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Burien's First Latino Mayor Is The Son Of Undocumented Farmworkers

Will James
Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta (second from right) was voted into office by City Council members on Jan. 22, 2018

The city of Burien, just west of SeaTac Airport, has a new mayor. And, for the first time in Burien's 25-year history, it's a member of the city's Latino community.

Newly-elected City Council Member Jimmy Matta was chosen by his peers to serve as mayor in a meeting Monday evening. 

Matta, a son of undocumented farmworkers from Guatemala, told his fellow council members that representation matters in a place like Burien, where the population is one quarter Latino. 

"It doesn't matter how you stand on issues," he said. "What matters is if you're heard, if the room is open to you, if you feel that you can talk to people about what's going on in your home, with your children." 

Matta's elevation to mayor follows a contentious local election in which immigration and changing demographics were flashpoints.

Burien's Latino population has tripled since 2000. Residents and elected officials were divided last year over whether the city should remain a "sanctuary city" with policies aimed at protecting undocumented immigrants. 

In Burien, City Council members choose the mayor from among their own ranks. Matta received four votes, beating one of his running mates last year, Nancy Tosta. 

Tosta, the only other nominee for mayor, highlighted her experience in remarks to fellow council members Monday. She was first elected to the council in 2013. 

"I try to represent everyone in Burien," she said. "I do not have a personal agenda. I do not subscribe to identity politics." 

But a majority of council members chose Matta, with some of them citing the historic nature of his candidacy. Tosta voted for herself. The two remaining council members abstained. 

In November, Matta and running mate Pedro Olguin became the first two Latinos elected to the Burien City Council, during an election in which their progressive slate of four candidates defeated a conservative-leaning slate.

Months earlier, a statewide group called Respect Washington gathered signatures in Burien in an effort to repeal a local "sanctuary city" policy. The law, passed in late 2016, prevents city staff and police from asking about a resident's immigration status or religious beliefs. 

The repeal effort failed, but some residents say the debate heightened divisions in the community. Matta's slate of candidates sought to harness a progressive blowback to the repeal effort in their bid for office. 

Matta, in an interview last fall, said he decided to run for office in part due to instances of xenophobia he described witnessing after the national 2016 election. 

On Monday, he said he hopes to help the city heal its divides. 

"You know, we do live in a very diverse community," he said. "We have very wealthy. We have very poor. One section of the community needs different help than the other."

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.