Making history in Monroe

MONROE — The funeral of a young Latino man last spring opened the eyes of Margie S. Rodriguez.

The 19-year-old’s body was found in the Skykomish River in May. Rodriguez, then an assistant principal at Monroe High School, reached out to the family. Looking around the room at the funeral, she was surprised at the number of Hispanic and Latino faces.

Rodriguez, who is Hispanic, felt for those people. Like them, her parents struggled and sacrificed to help her achieve her goals. Her father would drive from Texas into Mexico to buy cheap beans and flour. Her mother would make flour tortillas and use bean and flour bags to make pillowcases.

“I can understand their culture because I lived their lives,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez has now made history in Monroe.

When she was sworn in on Jan. 2, Rodriguez became the first Hispanic elected to the Monroe City Council and quite possibly the first to serve on any council in the Skykomish Valley.

Rodriguez, now assistant principal at Frank Wagner Elementary School, is bringing her passion to serve youth and help the community accept and appreciate differences among people. She aims to represent the entire community of 16,000 people regardless of people’s ethnicity and race.

“It’s not about you being a Latino or you being a Caucasian,” Rodriguez, 52, said. “It is about Monroe.”

City councilmen Geoffrey Thomas and Mitch Ruth said that Rodriguez’s cultural background and language skills could help the city reach out to a part of the community that has been voiceless.

“In a democracy, it’s important to represent everybody in the community,” Thomas said. “It’s important to have different backgrounds on the council. I think she will be an asset.”

Rodriguez ousted former City Councilman Chad Minnick in the last year’s election. Her victory reflects the community’s maturity because people saw her as a qualified candidate beyond her ethnicity or gender, Ruth said.

Ruth has lived in Monroe since the late 1970s. Back then, someone like Rodriguez wouldn’t be able to get elected to the council, Ruth said. Most Hispanic and Latino people used to work at farms and restaurants.

“The town was very conservative and a men’s world at that time,” he said.

In 1990, the city had 156 people of Hispanic origin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That was about 4 percent of the city’s population, 4,041.

During the next decade, the city’s population grew to 13,795, according to the latest statistics available for Monroe. About 1,330 people of Hispanic origin lived in the city in 2000. That’s about 10 percent of the entire population. The Census Bureau reports on changing demographics of many larger cities each year, but not Monroe.

The city now has a few bilingual employees and distributes utility bills and other information in English and Spanish, city officials said. A new YMCA center that opened in 2007 also informs people of activities in the two languages.

Hispanic and Latino people are more involved in community activities than they were 30 years ago, Ruth said.

“They come here for options and opportunities,” Ruth said.

Rodriguez is the seventh woman to serve on the council since Monroe became a city in 1902, according to city clerk Betty King. She is the only woman on the current council.

Mayor Donnetta Walser, a former teacher in Monroe, also served on the council for about a decade before running for mayor. (The mayor is elected separate from the council.)

“To me, the fact that (Rodriguez) is a woman and she is an ethnic minority has little to do with it,” Walser said. “She is highly respected in the education community.”

In addition to working full time at the elementary school, Rodriguez said she teaches multicultural courses on Saturdays for teachers working on their master’s degree. She also attends four council meetings per month and meets with a community group to promote a downtown revitalization.

“It’s a multicultural community that’s represented in downtown,” she said.

She also finds time to spend with her daughter Valerie Conley of Mount Vernon and her son Robert Carlock of El Paso, Texas.

Rodriguez said she took her work ethic from her parents, Alfonso and Julia A. Solis, who raised seven children in a two-bedroom cinderblock house in El Paso.

“I hardly ever saw them buy things for themselves,” Rodriguez said.

Her mother worked long hours at a local store; her father drove a truck transporting farm produce between Texas and California, Rodriguez said.

“I learned what it means to work hard and sacrifice and to be diligent about a dream that you may have,” she said.

At high school, Rodriguez met Stella Adams, a business teacher who decorated her classroom well and always welcomed questions from her students. Adams inspired her to be a teacher, Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez moved from Texas to Mount Vernon in 1997 with her former husband. She spent seven years teaching at Mount Vernon High School before becoming an assistant principal at Monroe High School in 2004.

In Monroe, Rodriguez noticed the lack of shelters and other services for high-risk teens. In early 2007, she was trying to help two teens who were having difficult times at school. But Cocoon House, a youth shelter in Everett, was often full, and the teens found it difficult to find transportation to get there.

If she became a decision-maker in Monroe, Rodriguez thought that she could help the city add more services for troubled youth.

Around the same time, she attended the funeral for Miguel C. Carrillo, 19. The Snohomish County medical examiner was unable to determine the exact circumstances of Carrillo’s death.

Last spring, Rodriguez decided to run for the council to make a difference for children and to reach out to minorities. During her campaign, she learned about many issues that affect everyone in Monroe, including clogged roads and a new shopping center along N. Kelsey Street.

She expects Monroe to grow into a regional hub where people shop and enjoy various activities, Rodriguez said. She’s learning how the City Council functions to serve people in Monroe.

“My reason for doing this is that I care about the community,” she said.

New council member in Monroe

Name: Margie S. Rodriguez

Age: 52

Occupation: assistant principal at Frank Wagner Elementary School

Hometown: El Paso, Texas

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