Hispanic group sees education need in Yakima area

GRANGER — A national Hispanic rights group has set up shop in central Washington’s Yakima Valley, after discovering that many residents lacked a basic understanding of city government.

Residents of this rural farm town south of Yakima have raised concerns for months about what they say are overcharged water bills, police who didn’t respond to calls and city officials who didn’t answer complaints. Hispanics account for more than 85 percent of the Granger population, and about 40 percent of the population in Yakima County.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, a Washington, D.C.-based group, hopes to educate residents about local government and motivate the Hispanic community to vote. The group is planning classes and meetings to teach people about the structure of city government, what information they have a right to access and how to participate in city council meetings.

“It is so very clear to us that the Yakima Valley is in dire need of education,” said Maria Salazar of Vancouver, Wash., the group’s Northwest vice president. “What info do they have a right to have? Where to go to get it? Who do they call if they’re not getting info?”

Formed in 1929 in Corpus Christi, Texas, the nonprofit group has more than 700 chapters nationwide. It counts among its successes a lawsuit to force California’s Orange County school system to integrate in 1945. Nine years later, it says it forced the state of Texas to halt its exclusion of Mexican-Americans on juries.

The city of Pasco, in south-central Washington’s Tri-Cities, recently started a chapter as well, but it’s too early to gauge its effect, said Ricardo Rico, the group’s state representative.

Among other efforts, the chapter is working to mobilize Hispanic residents to vote. Volunteers plan seminars to teach residents how to register to vote and where to cast ballots, he said.

Salazar, who holds an unpaid volunteer position with the organization, said having the office in Granger will be part of a larger project to educate and motivate Hispanics throughout Yakima County to vote in the presidential election.

“We need to let them know how much power their vote has,” she said, noting that the Hispanic community is the largest voting bloc in the county, but has the least participation.

Already, some change has come to Granger. In January, residents elected Ramona Fonseca mayor over a longtime incumbent. Police Chief Robert Perales was placed on leave a short time later.

Maria Gonzalez, a Granger resident, said there are many residents who want to get involved, but lack understanding.

“There are a lot of people that go to City Council meetings, and they’ll go but they don’t understand city agendas and what’s going on,” she said. “I was one of them.”

Fonseca, who campaigned on increasing access to government, said she’s confident residents will become more involved once they have a better understanding.

“That’s a big part of it,” she said. “Civic participation is a big part of every community.”

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