Nearly everyone in this small farming community speaks Spanish—nearly everyone except those in city government and the police department, where English is spoken.
And almost everyone who speaks one language does not speak the other.
It is a language barrier that has engulfed the community, which has grown over the past 20 years from 300 to about 3,200 year-round residents. Nine of every 10 Mattawa residents speak Spanish at home, and eight of every 10 adults speak English “less than very well,” according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
But the gap between an English-speaking city government and an overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking population has grown so wide that the federal government has stepped in to mandate that the city bridge the divide.
After a Civil Rights Act complaint filed by a legal aid group, the Justice Department worked with the city and its police department to develop a language-assistance plan.
Adopted in March, the plan is unique in Washington and is seen as a bellwether for cities with similar demographics. The plan requires Mattawa to employ at least one bilingual employee during regular business hours and to make vital information available in Spanish as well as English. It also requires police to have qualified interpreters on call at all times.
The Justice Department said the town had to provide interpretation and translation for people who aren’t English-proficient. In places that have a high percentage of monolingual Spanish speakers, that means all city services, including law enforcement, have to be available in Spanish.
Hiring bilingual police officers and city staff costs money the town doesn’t have, the mayor said. Mattawa employs one provisional and three full-time officers.
The local government struggles with growing pains and has a limited tax base. More than half of property owners don’t pay taxes because they are subsidized or nonprofits. Esser called the growth of farmworker housing “much needed” but a strain on other systems and services.
Streets are lined with prefabricated houses and run-down mobile homes. Chain stores and fast-food restaurants bypassed the town. Immigrants can find authentic meals from their home countries at El Jato, El Caribe, La Popular, La Parilla, Rallito de Luna and La Maravita. Inside, satellite TV beams in Spanish-language news and soap operas.
The Catholic Diocese of Yakima Housing Services operates low-income housing in Mattawa. The state’s migrant council runs a child-development center that has a long waiting list. Residents point with pride to the new high school and community clinic.
Maria Belen Ledezma, a 35-year resident who works in agricultural services for the state’s employment office in Mattawa, said police should work harder to resolve the language barrier.
“How would [Spanish-only speakers] understand what law enforcement is requesting? If they are stopped, how would they know what their rights are?” she asked.