On a hot June day in 2015, 25-year-old Dulce Gutiérrez walks down a street in east Yakima, pulling a red wagon. As she makes her way, she attracts more than a few stares. People in her neighborhood don’t walk on the streets, especially young women on their own. And they definitely wouldn’t be caught pulling a red wagon like a kid.
The wagon is piled high with bottled water, paper, pamphlets, yard signs and T-shirts. It may look silly, but Gutiérrez, ’14, doesn’t mind the attention. People stop to ask if she’s selling paletas (popsicles). They haven’t read the orange-and-green signs, which read, “Dulce Gutiérrez for Yakima City Council, District 1.” Gutiérrez is going door to door to ask for their vote, something many District 1 residents had never been asked before. They don’t realize that Gutiérrez is campaigning to become the first person of Latino heritage elected to the City Council in Yakima’s 129-year history.
On Nov. 3, 2015, Dulce Gutiérrez indeed made history when she took 84.7 percent of the vote in the race for Yakima City Council, District 1. Two other Latinas, Carmen Mendez and Avina Gutiérrez (no relation), were also victorious that day. Overnight, this Central Washington city of 91,000—where Latinos make up 41 percent of the population—went from having never elected a Latino to seeing Latinos hold three of the council’s seven seats. Yakima’s Latinos had never elected someone who looked like or had the same background as them.
How Yakima made this stunning change has its roots in the region’s complex history. With an economy dominated by agriculture, the area depends on the labor of Latino farmworkers and has seen a massive influx of immigrants over the years. Between 1990 and 2010, Yakima’s Latino population quadrupled; Latinos came to make up half of Yakima County.
While the region’s demographics have evolved over the years, in many ways its politics have not. Gov. Jay Inslee, ’73, began his career in Selah, a town just north of Yakima, first as a prosecutor, then as a congressman representing Central Washington. He recalls how Latinos had little role in the area’s politics. “It was very difficult to break into the existing political structure,” Inslee recalls. “This is an ongoing challenge for people of color in a lot of communities. … Political representation has not kept pace with the changing population.”
In Yakima, chances for Latinos were stymied again and again. For example, Graciela Villanueva, recruiting director for the Yakima Valley Farm Worker Clinic, was appointed to Yakima School Board in 2011. She lost her 2013 election to a woman with an Anglo name who had dropped out of the race months earlier. Family law attorney Sonia Rodriguez True was appointed to the City Council in 2008. When the seat was up for election the next year, voters chose a conservative talk show host with a history of driving under the influence.
There are many reasons why it’s been so difficult for Latinos to get elected in Yakima, but central to the problem was the way elections were structured. Before 2015, City Council members were elected by citywide ballot instead of districts. With this system, Yakima’s white population outnumbered the Latino population on Election Day, and the status quo was preserved.
That diluted the voting power of Yakima’s Latino community, and as a result, 41 percent of Yakima might not have felt represented. To change this, community activists looked to a hallmark of civil rights change, the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Citing Section 2 of that historic law, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city in 2012 on behalf of two Yakima residents—Rogelio Montes, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011, and Mateo Arteaga, a university administrator and lifetime Yakima resident. U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice ruled in favor of the ACLU on the grounds that Yakima’s voting system “suffocates” the interests of the Latino community. The City Council, under its old guard, appealed time and time again, racking up $3 million in penalties and legal fees. In February 2015, Judge Rice ordered the city to elect its City Council with seven districts, two of which were majority Latino.
What’s happened in Yakima is a bellwether for all of Eastern Washington. The ACLU has sued Pasco, which is 54 percent Latino and has never chosen a Latino in a contested election. Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins says, “Pasco learned from Yakima. No one wants a $3 million lawsuit.” The Pasco City Council has signed a consent decree to find a solution and cooperate with the ACLU. Wenatchee likewise has never elected a Latino in a contested election; Latinos make up 30 percent of its population. The Wenatchee City Council is taking steps to get ahead of the issue and has unanimously approved district voting in an informal vote. A formal vote will follow in January. Wenatchee officials are considering options for their district system, including how to create a Latino-majority district.
