17 Shots in Pasco

The police shooting of a Mexican field worker prompted a reckoning in a Washington farming town.

By Brooke Jarvis May 26, 2015 Published in the June 2015 issue of Seattle Met

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WHEN THE RUNNING MAN suddenly disappeared from her view, Modesta Carillo’s brain offered a quick explanation: He had simply stepped from the sidewalk into Vinny’s Cafe and Bakery, a panadería where you can buy roasted pork sandwiches and sugar cookies with jelly smiles. 

It wasn’t altogether a rational thought. She’d heard the gunshots, she had seen the three police officers chase him across the intersection of 10th and Lewis with their guns drawn, had seen him put his hands up. This wasn’t an errand like the one she was on, buying groceries for the week at Fiesta Foods, one of Pasco’s two large Mexican markets. But everything happened so quickly, and it was too improbable, at first, to think that she’d just watched a man die—here, at a crowded intersection during rush hour on a Tuesday, her hands on a cart in a supermarket parking lot. 

The truth lay before her. The running man did not go into the bakery. He crumpled on the sidewalk in front of it, hit, according to an ongoing investigation, by five to seven of the 17 bullets that three officers fired.

In the silence after the shots, a man in a fluorescent work shirt walked into the street in front of the bakery, threading his way around the cars that had stopped for the red light. “Oye,” he said to the police, in Spanish. “He only had a rock!” Another man called out, in heavily accented English, “This is wrong.” He repeated himself, as if processing the realization: “This is wrong.” The running man was still now, a lone dark shape on the sidewalk, and the police huddled in conversation before finally walking over to him, checking his pulse, and then handcuffing him. More people filtered uncertainly into the street, speaking to each other in Spanish about what they’d just seen. A man interrupted himself—“It was just a rock, he didn’t have a gun, hijo de la chingada”—to say, unbelieving, “and now they’re going to cuff him?” In English, another yelled to the police: “He is already dead!”

A crowd streamed into the parking lot, catty-corner across the intersection from the bakery. At first, many who hadn’t seen what happened thought that perhaps there’d been a gang shooting, and they milled about, watching, talking, wondering. But within minutes, a video—recorded by a young auto parts store employee behind the wheel of a car at the stoplight—began to spread across their Facebook feeds, and people crowded around phones to watch it. 

They saw a blurry figure throw something at a parked patrol car, then run to the crosswalk, out of the frame. They saw two police officers raise their guns toward the intersection, heard six shots sound. They watched three officers chase the man across the street, to the sidewalk in front of Vinny’s, and watched the man turn toward them, his hands up in front of him. They heard another spurt of gunfire and watched the man fall to the ground and lie still. The video was short and baffling, so they watched it again and again. Many of them came to the same angry conclusion: They didn’t need to shoot him

In the days and weeks that followed, the cell phone video would be watched over two million times. The running man would be identified as Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an unemployed, unarmed, 35-year-old orchard worker from Michoacán, Mexico, who had lived in the area for 10 years, and Pasco residents trying to make sense of his life and his death would accuse each other of unfairly casting him as either a saint or a villain.

Hundreds of people—many of whom either also worked in “el field,” like Zambrano-Montes, or whose family members had once crossed the border to work there—would fill the streets of Pasco, the seat of Franklin County, which is a magnet for seasonal farmworkers, especially from Mexico, and which in 2006 became the first county in the Northwest to become more than half Latino: a “minority majority,” as people here often say.

The shooting would draw international media coverage, the condemnation of Mexico’s president, and the involvement of a federal mediator from the Department of Justice. Zambrano-Montes’s family would retain the same attorney who represented the families of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice. The New York Times, pointing out the underrepresentation of Latinos on the city’s police force, school board, and city council, would call what happened a “ ‘Ferguson’ moment for Hispanics.” In Pasco and the surrounding region, people would heatedly debate what they might have in common with a Missouri town they’d never been to and what the shooting and its victim revealed—if anything—about their own city. 

