Special Reports

Hispanics came for work, stayed to build futures

The history of non-Indians in the Pacific Northwest is rich with Spanish explorers, fishers, cowboys and others.

"We've been coming up here for a lot longer than most people realize," said Pedro Perez, who moved to Bellingham from California's Central Valley with his wife in 1986.

The modern history of the local Hispanic community starts around World War I, when the Utah and Idaho Sugar Co. started recruiting Hispanic sugar-beet farmers and farm workers to move to the Bellingham area from Idaho, said Erasmo Gamboa, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington.

The farmers provided beets for a refinery that operated in the area into the 1930s, when a blight hit the beet crop. Beet cultivation and the factory then moved to Eastern Washington.

Washington farmers started large-scale recruitment of Mexican contract farm workers during World War II, when many other workers were siphoned off to other sectors, and Grand Coulee Dam brought cheap hydroelectric power and expanded irrigation. That particularly affected Eastern Washington, although many of the workers came over the mountains for jobs at least part of the year.

Gamboa's father moved to Eastern Washington in the 1940s. He visited the Burlington and Bellingham area soon after to check out reports of farm jobs, but didn't stay.

"He always told us that he didn't like the area, the rain, the cold," Gamboa said. "He said it got into one's bones and body."

Railroads also contracted Mexicans to work on lines from 1943 to 1946. The workers lived in camps from Seattle to Bellingham.

Whatcom County farms still bring in some migrant workers, but more workers stay year-round. And more Hispanics have come to the area for other reasons.

In Whatcom County, they find a place more like what they're accustomed to, said Becky Diaz, a former president of Whatcom Hispanic Organization and former member of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

"It's a smaller community, slower pace," she said.

Perez, the son of migrant farm workers, had a path to Bellingham similar to Californians of all colors.

"I didn't want to stay in California," he said. "Bellingham had the amenities that we were looking for: small, college town, outdoorsy."

There wasn't much of a Mexican community here when Perez arrived in 1986.

Within three years, he said, 10 Mexican restaurants popped up. In the past 30 years, Bellingham's Hispanic population has more than tripled as a percentage of the total population. Perez thinks the true number is twice that because of undercounting.

Hispanics here are not concentrated in one neighborhood and often work in less-visible service and trucking jobs. Many have moved into the professional ranks. Perez, who now lives in Mount Vernon, is an account executive at Comcast.