“From Canada to Oregon, you’re looking at cities up and down that stretch that are going to be models for what democracy should look like going forward,” says E.J. Juarez, ’13, executive director of Amplify, a Seattle-based organization that works to elect progressive candidates to state and local office. “This is not a matter of taking over, it’s not a matter of identity politics—it’s about making a democracy that works and that is truly representative.”
In April 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on a Texas voting rights case that nullified the final appeal in the Yakima case and others like it. Change has come to Eastern Washington, and it’s here to stay.
Dulce Gutiérrez is now 27, and when you meet her, it’s easy to forget how young she is. While many of her peers are still finding their footing in adulthood, Gutiérrez often has her head in a binder full of cost projections for concrete, light fixtures and the like. On a sunny day in July, she’s getting ready for a big City Council vote on a controversial downtown plaza. This project captures the dynamic between the old guard and the new guard: The city’s business interests want the city to put up $7 million for the plaza. Others wonder why the city should spend so much on a plaza when kids in Gutiérrez’s district are walking home in the dark without streetlights.
Gutiérrez knows all eyes are on her and Yakima’s other new council members. Four women under 40 were elected that day—the three Latinas plus newcomer Holly Cousens—and together, they make up a progressive majority on the City Council. Gutiérrez is careful to avoid all expectations people might have because of her gender or her age. “I had to change a lot of things, like how I dress,” she says. “I don’t go out and drink, I don’t go out and dance. … I don’t want to feed into the stereotype that maybe a young person isn’t a good fit in this job.”
The only time Gutiérrez betrays her youth is when she talks about an issue that really animates her—like the plaza. Her composed demeanor gives way to youthful exuberance, as her voice rises and her eyes widen with emotion. It’s obvious she’s not here because of the status of being a city leader; she’s here because she has work to do for her neighborhood.
Gutiérrez was born and raised in east Yakima, and her story isn’t that different from many in District 1. Her parents both crossed the Mexican border in the early ’70s and met in Yakima. Her dad wasn’t in her life growing up, so Gutiérrez was raised in a single-parent household with her older brother and sister. Her mom picked fruit in the fields until she was injured, so she decided to open her own day care to support her family. She would later go on to become a U.S. citizen. “I remember her crying when she got her citizenship,” Gutiérrez says. “She had a feeling of belonging and a freedom from fear of being deported.” Deportation was something her family was all too familiar with. When Gutiérrez’s brother was a baby, her mom was deported and forced to leave him behind with friends from church. Gutiérrez’s mom made it back to her brother after a few weeks, but the experience was still excruciating.
“From Canada to Oregon, you’re looking at cities up and down that stretch that are going to be models for what democracy should look like going forward.”
E.J. Juarez, ’13, executive director of Amplify
Gutiérrez was largely insulated from the differences between her community and the rest of Yakima—wealthier parts of town where people were predominantly white, going to college was an expectation and families had two parents, not one. In kindergarten and first grade, she found herself segregated in a class with Spanish-speaking students. They were forced to speak English and told to assimilate. The next year, she was put into classes with Anglo students but punished if she spoke Spanish.
One experience in third grade gave Gutiérrez her first lesson in cultural pride, thanks to her brother. “The teachers didn’t let me go to recess because I was speaking Spanish to a girl who didn’t know English. I was just trying to tell her what we were supposed to be doing in Spanish because that’s what she speaks. My brother wrote a long letter for me to give to that teacher,” she remembers with a smile. “He told me to put it on the front of my binder and when the teacher punishes you for speaking Spanish again, show her the letter. The letter literally started ‘For the last 500 years …’ and went from there. I didn’t understand what he was talking about—colonization, oppression, identity—but I never got punished for speaking Spanish again.”
