Edwardo Morfin was a grade-school boy growing up in Selah when his view of the world was shaped by intense racism, he said.
He recalls waiting at his trailer park’s bus stop with his older brother as another kid’s mother called them a derogatory name. And at school, fellow students would yell racial slurs and try to provoke him to fight.
Morfin learned lessons about intolerance, creating a desire to try to educate one person at a time.
Two decades later, Morfin is a liaison between the Hispanic community and government officials at a time when tensions are running high in the wake of Pasco’s latest officer-involved fatal shooting.
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The 31-year-old lawyer and West Richland resident — who prefers to be called Eddie — recently was appointed to represent the Tri-City area on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
“I think building the community’s trust and city officials’ trust is very important,” Morfin said.
He told the Herald he won’t comment on the current culture in Pasco because he needs to remain unbiased.
“Obviously, I have personal feelings about the whole situation, but it’s definitely not something that I would inject into my role as commissioner,” he said.
Morfin attended the Pasco community listening session in March before he was named commissioner, and in the weeks since has started meeting city leaders and protesters with Tri-Cities Community Solutions. He also was introduced to Vinicio Marin Gomez, owner of Vinny’s Cafe & Bakery, where Antonio Zambrano-Montes was shot on Feb. 10.
On April 28, Morfin will attend a Hispanic Community Forum organized by St. Patrick Catholic Parish of Pasco.
The event, which will be held in Spanish, is another opportunity for the community to express their feelings and concerns to the Commission on Hispanic Affairs and members of the Pasco City Council. A conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service will be there.
The forum is from 6-9 p.m. at 1320 W. Henry St. Since it is being held in the church, signs and unapproved literature will not be allowed on St. Patrick grounds.
Morfin has heard the March listening session was helpful and thinks it was a good starting point, he said.
As commissioner, Morfin said it’s his role to see that the Hispanic community has better access to public officials and to facilitate the dialogue between the two sides, so that maybe they will do it on their own eventually.
He encourages people to reach out to him with issues or to share concerns. He made sure he could be committed to the commission before he applied, he said. But he also hopes people respect that he must balance this new role with his day job and his growing family.
Morfin is an associate attorney with Anderson Law in Kennewick, where he handles personal injury law and insurance litigation.
Morfin and his wife Letti Leal, a physical therapist assistant, have a 3-year-old daughter, Elise, and are expecting another child in the fall. Morfin also has a 12-year-old daughter from a previous relationship.
Uriel Iñiguez, the state commission’s executive director, said all 11 commissioners are volunteers and it does take a great effort and time away from their families.
“We’re looking forward to Edwardo helping the local elected officials and decision makers in the area build a bridge to understand better the Latino community, and for the Latino community to build a bridge to the decision makers,” Iñiguez said.
“We are always very appreciative of the time the many people in the community give to assist in making our community better.”
Morfin was born in Yakima, but a short time later moved with his parents and older brother to Mexico. His father returned to the United States for work and sent money home. Eventually, the separation became a strain on the young family and the parents decided it was more important for their kids to get a good education in America than to have a lower cost of living in Michoacán.
He was 4 when the growing family moved back to Yakima. By then he had learned how to speak English from cartoons on television.
Morfin’s most salient memories are from the fourth and fifth grade in Selah, when people like that kid’s mother called him derogatory names, he said.
“We felt scared. We felt ashamed. It was a weird feeling, really,” Morfin said. “I remember to this day, I felt such hate, such contempt from this lady. We were just little kids. How could you act like that?
“It firmly established my place in the world, where I come from and some of the obstacles I would have to face,” he added.
Morfin was a good student until high school, when he started getting into trouble with his friends and ended up being expelled because he had too many absences while battling a medical problem. He went to an alternative school, but dropped out and got his GED at Yakima Valley Community College.
His dream of going to college was put on hold at 16 when he found out he was going to be a dad, so he went to work in fruit warehouses.
At that time Morfin never saw any role models who looked like him, no Latinos in high-status positions who might mentor him or encourage him to push on.
“It’s really a shame, because if I thought that way, what if other kids are thinking the same,” said Morfin, who went on to find a number of role models in politicians, lawyers and judges. “I think that if kids have role models where they can aspire to be like them and they look like them, then they think maybe it is possible.”
When a school counselor mentioned financial aid, Morfin applied and spent four years working on a degree from the community college.
He then went to Central Washington University and, after three years, graduated with bachelor’s degrees in political science and law and justice, and a minor in Latino studies. He got his law degree from Seattle University School of Law.
“Looking back on it, I can confidently now say I was a very immature person. I didn’t care a lot about consequences and it was a rough time in my personal life,” he said. “To get through school to advance my goals, I had to do a lot of growing up from (Yakima) to Central to Seattle.”
Morfin described life as a “continuous, self-improvement evolution,” and said he has had many flaws, but they’ve helped him better himself and become who he is today. “I guess everything that happens and everything you do, it gives you a certain viewpoint of the world,” he said.
Morfin said that as a child he would tell his mom he wanted to be a police officer, FBI agent or president, then as a young adult he considered a pharmacy, and finally at Central he found his calling with law.
His experience during law school includes working as a legal intern with the Northwest Justice Project and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and a judicial extern who would help research case law for Judge Sal Mendoza Jr. when he was with Benton-Franklin Superior Court.
Morfin‘s family moved to the Tri-Cities in January 2014. His parents, who became naturalized, are still farmworkers in Yakima.
Morfin said that as the investigation continues into the shooting death of Antonio Zambrano-Montes, he hopes that all parties keep an open mind through the process and figure out a way to work together for the good of the community.
Asked why he tries to be a role model to today’s youth and volunteered for the commissioner position, Morfin said it goes back to a conversation he had with Judge Mendoza.
The judge told Morfin, “If I don’t do it, who will.”
Morfin has taken that to heart, and thinks if a lot more people thought the same way then “maybe a lot more stuff would get done, maybe a lot more positive change would happen. So I’m going to try to live by those words, I think wise words.”