Washington historical overview
The first Pacific Northwest settlers of Latin American origin arrived in the late 1700s in response to European explorers’ claims to the area. In 1774, two years before the United States declared its independence from Britain, Spain laid claim to lands in the Pacific Northwest. Juan Perez, a Spanish captain, was the first explorer of Latin American origin to sail along the coast of what is now Washington
State. At that time, New Spain (present-day Mexico) served as the launching point for Spanish expeditions to what is now the United States of America. Subsequently, Captain Perez conducted four expeditions in the latter part of the eighteenth century to the coast of Washington with crew members of Mexican descent. As a result, in the 1790s, two settlements of mostly Mexicans were established along the Washington coast. These settlements, at Neah Bay and Vancouver Island, became the first non-Native American settlements in Washington, setting the stage for a 200-year legacy of cultural traditions and practices of peoples from primarily Spanish and Mexican origins. The names of historic landmasses, such as the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, and Rosario Straits, are examples of the early Latino presence in the Pacific Northwest.1
During the nineteenth century, the majority of people of Latin American descent who arrived in Washington came from Mexico. However, Chileans and other Latin Americans also arrived in the area. These Latinos from various homelands came to Washington to work as miners, ranch cattlemen, and laborers in the fields of the state’s steadily growing agricultural industry. The early 1920s and the years following World War II saw the greatest influx of people from Latin America to Washington. This migration, mainly of Mexicans from Mexico to Washington, served as the foundation for the Latino presence in the state. In the earlier days of migrant settlement, individuals and their families lived in the rural areas of the state, close to their mining and agricultural work. This has not changed significantly over the decades. However, the 1970s did see the Latin American population moving to more urban areas, such as Seattle. Today the Latin American population is the largest minority population in Washington State. Despite this they still have a low socioeconomic status in the state and have not been able to secure recognition as elected community leaders or in political offices.2
The cultural ambiance of Latin American communities in Washington has been highly influenced by peoples from Mexico and the Chicano Movement of the 1970s. Many of the towns in central and eastern Washington, including Wapato, Toppenish, Mabton, Granger, Sunnyside, and Spokane, have tiendas (stores) offering items from Mexico, such as religious icons and novellas (short stories). Panaderias (bakeries) and Mexican restaurants abound. Spanish-speaking radio stations broadcast throughout the region. Institutions such as the University of Washington in Seattle and Evergreen State College in Olympia serve as cultural hubs for Latin American artists, poets, and musicians.