Gutiérrez’s brother, who is nearly 11 years older, continued to serve as a source of inspiration. He became the first in the family to go to college when he entered Washington State University. Gutiérrez visited him for a week, and that opened her eyes to a future outside of Yakima. With the help of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Achievers Scholarship, she had her pick of Washington colleges after she graduated from high school. “I was ready to go to WSU since I had been there, but my brother was the one who convinced me to go UW,” Gutiérrez says. “He said, ‘You already know what WSU is like, why don’t you go check out UW so we can have different experiences in our family.’” Following her brother’s advice, she packed her bags for Seattle. She didn’t know it at the time, but that event would set the stage for her groundbreaking Yakima victory seven years later.
When Gutiérrez first walked on to the UW campus, she scanned the area for someone like her. She had never been around many people of different races, cultures and economic backgrounds. “I didn’t feel like a minority until I went to college,” Gutiérrez says. “I went from living with mostly Latino people to mostly white people. I felt weird a lot—out of place, awkward, socially different.”
She became good friends with her roommate, who was white and also grew up struggling, with a broken family. Like Gutiérrez, she was lucky to be in college. Still, Gutiérrez felt the difference between herself and many of her peers. While many students went home to relax for the summer, she went back to Eastern Washington to pack cherries for 10 to 12 hours a day. It was her first experience living in two different worlds, a balancing act that would repeat itself in years to come.
In her sophomore year, she began spending time at the Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, where she learned about MEChA, the Mexican-American student organization. She joined MEChA, organized the national MEChA conference taking place on campus and lobbied for the preservation of a Chicano mural on campus, the first documented Chicano art in the Northwest. A career in activism was ignited.
In 2010, the Black Student Union asked MEChA to join an effort to establish a diversity requirement for the university. That requirement would ensure that courses focusing on the sociocultural, political and economic diversity of society were a part of every student’s education. Like Gutiérrez, many students come to the university from areas where they only saw people like themselves. This requirement would help prepare all students for an increasingly multicultural world. The Black Student Union, MEChA and other student groups formed the Student Diversity Council to lead the fight for the diversity requirement.
Student organizations had tried and failed to get a diversity requirement established many times before. Sheila Edwards Lange, ’00, ’06, who was then the UW’s vice president of Minority Affairs and Diversity, explains: “Typically in higher education, a student group will come in and they have their issue. It may last a year, but if the leadership isn’t consistent, it won’t be a priority for the next year. The Student Diversity Council kept it on the agenda for three years, which is so unusual.”
The grassroots, student-led movement relied on key leaders like Gutiérrez to keep up the momentum year to year. This coalition needed support from an assorted group of decision-makers and influencers, including the Diversity Council, the Faculty Council on Academic Standards, the ASUW, and ultimately the Faculty Senate, many of whom were hesitant about implementing this change for a variety of reasons. Edwards Lange describes their strategy: “They identified stakeholders, they identified where they thought they were going to get opposition, they talked to them in the language they value, which is research and data, not necessarily social justice. Even with that, it still took three years.”
“I started believing in my ability to make change. I started feeling more empowered and more confident in standing up for those who were vulnerable.”
Dulce Gutiérrez, '14
In 2013, the Faculty Senate finally passed a three-credit diversity requirement. More than 100 students, faculty members and supporters celebrated in Red Square, joining hands to form a circle. Members of some of the different student organizations performed as part of a community showcase.
Edwards Lange, who left the UW last year to become president of Seattle Central College, got to know Gutiérrez when she was on the vice president’s Student Advisory Board, made up of representatives from underrepresented student groups. She witnessed Gutiérrez’s leadership style evolve and become more collaborative. “Her strength of conviction never changed, but the way she went about the work changed,” Edwards Lange says. “At the end, she wasn’t as militant, it was more about, ‘How can I partner with you to get things done?’”
“I worked with a lot of different people from different backgrounds and I learned to come together with people based on how different we are,” Gutiérrez says. “Those are all things I learned because I got out of Yakima. I learned that the passion for social justice can be found anywhere. When I moved back to Yakima, I had a different outlook and I thought different of people who weren’t like me… It didn’t ever occur to me before that we could work together to improve our neighborhood. I learned what others receive and what they reject. I’m able to understand better where people are coming from now.”
