This summer, while interning at Fort Walla Walla Museum, I met with Commitment 2 Community’s Andrew Rodriguez and Blue Mountain Action Council’s Mary Lou Jenkins to start the part of my research that didn’t include dusty books and tedious archived microfilm. They were taking me to lunch at the Senior Center to introduce me to seasoned Walla Walla Latinos. They told me it’s important to have an introduction so that the people I wanted to talk to would trust some “little Gringo.” With their help and contacts I could begin interviewing people and spreading word about the Museum’s project to better represent and include the region’s significant Latino population and their history. Between other projects I compiled a very brief summary of Latino history and conducted a few interviews before the end of the internship. But with Whitman’s Community Fellowship I could continue that work and put on an event we had been planning.
On the evening of November 16th, after the museum closed, about a dozen people began trickling in to participate in our Latino Heritage Conversation. Most had not been to the museum, or at least not for many years, so the tour led by museum director James Payne was especially fresh and informative. Everyone seemed to enjoy the exhibits, including the new quilt show, and many even found personal connections to some of the names of people or types of artifacts displayed. Or even to the museum grounds themselves – one man was on the crew that cleared the land for Fort Walla Walla Park just down the hill.
After the tour, food provided by Rosita’s Mexican Restaurant was served, and I presented the results of the dusty book and tedious microfilm research to the group. What I was afraid would be a quick, mundane few slides actually drew out surprising information and enthusiastic discussion. Most of them did not realize the length of Latino history in this region, going back to the first Spanish explorers (with mostly Latino crews). They also quite liked learning of Walla Walla’s first Hispanic resident, the infamous “Hot Tamale King of the Pacific Northwest,” Sebastian Colón. I casually mentioned Walla Walla’s involvement with the border conflicts with Pancho Villa (the local National Guard unit was deployed) and two people right away brought up that they had a connection to that history. One’s grandfather left the family to fight and die with Pancho Villa. Another explained how her grandmother harbored some of his soldiers. As a token of their gratitude one soldier gifted her a stone he had found that bore the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. This stone became a relic and attracted people to small shrine set up for it. Despite a priest’s objections, the stone remained in the family. She says she has it in Walla Walla today.
Several people found connections to the World War II and post-war period, which is when many of their families first came to Walla Walla as farm laborers. Many of them even worked alongside their parents in the fields during non-school hours or lived in the labor camps when they first came. Their parents were the generation of Latinos that local newspapers credited with saving the wartime crops, praised for their important role in the fight for freedom and democracy, and for whom the Milton-Freewater paper ran a special Spanish section. The group was pleasantly surprised to learn about this. They were less surprised to learn that the workers had a hard time tolerating American food. “Who wouldn’t?” one of them asked.
The event seems to have worked to garner more involvement with the museum and to get more contacts, artifacts, and stories. Everyone signed up to be interviewed, many have artifacts or photos they will want to donate, and all expressed interest in becoming either members or volunteers. This gathering was a successful first step.
The project will continue, both by building more relationships and recording living memories as well as the archival research. The research and the new connections to the Latino community will eventually result in an exhibit, a written overview, and hopefully some new and involved volunteers. Although there’s no exhibit or artifacts yet, the reaction I got from that short presentation shows that this project is already informing people about a part of local history they were not aware of. And the involvement and enthusiasm of the people involved so far shows that this project can play a role in bridging the gap between “the two Wallas.”