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Descendants Of Migrant Labor Pioneers Gather In Woodburn

Summer is the season when families get together, renew their ties, and talk about old times. One extended family of a sort got together in Marion County last weekend. They’re descendants of four men who drove through the small town of St. Paul almost seventy years ago.

Their story opens a window into the lives of Mexican migrants in Oregon, and into the agricultural life of the Willamette Valley.

April Baer / OPB
Miguel Salinas visits with a friend at the Pioneros gathering Sunday in Woodburn.

Miguel Salinas didn’t intend to spend his retirement years as an amateur historian.

“Some of the best things that happen in life are not planned,” Salinas says.

That truth also guided the group he’s spent the past five years researching. Salinas is a retired teacher and school principal. But he came to Oregon as a very young man to do migrant farm work.

He’s done hundreds of interviews with people he knew, and people his family knew, to identify the first Mexican families that settled in Marion County.

“The people I’ve been interviewing and the stories I have received now point to four men travelling north,” Salinas explains.

Their starting point was Asherton, Texas. Its population — then and now — pretty close to population 1,300.

One of the four men was Salinas’ father, Arturo. He was riding with friends:  Manuel Garcia, Santos Vasquez, and a third man named Cleofas, whose last name, Salinas says, he hasn’t been able to learn yet.

“These people did not on purpose come to Oregon, they were on  their way to Washington. But their car broke down in Woodburn, according to the story. One thing led to the other. One fellow from Mt. Angel, from the Koessler family met them by accident. The fellow asked them if they wanted to work. Jobs of course was what they were looking for, so they said, ‘Yeah’.”

Those four men liked what they saw. They got more money working the hops and berry fields of Marion County than they could in Texas, where times had become very hard. It was more lucrative work than some other traditional migrant stops in California or Montana. And so, Salinas says, those four men brought their families, and told in-laws and friends to come work in Oregon.

And each year, Miguel Salinas gathers the fruits of this migration to a Pioneros reunion. This year everybody gathered at St. Luke’s  church in Woodburn.

“There’s a handful of families who are Tejano. We have the Barella family, the Martinez family, the Gallegos, Salinas. The influence or presence there, you can see in, if you go to homes and talk to them, or if you see their cars, you can distinguish a Tejano from a non-Tejano,” Salinas says.

Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have lived in parts of the Pacific Northwest since the 1800s, but these communities went through a growth spurt starting in the 1940s.  World War II left farmers short on manpower, just when they needed to step up production. The U.S. government encouraged Mexican nationals and Mexican-Americans from the border states to come north and become migrant farm workers. Over the years, they kept coming.

By March 1953, Jesse Villareal was 15 — old enough to help his father shepherd the other ten kids in the family north, as part of a second wave of migration to St. Paul.

“We came with six other families, there were seven vehicles, we came with a fellow named Claudio Bustamente, became a big time farmer in the St. Paul area, six trucks besides ourselves in a caravan all the way from Texas to Oregon,” Villareal recalls.

They drove through snow in Colorado, crossed mountains, and landed in the rainiest place Villareal had ever seen.

“I had never seen trees as tall as as that was - and wondered, ‘Where are we?’ “

It was not an easy life. Mt Angel resident Lily Alejandro remembers.

“We’d get up at 4 in the morning and pick berries and wouldn’t have no help. Little kids, you know, school ages, in the fields, praying for people to come and help us!”

But families stayed.  They formed the backbone of a workforce that built the agricultural life of the valley. During the ‘50s, educator Ron Petrie was a young school principal in St. Paul.

“In spring and fall of the year we doubled our enrollment. The public school, we only had about 80-85 kids, grades, 1 through 8. But in the spring, we’d have 160 kids,” Petrie remembers.

Most of these kids Petrie says, were from Asherton, Texas. Many of the Tejano kids spoke English and had schooling. But there were a few students fresh from Mexico who needed more help.

The classrooms Petrie set up for them may well have been the state’s first for English language learners. Petrie went on to a state job designing migrant education for all of Oregon.

Jesse Villareal, who came as a young man, is now a retired firefighter in Canby. He says Oregon offered jobs - and other advantages, too.

“The folks in Oregon, I felt — in St. Paul — were more willing to count you as part of the community. In Texas, there was definitely Los Americans and Los Tejanos.  In Oregon, in  those early years, Mexicans apparently were not a common ethnic group in those early 50s.  It was kind of a joy to work with people, go to school together. The kids in St. Paul would have parties and we were invited.

There’s no question, says Miguel Salinas, that the St. Paul Pioneros weathered a lot over the years.

Newcomers weren’t welcome everywhere, and Salinas points out they sometimes faced discrimination. Some families never worked their way out of the migrant life.  But he says the Pioneros were a tough and unique group in Oregon history.

“If you were to go back into time and take snapshots of what took place, one would see a relationship of the labor force and the farmers co-existing and really becoming inter-dependent,” Salinas says.

By 1965, the Valley Migrant League reported that 17,000 migrant farm laborers came to the Willamette Valley for seasonal work. Five thousand, the league said, decided to stay.

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