Gutiérrez graduated with her B.A. in American Ethnic Studies in 2014. While she always knew she would return to Yakima, she now knew she wanted to work to improve people’s lives. She credits this transformation to her time at UW. “I realized I’m good at organizing. I started believing in my ability to make change,” she recalls. “I started feeling more and more empowered and more confident in standing up for those who were vulnerable. I learned about social justice and service for others above self at UW.”
Yakima’s District 1, in the city’s northeast corner, is the smallest and densest of the seven districts. Migrant farmworkers stayed and transitioned to work in food-processing plants run by companies like Del Monte, populating the neighborhood and its low-income housing. The district is more than 75 percent Latino—full of hardworking people looking for the American Dream but still struggling to survive. A former meth house and burned-down shed sit next to one popular park; around the corner, you’ll find an open pit used as a dump. The woman who runs a local community center is frustrated about the lack of police response to her calls. The lights in the parking lots are broken, and drug paraphernalia is strewn near the center’s back door. There was once a swimming pool for kids to keep cool in the 100-degree summer heat, but it was shut down in 2005. There’s talk of building a new pool in the city, but it won’t be in District 1. “When I was 5, I was walking to school with no sidewalks,” Gutiérrez explains. “Twenty years later, these same streets don’t have sidewalks. Twenty years have passed by, and no improvements have been made to this side of town.”
After Judge Rice’s milestone ruling that created District 1 in 2015, Gutiérrez was thrilled that District 1 would finally have a voice in government. She talked to people she hoped would run for the new City Council seat—she planned to help out with their campaign—only to find those same people encouraged her to run. More than anything, Gutiérrez wanted District 1 to have the representation it deserved, and she knew she had the passion and conviction to represent it faithfully. She became the first person to announce candidacy for City Council that year.
When Gutiérrez began going door to door, little red wagon in tow, the reaction she got at the door varied. Some cheered her on—they loved seeing a woman from the neighborhood or someone their kid went to school with—but others lashed out. They blamed Mexicans for the lawsuit or accused her of forcing them to vote for one of her own. Gutiérrez bit her tongue when racist or sexist slurs were hurled at her and focused on what they had in common.
“The biggest thing was to not pay attention to their words, but to hear what they’re trying to say,” she says. “Even though they were being derogatory, I was trying to pay attention to their frustrations. And then I’d relate to their frustration. I’d say: ‘I’m also frustrated. We’ve never had someone in our neighborhood represent us. By having someone represent us from our neighborhood—whether they’re white, black, Native, or Mexican—we’re all in a much better position to get the things we need in our neighborhood.’”
One experience defines the harsh challenges of campaigning in District 1. Gutiérrez and her volunteers met at the park one evening to go canvassing. As she handed out clipboards with the lists of voters they would try to talk to that night, they heard a scuffle. A group of homeless people was huddled on the other side of the park, their raised voices breaking the quiet of the evening. It wasn’t out of the ordinary, so Gutiérrez and her volunteers went on their way.
When they returned three hours later, the argument had escalated to pushing and shoving. Gutiérrez and her volunteers had their seat belts on and were ready to leave when they realized something out of the ordinary was going on; women were getting involved and were even getting hit. Suddenly, one of the men fell and everybody scattered as the homeless men and women grabbed their shopping carts and belongings and ran. Other people at the park, who have grown to become distrustful of the police, sensed there was trouble and left, too. Gutiérrez had seen plenty of fights, so she waited for the fallen man to get up and shake it off, but he never moved. So she drove over to help. When she finally got to him and lifted up his head, she saw blood pouring out of his chest. He had been stabbed, and Gutiérrez held him as he died.
Gutiérrez was able to help the police catch the culprit by identifying the killer and turning over video she took—but that experience sent her into a deep depression and she took time off from her campaign. That memory shakes her to this day; she doesn’t like to talk about it. “I sacrificed a lot. I put myself in a lot of vulnerable positions. My volunteers saw things they never should have seen,” she says. “It’s so real when you campaign in an area like this. I don’t wish that on anybody, but I also know that because of that experience I have a different degree of compassion for our side of town and for homeless people. You can’t serve this side of town if you don’t have tough skin.”
