After colonizing Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain claimed all of the west coast of North America including what is now Washington State. Spanish explorers Juan Perez, Bruno de Hezeta, Alférz Manuel Quimper and others made numerous expeditions to the Pacific Northwest beginning in 1774, calling the region Nueva Galicia after Spain’s rugged northwest coast.
These representatives of the Spanish crown were the first Europeans to map the coast of what became Washington State, and to trade with Native Americans. In 1792, the first European settlement in the state was established among the Makah Tribe at Neah Bay, called Fort Nuñez Gaona.
Spain withdrew claims to the Pacific Northwest under the terms of an 1819 treaty, and the legacy of Spanish exploration, cartography and scientific discovery in the area has long been overshadowed by later British and American expeditions. But many place names that are still in use today in northwest Washington commemorate Spanish exploration, including the San Juan Islands, Quimper Peninsula, Port Angeles, Fidalgo Island, Camano Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
East of the Cascade Mountains, Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, played a central role in the development of cattle ranching, and in the mining economy as mule packers. The word buckaroo derives from vaquero, and these skilled horsemen brought their tools and cultural traditions from California, Texas, and other southwestern states which remained part of Mexico until the 1840s.
Large-scale reclamation projects in eastern Washington in the mid-20th century expanded agricultural production of sugar beets, potatoes, and other labor-intensive crops. Eastern Washington growers recruited farm workers from places such as the Rio Grande Valley, where Spanish-speaking communities on the U.S. side of the border swelled with an influx of Mexican citizens fleeing the 1910 Mexican revolution.
During World War II, the Bracero program allowed growers in the Yakima Valley and elsewhere to recruit guest workers directly from Mexico. Migrant workers also came from the southwestern U.S., and many families relocated permanently. Spanish-speaking communities were established or expanded during this era in other farming regions too, such as north central Washington, and the Skagit Valley north of Seattle.
Following World War II, many Latino families migrated from rural parts of Washington to the urban Puget Sound region, seeking employment opportunities in Seattle’s booming post-war economy. The civil rights era or El Movimiento brought widespread activism in the Latino community, and many U.S. residents of Mexican origin or descent embraced the political identity of Chicano or Chicana. Activists established organizations such as MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan) at the University of Washington in 1968, and the community multi-service center El Centro de la Raza in the Beacon Hill neighborhood in 1972. In Seattle as in many west coast cities, a community-based Chicano arts movement grew out of this political activism, drawing in part on pre-Columbian indigenous motifs and stories.
Political turbulence in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s brought new immigrants to Seattle from Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Nicaragua and other countries, and area churches participated actively in the Sanctuary Movement to protect those fleeing violence and starting new lives in the Pacific Northwest.
The 2010 census showed that over 10% of Washington’s population are persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, the largest minority group in the state. Seattle’s Latino community is remarkably diverse, with a rich history in the Pacific Northwest and strong cultural ties to Mexico and the many nations of Central and South America and the Caribbean.