But on that night, February, 10, 2015, in the parking lot, Modesta Carillo found she could only think about the running man’s mother, wherever she was, about what it would be like for her when she found out. She stayed where she was, trembling, as the streets filled with flashing lights and crowds of people. She listened to the people around her talking and yelling, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Still, it felt wrong to go home. “You stay,” she explained later, in Spanish, “because you don’t know what to do.”

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Modesta Carillo stands in the spot, in a Pasco, Washington grocery store parking lot, where she witnessed police gun down unarmed field worker Antonio Zambrano-Montes, 35, on February 10, 2015.

Image: Mike Kane

On a Saturday morning
two months after the shooting, Jesús Calderón and Florentina García slip from their small apartment in downtown Pasco just before 4am, leaving their two daughters sleeping. Though they have hours of work before them it feels too early to eat, so they only stop for coffee at a gas station on the outskirts of town, arriving at the asparagus field long before any light touches the sky.

“It didn’t grow much,” says García in Spanish, bending low to focus the beam of her headlamp on a single green stalk rising above dry, sandy soil and a sprinkling of straw. She reaches for another, a few feet away, and turns to her husband in disappointment. “It didn’t grow. This is the biggest, look.” 

Still, they return to the old model Honda Civic to pull out their picking boxes—white plastic squares they strap to their waists—and cutting tools. When it’s hot, asparagus grows so quickly it sometimes has to be cut twice in one day; Calderón and García have been known to come as early as 1am so they’ll have time to finish picking a full field before the heat of the afternoon arrives. When it’s cold, as it was yesterday, the stalks don’t grow much, but they still have to be cut or the asparagus won’t be good the next day. Today García and Calderón will walk the rows, stabbing down at the base of the asparagus with their right hands, gathering the properly sized stalks with the left, bending and cutting, bending and cutting, four round trips across the nearly mile-long field. (At the end of the day, Calderón will feel the soreness in his back and waist, García on the top of her thighs. A doctor once gave her the generic advice that she walk for half an hour a day; she laughed and explained what she does for a living, and he retracted the suggestion.) Because they’re paid by the pound and there are fewer good stalks, it won’t be a good day—they’ll work until the afternoon and earn maybe $40 or $50 each, Calderón estimates. Not very motivating, but “someone has to cut it,” he says. 

They raise hoods against the biting wind and head into the darkness, bending and cutting, bending and cutting. 

In the coming weeks, after the asparagus is through, there will be work in the orchards knocking off overloaded fruit so what’s left can grow bigger. And then it will be time for cherries, a whirlwind season in June when so many pickers are needed that the cheap motels overflow (the city cracked down on people camping in parks and on riverbanks) and growers recruit at extra cost directly from Mexico. Then there are blueberries, followed by pears—the Bartletts and the Green Anjous—and then the long apple season, when Calderón may fill as many as 80 pallet-sized bins a week. They get to know which owners pay best, whichmayordomos, or foremen, are rudest, the quirks of each orchard. One of the largest orchards is known to pickers in Spanish as the Serpents, because it’s so full of them. Each apple has its own timing and personality: the delicate Goldens (“You have to pick it like it’s an egg,” one worker explains; “everything bruises it”), then Gala, then the thick-skinned, low-paying Red Delicious, followed by Granny Smith, Fuji, and finally the Pink Ladies, which can last into November and whose stems must be cut with scissors. Then comes the cold season, when work is scarcer and times harder; next spring, it all begins again. 

This is the work that has changed the face of Pasco, the work that brought Antonio Zambrano-Montes—like so many people before and after him—here, a decade before his death.

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Workers harvest an asparagus field outside Pasco. They'll make as many as four round trips across the nearly mile-long plot and be paid by the pound.

Image: Mike Kane

Six weeks after the shooting, a small group of protesters is still camping out in front of city hall every day, waving signs about police brutality to passing cars; some drivers honk and wave while others avert their eyes. A couple approaches a tent and asks, “What’s this all about?” The protesters talk eagerly about training and diversifying the police force, about structural inequality and poverty and racism. But many of the people who pass by their tent don’t want to speak generally; they want to talk about Antonio Zambrano-Montes. 

