A group of elected officials in Oregon recently posted a video denouncing the Trump administration’s plan to weaken protections for homeless transgender people and undocumented immigrants who receive federal subsidized housing.
Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González was just one of the politicians in the video, a joint effort by Metro, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, and Gov. Kate Brown. But he said some people used that as a chance to attack him on social media because he’s Latino.
González, the son of Mexican immigrants, was born and raised in Cornelius in Washington County. Still, he’s had people question his immigration status and tell him to go home.
The racist comments echo what Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she heard after criticizing the Oregon Department of Transportation’s response to homelessness. ODOT spent nearly $1 million to place boulders at freeway entrances to deter homeless people from setting up camps there.
González is the first Latino elected to the Metro Council, and Hardesty is the first black woman on the Portland City Council.
OPB reporter Erica Morrison sat down with González last week to talk about what it’s like to be an elected official of color in Oregon right now. Below are highlights from that conversation, or click on the audio player at the top of this story to hear the whole conversation.
Q&A with Metro Councilor Juan Carlos González
Erica Morrison: Recently, President Trump made some racist comments about four congresswomen of color going back to their country or being sent back to where they came from. Only one of those women was not a U.S.-born citizen. You have been receiving similar comments?
Juan Carlos González: I just received quite a bit of comments about belonging here, who I speak for, going back to my country as well. And honestly, the reason that I shared the comments was really to show people that obviously national dialogue and national rhetoric has a really strong impact on what happens here locally — what happens to our neighbors and how our neighbors treat each other.
When the office of the President makes racist and xenophobic statements, it emboldens our neighbors to attack those of us that are “foreign”. We need to call it for what it is.— Juan Carlos González (@JCGonzalezOR) July 16, 2019
I’m born + raised in Oregon. But people like me are often made to feel like Oregon isn’t my home. pic.twitter.com/78IFaMOVgU
Morrison: You mentioned earlier that the video [Metro put out] was based on “Oregon values.” What are Oregon’s values?
González: I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching and research and trying to identify really what those values are. In many ways, just like the United States of America, a lot of those values can be very conflicting. We value natural sources of things, we value people, we value agriculture, we value our forests. Those are the values that I choose to push for the future because that’s the kind of Oregon that I think we need to continue to share with future generations.
I sincerely believe that right now we’re fighting for the soul of our country. And there are a set of historical values that we can cling to that discriminate, that create divisions among race in class or we can choose a different future. I think that’s the future that so many new elected leaders and a lot of visionaries are putting forward.
Morrison: As we also talk about what Oregon is becoming: It’s becoming browner, it’s becoming a place where people of diverse backgrounds are coming for opportunities. How can we create a space in which people will feel welcome when people in power — yourself and Jo Ann Hardesty — both posted things about racial hate that you received this week?
González: When we lead with racial equity, we shouldn’t be surprised when racism and backlash is the first thing that people feel. I think that the work must be led with race because historically it’s been led with race to hurt and to separate and divide. And so now we must use race to unite and to strengthen and to fortify.
Thread (1): Since sharing my position on ODOT’s use of boulders to displace houseless folks, our office has received a large number of hostile messages, comments, and responses in addition to those of you voicing your support for compassionate solutions.— Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty (@JoAnnPDX) July 20, 2019
Morrison: What is racial equity? Because I think that equity is a buzzword that people use all the time, and I’m not sure that Oregon can be an equitable — that the United States can be an equitable place — based on the histories of how people of color have been treated. We’re coming up on the 400th anniversary of when slavery began in the United States, and also have to think about the natives who were here when pioneers came. And today we look at equity in a place that didn’t allow people of color to have land. So what is equity?
González: Racial equity and equity to me is outcomes. It’s really working to make sure that people have information and access to ensure outcomes that ultimately, in a perfect world, aren’t decided upon by your race.
You could look at nearly every single indicator for quality of life, for wealth, for anything, and across every statistic based on race, people of color disproportionately experience poverty. They experience homelessness. You name it.
That’s an interesting point about ‘Can we ever be equitable?’ For me, in my position, I have to work toward it. And when you have people like the president saying, ‘Go back to where you came from and fix it there,’ where I came from is here, and I have no choice but to make this place better.
Sharing America: A Public Radio Collaboration
Erica Morrison is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in the Northwest and Hartford, Connecticut, St. Louis and Kansas City. You can find more “Sharing America” coverage here.