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This small Idaho city elected an all-Latino local government. Now what?

Voters in the city of Wilder elected their first Latina mayor and two new Mexican American council members a year ago, but big challenges remain for this town of 1,500 residents.
13 Oct 2016 – 11:14 AM EDT
Ismael Fernández, a university student, was elected to the Wilder City Council at just 19. Crédito: Nacho Corbella / Univision

There are no coffee shops or bars in Wilder, a tiny Idaho farming town. It has no fast food restaurants or clothing stores, no supermarkets or movie theaters. There are only three police officers to protect more than 1,500 residents, and the nearest pharmacy is a few miles south of the city, on the other side of the Snake River.

Most families in Wilder make less than $25,000 a year, and most of the students in the school district get free or reduced-price lunch. When night falls, it's common to see residents sitting outside the public library, trying to access the free wi-fi.

It was here that Idaho's first all-Latino city government came to power. In January, Alicia Mora Almazán was sworn in as mayor, as Ismael Fernández and Guadalupe García joined Tila Godina and Robert Rivera as members of the Wilder City Council.

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Latinos in Power: This small Idaho city elected an all-Latino local government. Now what?

For the first time in Idaho's history, a city put its political future entirely in the hands of Latinos, turning Wilder into a symbol of how minorities can reach political power by simply turning out to vote. It was remarkable especially because it happened in Idaho, a state where more than 80% of the population is white and barely 7% of eligible voters are Hispanic.

In Wilder, three out of every four residents are Hispanic. In fact, Wilder's leaders are five of only seven Hispanic elected officials in Idaho, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO).

How did Latinos get elected in Wilder?

For Mayor Almazán, a 52-year-old hairstylist with three children, the mayoral campaign involved reintroducing herself to a community that already knew her. Wilder is such a small community that she spent only $30 on her campaign for City Hall, enough to make 300 copies of a flyer with her name and picture.

"It said I wouldn't make any promises, but that I was here to help," she said, sitting in City Hall about nine months after winning the election.

Her strategy worked. On November 8, 2015, she beat her main rival by 29 votes out of a total of 139.

"Some people told me they hadn't voted in 20 years, but they went and voted for me," said Almazán, who describes herself as Texan and has lived in Wilder since she was 2 years old.

Council member Fernández's first political victory was also the product of a modest campaign, one that he launched just two days before the election.

When he decided to run for city council, the 19-year-old college student enlisted the help of his grandmother María, who has lived in Wilder for over 40 years and is part of the Canyon County elections board. She gave her grandson tips: knock on this door, don't bother over there.

In the end, Fernández won 60 votes, the most out of all candidates; he got eight more votes than Guadalupe García, who beat another candidate by just one vote.

"Throughout Wilder's history, our leadership has been white," said Fernández, who identifies as Mexican-American. "We went from being a majority white government to being an all-Latino government with two women, one of them our mayor … I'm very proud of that. I'm a firm believer in a representative government."

But winning the election was only the first challenge for Hispanic leaders in Wilder, where 40 percent of households live in poverty, more than twice the rate of the rest of Idaho. Another challenge is to revitalize the community.

"In the '80s, we had seven bars and six churches in Wilder. Now we have seven churches and no bars," Fernández said. "We didn't have a lot of businesses, but we had different types. Bars were kind of a main theme here in Wilder. They just went out of business, you know?"

Developing a small town: an uphill battle

Inspired by the potato and onion crops growing in the surrounding Treasure Valley, Wilder residents adopted the motto "Come grow with us!" The slogan adorns the town's welcome sign.

But economic growth has been slow in Wilder, which still lags behind many surrounding towns. For example, Wilder's per capita income grew 44 percent in a decade, from $7,601 in 2000 to $10,944 in 2010, according to Census data. But that figure is still less than half the per-capita income of Idaho overall, which was $22,518 in 2010.

And while the poverty rate is falling, it still remains above 25 percent -- more than twice the state rate.

"What's happening in Idaho is that a lot of people have been moving from the small cities to the bigger cities," said Rep. Raúl Labrador, a Republican who represents Wilder and the rest of Idaho's first congressional district in the House of Representatives. "And that's why you see Boise and Nampa growing at an exponential rate. You see Caldwell that is also growing at an exponential rate ... And our smaller cities are really shrinking. And that's happening all throughout the United States."

Another sign of Wilder's stagnant development is the number of vacant buildings. Fernández pointed them out as he walked through the empty streets: an old bar where the owner was killed, the old arcade. The city's fire station is now filled with old clothes and donations, and serves as the headquarters for a group of volunteers that has been trying to renovate the public library. (They've been raising money for four years.)

Wilder has few businesses, most of them located on the same avenue that runs across the town center: a hardware store, a small barbershop and two Mexican restaurants, Rosa's and Alejandra's.

Samuel Correa, a Mexican from Zacatecas who opened Alejandra's 13 years ago, says the city's new leaders haven't introduced themselves yet at the restaurant, which is on the same block as City Hall. Even so, Correa has faith in Almazán and the Latino councilmembers. "People know [the mayor] around here," he said as he wiped tables and took lunch orders.

Almazán says the key to governing a small town lies in micromanagement. For example, she had an argument recently with a Wilder resident who didn't want to pay his water bill. A day later, the man came to City Hall and paid the money he owed.

"The biggest challenge is letting people know the things they can no longer get away with," she said, smiling.

Another challenge is the fact that many residents work in different cities, or in the fields outside the town, and they have little interest in their local government.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Univision News spoke to farmworkers sorting potatoes on the outskirts of town. Javier Villegas said that immigrants in Treasure Valley have little incentive to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election.

"They could care less," said Villegas, chuckling. "They say it's all the same."

But even if many are disinterested in political participation, they do care about seeing changes in their town, he said. For Villegas, those changes include getting more resources for his four children.

"Over in Caldwell, schools have soccer and swimming, they have arts classes and music classes. We need that here," he said.

Florita Valdez, one of the women sorting potatoes, also cares mostly about opportunities for her children. "My son will sometimes say, 'Mommy, why don't you put me in another school?'"

San Juanita De La Cruz, a Mexican resident who has lived in Wilder for three decades, takes it upon herself to awaken her neighbors' political interest. "Some of them want to get involved but they're afraid," said De La Cruz, who also coordinates the school district's programs for homeless and immigrant students. "I push them. I say, 'You have to get involved. You're already here.'"

De La Cruz has faith in her new leaders and thinks they're capable of integrating Wilder into the rest of Idaho.

"I think we need a strong voice with a big heart here in Wilder, so that the county and the state start giving us the attention we deserve," she said. "What needs to happen is for [Almazán] to prove that she's up to her title, and for the community to see changes and support her."

But that could take awhile. Asked about the changes that have happened in Wilder in the seven months since the all-Latino city government took office, she answered: "In reality, right now nothing. No changes."