going to be the major work force in the future,” Iniguez said. “We have to pay attention to them.”

AreaResidents Pct. of populationIncrease
Washington 755,790 11.2 percent 71.2 percent
Spokane County 21,260 4.5 percent 83.9 percent
City of Spokane 10,467 5 percent 78.7 percent
Spokane Public Schools 10,867 4.9 percent 76.8 percent

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