Teresa Alonso Leon

Teresa Alonso Leon

Photo courtesy Oregon House Democrats

Teresa Alonso Leon has a few memories of her early childhood in the Mexican state of Michoacan.

“My mom, she used to take laundry down to the lake and wash our clothes by hand,” she said. “I remember going down by the lake and spending time with my mom, and taking baths in the lake.”

When she was 5, Alonso Leon’s parents decided the family would be better off in the United States. They moved to Woodburn, Oregon.

The Willamette Valley town was drawing scores of migrant farm workers.

Alonso Leon said her parents worked long hours in the fields for low wages. Their house lacked indoor plumbing. She learned English and soon became the family’s interpreter. The role came with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

“I learned how to advocate on behalf of our family,” said Alonso Leon. “My parents couldn’t make it to the doctor because that would mean they would lose a day’s wages. At minimum wage that meant a lot to our family. So as a 12-, 13-year-old I would take my siblings to the doctor.”

That role as an advocate for people struggling to get by may have foreshadowed her political career decades later.

Alonso Leon was appointed to Woodburn City Council four years ago. Last November, she won election to the Oregon House, replacing a fellow Democrat who retired.

Something else happened along the way.

In the 1980s when she was still a child, Alonso Leon’s family took advantage of a Reagan-era law that allowed people living in the country illegally to apply for permanent residence status.

Then in 2012 — just five years ago — Alonso Leon became a United States citizen.

Now age 41, she chokes up when she speaks about her journey from immigrant child to United States citizen.

“It’s one of those kind of dreams. It’s a dream that became a reality,” she said. “And before I became a citizen, I don’t know that I was aspiring to be a politician. But when you become a citizen, it’s life-changing, right?”

Latinos in the Woodburn area are encouraged by Alonso Leon’s election to the Oregon House.

Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, the Oregon Farmworkers Union, said her campaign showed other Latinos that political office wasn’t out of their reach.

“Her campaign provided a lot of energy and a lot of hope for our community that with a strategy, with rolling up our sleeves and going to work and developing a good electoral campaign, that we could win,” Ramirez said.

While Alonso Leon won’t be the first Hispanic lawmaker in Oregon, she’s the first to represent the heavily Latino Woodburn area. The local school district is more than 81 percent Hispanic.

Ramirez said the legislative district was designed following the 2000 census with an eye toward helping a Latino get elected.

“In our book, it was going to take about 10 years to do that. It took a little bit longer,” he said.

Downtown Woodburn is lined with taquerias and storefronts advertising bus tickets to Mexico. The front counter at Santana Mexican Food features a campaign sign for Alonso Leon.

Felix Santana says he met Teresa Alonso Leon when she dropped a campaign sign off at his family's restaurant in downtown Woodburn.

Felix Santana says he met Teresa Alonso Leon when she dropped a campaign sign off at his family’s restaurant in downtown Woodburn.

Chris Lehman/OPB

Felix Santana, whose family owns the business, said he can remember when the candidate stopped by to drop it off last fall. He said he supports Alonso Leon because she comes from the background of a working family like many people in the area.

Alonso Leon said she worked in the fields as a kid, but thanks to the persistence of a high school counselor, she enrolled in college.

Eventually, she landed a job coordinating Oregon’s GED programs. She’s quitting the job to serve in the Oregon House, which means a hefty pay cut.

Alonso Leon said education funding will be one of her priorities in Salem. Despite her recent success, she said she knows what it’s like to grow up in a family where resources are scarce.

“Those type of struggles I don’t think are represented at the state level. Those voices aren’t really heard,” she said.

And she said the voices of working families in her district aren’t just Latino. She says she even learned a bit of Russian for her campaign.

At the end of the day, Alonso Leon said most people are concerned about the same things: jobs, education and public safety.