“In the community there’s a big divide,” says Christine Tucker, a cosmetologist who had no previous history of activism prior to the shooting but who has become a fixture outside city hall. “There are people who think he got what he deserved because of who he was.” A man named Hector chimes in: “We had a gentleman come right here and say, ‘He got what was coming to him. They should do it to a lot more.’ ”

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Image: Mike Kane

The facts of Zambrano-Montes’s life, many of them distorted through chains of gossip, began filtering through Pasco’s Latino community following his death. There was talk of drug use and domestic violence, and a persistent rumor that Zambrano-Montes wanted to antagonize the police because a wrongful death settlement was the only way he could think of to support his family. Many don’t believe that part—the running man in the video, who puts his hands up in front of him, does not appear to be a man who’s trying to die. 

Despite everything he did wrong, and everything that went wrong for him, many people still find themselves identifying with Zambrano-Montes. “He was a hard worker,” they say over and over, without having known him. It’s enough that they know the work he did. They know he had lived among them for years—must surely, like them, have arrived hoping for better things.

But Zambrano-Montes’s decade in Washington was not an American dream. One of 16 children in a family from a small and poor town in Western Mexico, he had family in the Pasco area, aunts and uncles and cousins, and like thousands of others he and his wife moved north, answering the call of abundant work in the fields. 

In 2006 his wife got a protection order against him, saying his behavior was volatile and he’d abused and threatened her, and moved with their two daughters to California. He stayed in the fields but struggled with depression. Then, his family has reported, while picking in an orchard, he fell from a ladder and broke both his wrists—just like that, the work was gone, and with it his ability to send money home or support himself. (A man who knew him in the last weeks of his life said he was able to use his hands, but not to pick up anything heavy.) He grew frustrated, then desperate, and began having drug-fueled run-ins with the police. The January before his death, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, officers were dispatched because he was hitting cars with a broom while high on meth; he reportedly threw a rocking chair and a mailbox at one of the officers and made a grab for his gun, ultimately spending five months in jail. After his release, he cut his own forehead with a knife and locked himself in a basement. Officers broke in, and he asked them to kill him. He was sedated, but seems never to have ended up in drug or psychological counseling. “They never referred him to any type of treatment whatsoever,” a lawyer for Zambrano-Montes’s family told the Associated Press. 

“Everybody says, ‘Poor man,’ ” says a farmworker who’s been unemployed since hurting his foot on the job. “It’s not the right way, police shooting him. Everybody says that.” The man, who didn’t want his name to be used for fear it would offend his boss, didn’t go to the doctor for the same reason—“I don’t want him to get upset, get pissed off. He won’t give me work later on,” he explained, the injured foot propped up in front of him. “I’m just going to wait.” 

Vulnerability to a downward slide is something that many people in Pasco can easily understand. They can see some of the same cracks in society that Zambrano-Montes slipped through yawning around them.

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Image: Mike Kane

Jesús Calderón slices each asparagus
stalk below the soil line, where it’s still white. A cold wind whips the dry dirt of the field into eyes and faces, and the sky is just beginning to lighten, a wash of deep blue appearing behind thick clouds. Though the field is dark and quiet, in the distance you can see headlights flashing on the highways of Pasco.

Calderón and García, who both grew up in Mexico, met at a laundromat in Florida, where Calderón had steady work in construction. But when their daughters were four and six, the recession hit and work disappeared. The family took to the road, following a cycle of short-term farm jobs from season to season and state to state: picking and planting and weeding and tying blackberries and oranges and watermelons and tobacco in Michigan, Maryland, Florida, Georgia, Delaware, Vermont. They made an adventure of it, driving out of their way to take their daughters to Mount Rushmore and the Grand Canyon. The woman at the front desk in the subsidized farmworker housing complex where they now live calls them Diego and Dora, after the cartoon explorers. Calderón makes detailed videos of the different crops and orchards, narrating the details of fruit types and harvesting methods, and posts them on Facebook so his friends and family in Mexico can see what life is like in the United States.

