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Hispanic Voters And Leaders Exploring Oregon Politics

Fresh off national elections helping Barack Obama in key states, Hispanic voters are about to watch the Senate vote on the nomination of the country’s first latina Supreme Court justice. And they’re exploring political possibilities here in Oregon.

But as April Baer reports, they’re learning hard lessons along the way about getting a seat at the table. 

Everyone’s political views are shaped by their experience. That’s how it is with some of the people leading in Oregon’s Latino movements.

Francisco Lopez   “I’m Francisco Lopez. I grew up in El Salvador.”

Salem’s Francisco Lopez is the director of CAUSA, Oregon’s Immigrant rights coalition. He came to the U.S. when he was 22, and reeling from  El Salvador’s bloody civil war.

In 1980, he was walking in a funeral procession for his hero, the slain Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Francisco Lopez  “His funeral was attacked by the military, from the roofs of the buildings in downtown San Salvador. They started shooting against the crowd, and I was there with my cousin. And while we were running away from the bullets, my cousin was shot in the head by an M-16 rifle from a soldier. And, you know, he blew his head in pieces. So I saw him die, next to me.”

Marta Guembes “My name is Marta Guembes.”

Marta Guembes became known organizing to get a Portland street re-named after the late civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. She also comes from a place where politics has been practiced down the barrel of a gun.

Marta Guembes  “I think that from the beginning —  where I grew up in a small town,  San Andreas Iztapa, Chimaltenango, in Guatemala — my experience, what I saw there was so much injustice. I believe in justice, I believe in changes, When I see disadvantage, I cannot just go blind.”

Considering the way Guembes and Lopez grew up, it’s not surprising they gravitated toward politics after coming to Oregon.  While they work on very different issues, they share some common values that set them apart from Oregon’s mainstream political process.

Lopez’ group, CAUSA, recently held a political training in Salem. The people gathered in folding chairs in this church basement sit attentively, as if they’re still working out how they fit in. While Lopez encourages everyone to grab a plate of tortillas and rice, organizer Sandra Hernandez is asking the group to think about difficult moments.

Here, she asks them to conjure up real situations they have experienced, either at their school, the home, or in the streets. The scenes become skits about out workers, or the moms trying to do the right thing for her kids. This method is ripped straight from the playbooks of Latin America’s post-revolutionary theorists.

Francisco Lopez: “What we call is that’s a story-based organizing. Their oral tradition is incorporated in their way of organizing, mobilization.”

Making political consensus out  of personal experience is a departure from the way parties have traditionally built voter blocs in Oregon. Lopez says it builds agendas, and works where traditional door-to-door or phone canvassing might not.

Francisco Lopez:  “They don’t need to have a power point presentation about it. They don’t need to have binders and name tags and the whole thing. Rather than organizing based on the issue, they’re organizing based on their common values.”

But embracing the language of resistance can get you a reputation for being unwilling to compromise, as Marta Guembes found last month, when an opponent took her on directly during the Cesar Chavez street naming debate.

City Commissioners were hearing testimony on the proposed renaming of 39th Avenue.

Eric Fruits from the studio interview “I was providing my testimony to council  I had probably spoken with members of the committee all of thirty seconds in my entire life leading up to the Council vote.”

Eric Fruits is president of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association. At the time, he was trying to get Council to vote against renaming his street after Chavez. Fruits says he wanted to do something to show his  desire to collaborate, with the group who’d  refused to meet with him.

Eric Fruits from the scene:  “…and toward that goal of crafting a compromise, I’d like to offer the Chavez Committee, a portrait of Cesar Chavez, as a gesture of good will, in hopes we can find a solution….”

Eric Fruits from the studio interview:  “So I got up, turned around, and the closest committee member was Marta Guembes.”

The crowd in the Council room fell silent. No one was sure if Guembes would take the offering.

Eric Fruits from the studio interview:  “After a brief pause, she said, is this for me? And I said yes and handed it to her.”

Since that night, Fruits has met repeatedly with Guembes and the committee. They’ve found some common ground. He says he thinks she wasn't necessarily stonewalling, and he understands activists sometimes have to hold their position.

Eric Fruits from the studio interview: “But I think there are issues where you have to be prepared to give as well as get.”

Again, Marta Guembes.

Marta Guembes  “It seems like you have to be more aware of the way of doing things in this community, compared to where I come from. I have learned that if you talk strong or you talk exactly what you want, that’s “Oh, this person is aggressive, this & that!’ But I guess that’s just the way in this city.”

Chip Shields  “A friend of mine calls it the Portland conspiracy of kindness,  where people are very nice to you when  they’re in front of you, but they’re not so nice to you when it matters.”

Chip Shields is a state representative for Oregon District 43, and a member of the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs. He says there's a political learning curve for everybody.

Chip Shields “I’m a social worker by trade. My colleagues in the social work profession, they have a protest view of politics, that the way you affect change is you gather many people together, and march on city hall with picket signs out in front. That can get you maybe a third of the way there”

But Shields says getting bills passed requires an entirely different set of political skills. He says  the Latino community  is developing those skills.

Tom Potter, a former police chief, and former Mayor of Portland agrees. But he also says Oregon's history shows there  is a learning curve on both sides.

Tom Potter   “I saw it as a young police officer in the mid 60s, when African Americans were beginning to acknowledge that they had rights that weren’t being listened to, or that they were bring treated differently, whether it was by the police or somebody else. And they wanted those things corrected.”

From the black community, to women marching for equal rights, to anti-war protests, Potter has seen so many groups run into the inflexible conventions of Oregon politics. He says that’s why he wanted to work with Latino organizers at City Hall – to keep Portland from running into the race politics that have torn up places like Los Angeles.

Tom Potter: “We have to develop a pathway for them to get to the point where they don’t have to go to the streets.”

The pathway may lie through more Latino people become elected themselves. Nancy Alvarado, born and raised in Malheur County, serves  on the Ontario, Oregon school board.

Nancy Alvarado:  “I’d love to see more Hispanics involved in the political realm, weather it’d be on school board, or running their local cities.”

Alvarado says the more she’s involved in trying to get things done, the more she realizes nothing happens as quickly as she’d like. But she predicts it will take both people like her, within the system, and activists outside pushing the edge, to get Oregon’s Latinos their seat at the table.