Graciela Villanueva should have been hosting a victory party on election night, celebrating a successful run for school board in this verdant valley of apples and wine grapes, peaches and hops. She had already been appointed to the spot on the Yakima School District board of directors, which oversees a student body that is nearly three-quarters Latino. She campaigned hard until the very end. She also ran unopposed. Jeni Rice, the only other candidate for Position 1, had dropped out of the race months earlier, although it was too late for her name to be struck from the ballot. Still, 61% of the vote last November went to the woman with the simple Anglo name who hadn’t campaigned. She had agreed that she would not accept the office if elected. Having won, she changed her mind.
Latinos in the Yakima Valley have a long and difficult history when it comes to gaining access to the ballot box and elective office. The population of this county seat in Washington’s agricultural heartland is 41% Latino, and Latinos account for a quarter of all voting-age citizens here. But no one with a Spanish surname has ever been elected to the City Council.
The first federal lawsuit to advocate for the voting rights of the growing Latino minority here was filed in 1968; the most recent federal court fight was decided just a month ago. Villanueva agreed to testify in that suit, Montes vs. City of Yakima, which argued that it is nearly impossible for a Latino to be elected here.
U.S. District Judge Thomas O. Rice ruled against the city in the Montes case, declaring that “Latino voters are inherently disadvantaged by the framework of the current system,” in which all seven of the City Council seats are elected at large, although four of the members are required to live in specified districts.