The family has been in Pasco for a year; Calderón and García don’t yet have any American friends in the area, though their daughters have made friends at church. When they first arrived, García, who has also worked as a housekeeper, tried going door to door in an affluent area to ask if anyone would hire her. She says the white people who answered her knock told her flat out that they didn’t trust Latinos. “They don’t know us, but they don’t trust us,” says Calderón. But that’s not new; he remembers tarping over the roofs of houses that had been damaged by hurricanes back in Florida, only to later see the houses’ owners rallying against immigrants like him. Calderón, wearing his work shirt, walked up to them and asked, “Is this how you pay us?” He says they left, embarrassed.

He worries that what happened to Antonio Zambrano-Montes may harden divides and reinforce the fears that different parts of Pasco have of each other: “The community loses faith in the police, and the Americans get a bad impression of the Mexicans.” But he can also imagine a better outcome: that people will be forced to take more note of the struggles of their neighbors, to address the divisions that have kept them apart. And that the minority majority, so often silent in the margins, will find its voice. “When we don’t talk,” Calderón says, “no one hears us.”

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For the past seven years, Florentina García (left) and Jesús Calderón (right) have crisscrossed the country, following farm jobs season to season, state to state with their two daughters in tow.

Image: Mike Kane

Two weeks before the shooting and seven blocks away from the bakery where Zambrano-Montes fell, Felix Vargas and six other members of Consejo Latino, a newly formed group with a goal of supporting the Latino-owned businesses of downtown Pasco, sat down in a conference room with the city manager, the chief of police, and three officers. Vargas, the group’s founder, explained that they’d been following police shootings in other cities and had concerns about the way Pasco was being policed. Officers were mainly downtown during arrests, business owners had complained, rather than as a regular presence interacting with the community or keeping an eye on the large population of homeless people who pass through Pasco’s downtown shelter, the Union Gospel Mission, which serves the entire Tri-Cities, including Pasco and its neighbors Kennewick and Richland.

Few officers spoke Spanish, the members of Consejo Latino went on, which made it hard for them to understand the people they were meant to serve. And a year and a half before, the City of Pasco had agreed to pay out a $100,000 settlement to a Latina woman who filed a racial profiling suit after police officers—including Ryan Flanagan, one of the three who would soon chase Zambrano-Montes to the bakery and open fire—mistook her for a Latina suspect (one who was described as much younger and wearing different clothing) and shoved her face against the hot hood of a patrol car, causing second-degree burns. 

Most troubling of all, there had already been three officer-involved shootings in Pasco, a town of 68,000, in just the last seven months. All the victims had been white. One was armed with a high-powered rifle and another with an airsoft gun; a third, shot in his front yard and allegedly carrying a knife, was the schizophrenic son of a former police officer and city councilman who became publicly vocal in his belief that officers could have done more to de-escalate the situation and avoid killing his son. In all three cases, local investigations found the shootings to be justified. 

In the conference room, Vargas delivered an assessment that would be cited by protesters in the months to come: “We’re worried,” he remembers saying, “that something like Ferguson could happen here.” 

Vargas’s father was one of the earlier Mexican immigrants to Pasco, arriving with his 10 children in the early 1950s to work in the fields. “We worked every crop that is known to mankind,” jokes Vargas, who was the eldest; when he graduated from Pasco High School in 1963, he was the only Latino in his class. He later joined the army, serving two combat tours in Vietnam, and then spent more than 30 years in a career with the U.S. Army Reserve and the State Department, including serving as an advisor to NATO commanders negotiating peace in Bosnia. Eventually he retired home to Pasco, where, he says, “we have our own set of challenges,” many stemming from Pasco’s history as what he calls “a dumping ground for minorities” who faced discrimination and exclusion from the city power structures. After the shooting, he used his connections to push Pasco’s story before a broader audience, meeting with Washington’s senators, with representatives of the DOJ, and speaking before a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights forum on use of force by police. He wanted outside intervention, he says, but also a mirror: a way to “get us to see ourselves as other people see us.”

“My hometown, as much as I love it, is a bit backwards—it’s in another time, another place,” he says. “We need to come to grips with our history.”

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Pasco police officer Marcos Guzman (left) and civic leader Felix Vargas (right) and disagree on the causes of the shooting—and on how their community should react to it.

