A Tiny Town In Idaho Welcomes The State's First All-Latino City Council The tiny town of Wilder, Idaho, made history when it swore in the state's first all-Latino city council in January. Some see the change as a welcome step for rural Latinos.
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A Tiny Town In Idaho Welcomes The State's First All-Latino City Council

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A Tiny Town In Idaho Welcomes The State's First All-Latino City Council

A Tiny Town In Idaho Welcomes The State's First All-Latino City Council

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Idaho is considered one of the most conservative states in the country. But come this January, the town of Wilder, Idaho, will swear in an all-Latino city council. It will also get its first Latina mayor. NPR's Nathan Rott traveled to Wilder to learn more about the town's changing politics.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Wilder's newest city councilman, Ismael Fernandez, is about as polished as his black leather shoes. His hair is neatly combed to one side. His hands move with his voice, punctuating his points, and he says things like this.

ISMAEL FERNANDEZ: There needs to be change in Wilder, and just in politics in general, there needs to be change. We need to have younger people coming in, so that's why I decided to run.

ROTT: Oh, yeah, Fernandez is also 19 years old.

FERNANDEZ: Yeah, I turned 19 in October.

ROTT: Fernandez is giving us an unofficial walking tour of his hometown - 1st Street to 5th Street, Avenue A to Avenue D. We pass the double-wide trailer that's the public library, Rosa's and Alejandra's Mexican restaurants across the street.

FERNANDEZ: And so this is the new elementary school. And then you have the middle, high school.

ROTT: The tour takes about 20 minutes. Wilder is quiet this time of year. It's a farming town surrounded by fields of tall wooden poles that, in the spring, are covered in green hops, giving the town a skunky smell. Those hops bring immigrant workers to the area, some of whom decide to stay.

JOHN BECHTEL: My family started out as migrant laborers out of Missouri.

ROTT: This is John Bechtel, the city's outgoing mayor. We meet up with him at city hall, a white brick building that serves as the mayor's office, city council chambers and police station. Bechtel says the demographics of Wilder's immigrant workers have change with the times, as they have across much of the West, 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, and Bechtel, who's been in city government for more than 30 years, has adapted with it. To new families in town who speak little English, he doesn't introduce himself as Mayor John Bechtel but as...

BECHTEL: Juan Pelon, which means John Bald.

ROTT: A gesture to his bald head.

BECHTEL: Once you break the ice, you got a new friend. My philosophy is Will Rogers', a stranger's only a friend I've never met.

ROTT: Bechtel says he's long advocated for the demographics of the city's leadership to change with the population.

BECHTEL: I've told people for years in Wilder. I've said, if the Hispanic community just pulled together, you can control any office in the city, school board, city council, whatever.

ROTT: But it wasn't until this November that they did just that - filling the town's city council and mayor's office with Latinos. It's a historic moment that Bechtel says he's proud to be a part of and one that he and people in other parts of the state, like Margie Gonzalez, are hoping will have a wider effect.

MARGIE GONZALEZ: We're very hopeful that this is just the beginning, that we'll start to see changes in other communities.

ROTT: Gonzalez is the executive direct for the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, a commission that, she says, something confuses her friends in other states.

GONZALEZ: They say, when we think about Idaho, we think of, like, "Little House On The Prairie." You know, we don't think of Latinos being in Idaho.

ROTT: But she says that's not the case. The latest Census data showed that about 12 percent of Idaho is Hispanic or Latino, a number that Gonzalez thinks is actually pretty low. Latinos are also the state's fastest-growing demographic group by far, keeping some rural towns like Wilder afloat in recent years. Gonzalez says the state's elected officials have started to reflect that, but...

GONZALEZ: Considering the percentage, we really should have better representation.

ROTT: The reasons they don't, she says, are many. For one, Latino voter turnout hasn't always been very high, in part because people feel disenfranchised when their representatives don't look anything like them, a problem that Gonzalez hopes elections like the one in Wilder will fix.

There's also limited outreach and education of new voters and the simple fact that Idaho is a very conservative state where some people just don't want to see change. There is some of that in Wilder. Ismael Fernandez has heard the whispers...

FERNANDEZ: Are they all citizens? Are they all legal? I hope they're assimilated. I hope that they're patriots.

ROTT: ...To which, he has this answer.

FERNANDEZ: I'm just as American as everybody else here. I was born here in the United States. We're not here to make trouble. We're here to do the work of the people.

ROTT: All of the people here in Wilder, whether they're Latino or not. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Wilder, Idaho.

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