A Tiny Town In Idaho Welcomes The State's First All-Latino City Council
Ismael Fernandez is about as polished as his black leather shoes. His hair is neatly trimmed and combed to the side. He moves his hands when he speaks, purposefully punctuating his points. And he says things like this: "There needs to be change in Wilder, and just in politics in general. We need to have younger people coming in, so that's why I decided to run."
Fernandez is not your typical 19-year-old.
He's a freshman at the College of Idaho, studying Spanish and history, and he is one of youngest elected politicians in Idaho history.
In November, Fernandez was elected to sit on the City Council of his hometown, Wilder, Idaho. He was one of four Latinos elected, making Wilder, with its roughly 1,500 citizens, the first city in the state of Idaho to elect an all-Latino city council. In the same election, it even elected a Latina mayor to boot. They were all sworn in mid-January.
"I'm very excited and very proud to be part of that," Fernandez said on a gray November winter day. "The Latino generation that I'm part of, we're kind of activists and all about empowerment and I think it's very empowering to the Latino community."
Fernandez is giving me an unofficial walking tour of Wilder, from First Street to Fifth Street, Avenue A to Avenue D. He kicks loose the gravel underfoot as he points out stops along the way: the double-wide trailer that serves as the city's library; Rosa's and Alejandra's Mexican restaurants; the new elementary school.
The tour takes about 20 minutes; there's not much to see. "You don't have to give out addresses in Wilder," Fernandez says. "If somebody wants to find you, they already know where you live."
The town is especially quiet this time of year. It's a farming town, bordered by fields of tall wooden poles that in the spring are covered in green hops, giving the town a skunky smell. Wilder sits in the state's Treasure Valley, near the Idaho-Oregon border. It's one of the biggest hop production areas in the country.
Those hops bring immigrant workers to the area; some of whom decide to stay.
"My family started out as migrant workers out of Missouri," says the city's outgoing mayor, John Bechtel. "We came here for the crops."
We run into Bechtel at City Hall, a white brick building that serves not only as the mayor's office but also the council chambers and police station. Historic pictures of the town are framed along one wall, in black and white and sepia. Much of it looks the same today.
Bechtel has been involved with city government here in Wilder for more than 30 years, most of them as mayor. He has watched the city change along with the demographics of immigrant labor, from mostly families of European descent like his to families with Mexican and Central American ancestry.
Today, more than 75 percent of Wilder is Latino or Hispanic. And Bechtel has tried to change with the times.
"Any new Hispanic family in town, I'd introduce myself as 'Juan Pelon,' which means John Bald," he says, gesturing to his bald head. "Once you break the ice, you got a new friend. My philosophy is Will Rogers: A stranger is only a friend I've never met."
Bechtel says he has long advocated for the demographics of the city's leadership to change with the times.
"I've told people for years, if the Hispanic community will just pull together, you could control any office in the city — school board, City Council, whatever," he says.
This November, residents of Wilder took that to heart, filling the town's City Council and mayor's office with Latinos. Bechtel calls it a historic moment that he is proud to be a part of. And one that he hopes will have a wide-ranging effect.
He's not alone in that.
The 'Little House On The Prairie' Is Changing, Fast
Latino advocates in Idaho and across the country hope what's happening in Wilder can be a model for other rural, agriculture-heavy towns, where majority-Latino populations are pushing for a more representative government.
"I think that now that they can actually see a community that's done it, they're going to start to really begin to be able to see themselves doing the same thing," says Margie Gonzalez, executive director for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
Gonzalez works in Boise, the state capital, about an hour's drive from Wilder. She says most people don't think of Idaho as a place with a lot of Latinos. Her own friends picture the state "like Little House on the Prairie," she says. But the numbers show that's not the case.
Latest census data show that 12 percent of Idaho is Hispanic or Latino. Latinos are also the state's fastest-growing racial group by far, doubling the growth percentage of the state's white population. That growth, Gonzalez says, is what's kept a lot of rural Idaho towns, like Wilder, populated and afloat in recent years.
The demographics of the state's elected officials have started to reflect that change, but, Gonzalez says, "Considering the percentage, we really should have better representation."
In 'Emerging' Latino Areas, Lots More To Be Done
The issue of representative government is not limited to Idaho.
"Many rural cities with large shares of Latino population that have had a significant growth of Latinos in their cities haven't necessarily achieved what folks in Wilder were able to achieve," says Erica Bernal-Martinez, the deputy executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
In some bigger cities and areas where Latino populations have been established longer, like California, there's better representation. In "emerging" rural areas like Idaho, Washington and Oregon, it hasn't yet translated into political change.
There are a lot of reasons for that. Latino voter turnout isn't always high in those places, in part because people say they feel disenfranchised when their representatives look nothing like them. And there are limited resources for outreach and education of new voters.
"When people feel that in fact their leaders or the people who are running for office care about the same issues that they care about, they're much more likely to turn up to vote and to be engaged," says Bernal-Martinez.
Perhaps even more important, she says, every election like the one in Wilder gives Latinos the platform to demonstrate their ability to lead diverse communities, which would go a long way toward addressing one of the biggest issues facing potential Latino leaders in conservative places like Idaho: the fact that some people just don't want to see change.
Amid Fears of Change, A Note of Reassurance
There's some of that resistance to change and fear of the unknown in Wilder. Fernandez has heard the whispers. Are they all citizens? Are they all legal? I hope they're assimilated. I hope they're patriots.
Fernandez says he just brushes it off, as best as he can. He knows he is just as American as everybody else here.
The city's mayor-elect, Alicia Almazan, feels the same way. Almazan has lived in Wilder nearly her entire life and has gotten to know just about everyone in town, growing up there and working in her adulthood as a hairdresser and at the city's school.
She says that she knows some people might take the election the wrong way; that some people might see it as a "Mexican takeover," but she says that's not the case.
"Things are not going to change," she says. "Everything I do, I'm going to say it in English and in Spanish. I'm going to treat everyone with respect. I don't care who you are."
She and the City Council were elected by all of Wilder, Almazan says, so that is whom they will represent.