Small, But Mighty

The Eastern foothills of the snow-capped Cascade Mountains slope gently downward into the Yakima Highlands, dry lands thick with sagebrush and bunchgrass, rabbitbrush and wildflowers blooming in season. Here, where this upland desert gives way to the lush green leaves of apple trees growing neatly in rows, sits the city of Tieton, Washington. These trees support the region’s longstanding fruit business—employing much of Tieton today—thanks to an irrigation system that’s carried water from those same snow-capped peaks for over one hundred years.

The majority of Tieton’s population is of Mexican descent, finding work in the agricultural sector either laboring in the fields or packing fruit in warehouses. Other community members are the descendants of pioneers, able to share with you their family’s part in the history of this place in the same sentence as they greet you. There exists also a curious third group in Tieton. A small contingent of “out-of-towners” who are artists, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers, bringing a different kind of business to town—one of creativity and community-based entrepreneurship.

Tieton Arts & Humanities (TA&H), the nonprofit part of the larger arts incubator Mighty Tieton, brings people together by “engaging talented and creative individuals—from the Yakima Valley, the Northwest, and across the nation—[to] facilitate participation, collaboration, and community-based entrepreneurship among people with diverse backgrounds, ages, and education levels.”

But what does that look like? It looks like high schoolers participating in apprenticeships with Tieton Mosaic, learning creative skills that are applicable for future jobs. It looks like sugar skulls, Mexican dancing horses, and the outward celebration of death at TA&H’s annual Día de los Muertos community celebration. And it looks like a weekend gathering of poets from across the Northwest, learning and exploring poetry through LiTFUSE: A Poet’s Workshop.

TA&H brings out the vibrancy of Tieton. This is seen in colorful mosaics around town (explorable with a self-guided tour!) and even more so in the relationships fostered by events, new ideas formed at workshops, and in business successes from increased tourism. It can be seen when local youth flock to TA&H’s weekly summer art session, eager to learn and explore. And even more so, it is evident in the ethos of the town—people of all backgrounds greeting one another with fondness and welcoming visitors with eager curiosity.

After declining in the 1960s and 70s, Tieton’s population has recently grown to a bustling 1,200 and now sports a central square, park, and post office. The city now proudly has two restaurants—one Mexican and the other Salvadoran—that draw patrons from Tieton and the greater Yakima Valley. And any trip to Tieton isn’t complete without a visit to Panadería Santos, a Mexican bakery specializing in pan dulce. Frequented by locals and visitors alike, the sugary pastries are guaranteed to curb the sweetest cravings.

So it is in this way that Tieton—indeed, rural America—finds revival. Nestled between desert and
oasis, in an ever-evolving juxtaposition between time (the old and the new), languages (Spanish and English), and generations (the young and the elderly). All it takes is the vision and the heart to connect them.