Gutiérrez sits at a long dais beside her fellow council members in front of 200 people. The day has come for them to vote on the plaza, and everyone is restless and tense. The original proposal in 2013 had the plaza costing $14 million, with the city picking up half the tab. The city has been going back and forth about the structure for three years. Gutiérrez campaigned opposing the plaza, but she’s been working with “old guard” council member Kathy Coffey to reduce the amount the city is being asked to pay from $7 million to $3 million.
The project could be sunk if Gutiérrez doesn’t relent, but she’s not budging. This debate is testing her ability to stick to with what she believes despite pressure. Private donors and business interests were now being asked to pay an additional $2 million under the Gutiérrez-Coffey plan. But so far, fundraisers had only managed to secure $5 million.
“Enough already,” says Dana Dwinell, her voice shaking. Dwinell, a Yakima business owner, is part of the Yakima Central Plaza Committee, which represents the individuals and businesses contributing to the plaza. Visibly angry, her gaze directed at Gutiérrez, Dwinell tells the council that the committee will raise whatever amount the council decides. In this game of chicken, Yakima’s wealthy and business interests flinched first. They had always held the power, and now the tables were turned.
As she walks away after the meeting, Gutiérrez knows she’ll get heat for voting for a plaza she previously opposed. But she’s thinking about the long game, just like she did at UW. If she can help the city stay fiscally responsible and show that she can work with her peers while staying firm with her priorities, she’ll be able to lay the foundation for getting the improvements her district needs.
If you listen to Mike Faulk, former political reporter with the Yakima Herald-Republic, Gutiérrez’s strategy might be working. “Based on my discussions with other council members, I think Dulce is quietly becoming one of the more respected young members of the council,” Faulk says. “She certainly has an agenda that not everyone agrees with, but I think people recognize her as someone who is dedicated to public service rather than worried about her next election.”
She’s being watched across the state as well. Gutiérrez and the other two new Latina City Council members were invited to a fundraiser for Inslee with President Obama, where they were recognized on stage with a standing ovation. Inslee’s admiration extends to Gutiérrez personally. “She is smart, energetic and very dedicated to making her community a stronger, more inclusive place,” he says. “She is a great role model, and I know that she will have an impact on Yakima and on Washington state for many years to come.”
There’s another reason why Gutiérrez and her colleagues are having an impact. Seattle recently instituted its own elections change, moving from citywide elections to a combination of citywide and district elections. But state law mandates that the majority of Washington cities, classified as “non-charter code cities,” must hold city-wide elections. Cities like Pasco and Wenatchee are limited in what they can do to correct unfair election systems.
Legislation called the Washington Voting Rights Act changes this, enabling residents and governments to fix their own elections systems. It has gotten broad-based support, but in 2016, for the fourth straight year, the Washington Voting Rights Act failed to become law, as Republicans who control the state Senate didn’t allow it be debated or voted on.
Gutiérrez and her colleagues support the Washington Voting Rights Act. She wants to see more neighborhoods like hers represented in their own governments. She has traveled to Olympia to show support, but she knows the best way for her to advocate for change is by doing her job well. “I try to be a living example of how a person can go from believing they’re excluded from the system to using the tools of the system to improve their own lives and life for others,” she explains.
Gutiérrez’s vision for Yakima goes beyond improving infrastructure for her district. “I hope that we can begin prioritizing quality of life over profit,” she says. “You have people that work really hard all their lives and still live in poverty. And that is so far from what I want for our community here.
“I’m one of five council members in the Yakima Valley area who are the children of immigrants,” she continues. “We’re part of a bigger cohort of millennials who are in the process of changing the social and economic environment here. We have been operating under a government that ignores huge problems that affect everyone—not just immigrants and poor people. My ultimate dream for the city of Yakima is that we’ll catch up to our demographics.”
At that same City Council meeting, the council passes a program Gutiérrez created. It places disadvantaged high school students in paid internships and mentorships in City Hall, pairing a student with a council member. Giving support and hope to students like herself—this is what really excites her. When it passes, for the first time that evening a smile breaks out on her face.