Image: Mike Kane

Vanis Daniels remembers
when he moved to Pasco from Texas as a child in the early 1950s. His father had heard that there was work available building a new nuclear plant by the Columbia River; he got a job as a construction worker and later became a supervisor. But the family wasn’t allowed to live in Richland, the new government town on the south side of the river where the scientists and engineers of the Hanford plant were moving with their families, or in neighboring Kennewick, with its sign on the bridge into town warning black people to keep out after dark. Even in Pasco—then a busy railroad hub in the sparse, silver-gray desert of sagebrush on the north side of the river, where black families like theirs had found homes—they discovered that banks wouldn’t lend to them. Daniels’s father eventually found an owner-financed house in East Pasco, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. 

Daniels would sometimes cross the bridge to Kennewick, passing that sign—though there wasn’t much need for its warning. “There was a policeman that sat right on the other side of the bridge,” he remembers, who would tell him clearly: “ ‘We don’t want you over here.’ ” The officer would ask Daniels where he was going in Kennewick, and then follow him to make sure he went wherever it was. He remembers a parking meter that you didn’t have to pay after six o’clock, and the officer demanding he feed money into it no matter the time.

Daniels still lives in East Pasco with his wife, Barbara. She grew up in Seattle and once took a bus to Pasco and Kennewick in the 1960s to march against housing and employment discrimination; nowadays they run a fried fish business. He’s been in the same house for the last 47 years and has watched East Pasco change around him: At first his neighbors were mostly white, and then mostly black; now they’re mostly Latino. 

Pasco’s latest wave of arrivals came for similar reasons as Daniels’s family: There was work nearby (though now it was in the fields and orchards and packing plants that were being carved out of the sagebrush following the massive, federally funded Columbia Basin Irrigation Project), and Pasco, especially in the stick-built houses east of the railroad tracks, was open to them. At first, in the late 1940s and ’50s, most moved up from other parts of the U.S. Later, during a period of comparative openness at the border that began in the 1970s, they came directly from Mexico—especially Michoacán, where Antonio Zambrano-Montes grew up, and the nearby states of Colima and Jalisco—in large numbers, moving north in loose networks of family and friends who reported back home about the work they had found. There were so many people, moving so close together, that there was less need for quick assimilation, says Erasmo Gamboa, a University of Washington historian who has written extensively about Latinos in the Northwest: “So they are very Mexican, and they very quickly begin to reestablish that culture that they left.” 

Pasco became a Little Mexico (as many now call downtown, with its panaderías and shop after shop displaying fluffy quinceañera dresses) that each new arrival both discovered and helped create. As the stores that once anchored downtown moved away, the new arrivals filled their places with small businesses. “We do not have a shortage of taco trucks,” laughs Gilberto Mendoza, who moved to Pasco with his family as a child, worked the apple and cherry harvests, and now owns a downtown accounting business called Taxes y Más. “The parks are full, the churches are full”—Spanish masses at St. Patrick’s are standing room only. Thanks largely to Latinos, Franklin County is the fastest growing county in the Pacific Northwest. The Pasco school system is now 70 percent Hispanic, and the city can’t build new schools fast enough. But the numbers have yet to translate to civic positions. “We’ve had many Latinos run for council,” says Mendoza. “Good luck, it just doesn’t happen.”

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Image: Mike Kane

In the Tri-Cities, immigration has become a frequent topic of debate—so much so that Tom Roach and Bob Parks, a Pasco immigration lawyer and a Kennewick city councilman, respectively, have been asked to debate opposing sides of the issue so often that both joke about being able to feed the other his lines. Parks, who complains that Latinos “have taken over the whole valley,” once proposed a city ordinance that would have made it illegal to rent to or do business with undocumented immigrants, and another that would have charged non-English speakers with the cost of an interpreter when they needed to go to Kennewick City Hall. Though neither ordinance passed, Parks maintains, “I have a lot of silent supporters or I wouldn’t have gotten elected four times.” 

While many protesters would come to embrace the comparisons to Ferguson that followed Zambrano-Montes’s death, others in the Tri-Cities were horrified. It was an easy narrative, they said, for a complicated situation, and an unfair depiction of their city. “Ferguson is blacker and whiter, literally and figuratively,” Tom Roach says. But the comparison was there—a new vocabulary and a framework in which to slide troubling incidents. 

Two months after the shooting, the Kennewick police department opened an investigation after a video surfaced that showed a Kennewick officer berating young Latinos following a traffic stop. When one says he has a clean record, the officer tells him, “Yeah, but you know what? I’m the guy that can make that record look dirty.” At another point, the officer asks, “Would you like to be part of my quota tonight?” When one of the young men asks, “On what grounds?” the officer responds, “Oh, I’ll think of something.” The man later told a reporter he felt he’d been talked to “like an owner to a dog.”

Officer Marcos Guzman has called Pasco home since moving here from Jalisco at age six. One of 15 Latinos on a police force of 71, he says critics like Felix Vargas don’t know the whole story about what happened between the police and Zambrano-Montes before the camera phones started recording, details that are still tied up in the confidentiality of the ongoing investigation. He thinks they don’t appreciate the danger or adrenaline of police work. “If you don’t like the system,” he says, “do something productive to change the system.”

Guzman and Felix Vargas agree, without knowing it, on one thing: that the history that carved the Tri-Cities up like this, the distrust that it generated, is still haunting them today. “We’ve had Jim Crow here too,” says Guzman. “That started the polarization that we still see now.”

Less than a month before
the death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a man who met him on the street offered him a place to stay in the converted garage where he lived; two days later, Zambrano-Montes accidentally started a fire that consumed the kitchen and living room. He told an investigator that he’d used crystal meth the night before. 

Zambrano-Montes moved into the downtown mission, an eight-block walk from the corner where his life would end. Eugene Jesús Hernandez, a farmworker also staying there, describes him as quiet, staying to the sidelines, trying to avoid disturbing anyone. 

Then one day, about two weeks before the shooting in front of Vinny’s Bakery, Hernandez was cleaning the lights on his truck when he overheard a conversation on the sidewalk in front of the mission. Four women from Zambrano-Montes’s family had come to talk to him. They told him that he should be working, should be earning money, should be doing better. “You are a man,” Hernandez remembers them repeating.

After they left, it was lunchtime at the mission. Hernandez asked Zambrano-Montes if he wanted to go inside and eat. “Why eat?” he remembers Zambrano-Montes answering. “I don’t deserve to eat. I wish something would happen to me right now. I wish God would make me die.”

Hernandez thought he understood. The work is hope and dignity, the reason people come. But it’s also hard to do and easy to lose, and without it there is desperation. “That,” he says in Spanish, looking over the vacant lot in front of the mission, “is when the good thoughts end.”

Modesta Carillo, who watched Antonio Zambrano-Montes’s life end from the Fiesta Foods parking lot, has been out of work since falling off a ladder and hurting her back in an apple orchard early last fall. “I’ve been alone, suffering, sad,” she says. But even when she was working, she hated the constant pressure to work faster, the dressing-downs she’d get from foremen. “They talk to you as if your work is nothing,” she says. “We’re people. We’re not animals. We have hearts, we have feelings.” She would like to move away. “Estoy triste aqui, de este estado,” she says—I’m sad here, about this state.

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The spot, at the corner of 10th and Lewis, where Antonio Zambrano Montes's life came to an end.

Image: Mike Kane

Jesús Calderón and Florentina García
, who are neighbors with Carillo in a downtown apartment complex for farmworkers, don’t share her despair. Like Zambrano-Montes and thousands of other people before them, they have found in Pasco a container for their hopes. 

“Washington is a good state,” says Calderón. “There’s a lot of work, but nobody does it.” He occasionally sees Americans come for a day of field work, but they never seem to return for a second day.

The sun is fully up now. When the old white Civic pulled up at 4am, there were no other cars parked on the long dusty road that leads to the field, but now there are more than 20. Their drivers are silhouetted along the long rows, picking boxes at their sides, bending and cutting, bending and cutting.

Back in Pasco, Calderón and García’s girls are probably awake, getting ready for school. They’re 11 and 13 now. Maybe, their parents think, the long months and years of travel will end here, with stable work and a chance to settle. They walk the long rows, their bins full of asparagus, and hope that they have found something they haven’t had in a very long time: a lasting home.