The road into Hermiston, Oregon, is lined with flat fields browned by the cold of winter.
Laborers at an onion plant, bundled in coats and scarves, stood among truckloads of onions as they checked their cellphones during a break outside on a January weekend. Just over the hill, a water tower welcomes visitors with an image of the town’s most popular crop — a seeded watermelon — and the slogan, “Hermiston, where life is sweet!”
Turning onto the main drag of Highway 395, icons of suburbia line the road: a Walmart superstore, Dairy Queen, McDonald's and just about any other fast-food chain you can imagine. What’s different here from other parts of the country is the glow of signs that dot the windows of gas stations, bars and small restaurants: two fingers crossed above the words “Oregon Lottery.”
"This is where two people won within in the same month," said Jose Garcia, an addiction counselor who has his own practice, New Horizons, in Hermiston.
He took us on a tour of all the places his clients play video lottery games. He told stories of wins, losses and the people who show up at his door.
“Remember I told you about that?” He pointed at a brightly lit convenience store on the corner, though it’s just one of many dozens of places where gambling is legal in Hermiston.
As legalized gambling grows, so does the impact on communities vulnerable to gambling addiction, advocates say. And in Oregon, counselors such as Garcia say the lure of the lottery is hitting Latino agricultural workers and low-income families especially hard.
Counselors hear the gamblers' dreams: taking care of family back home, opening a business and buying a big house — the American dream. Immigrants with families established in the U.S. also mention that gambling winnings can help pay for the processes of gaining U.S. citizenship.
While gambling affects all racial and ethnic groups, experts say video lottery games — a feature of the Oregon Lottery — may be especially appealing to recent immigrants because the games are easy to navigate whether a gambler speaks English or not.
“I kind of myself went through the system,” Garcia said. “So I’m not all about books, because I have the experience.”
He Saw A Need Among His Neighbors
Garcia has lived in Oregon most of his life. He moved to Hermiston from Yakima, Washington, in 1989, when he had a young family.
“I wanted to just get out of Yakima, because I was into drinking and drugs,” he said. “So I promised my wife. I said, ‘Let's go, let's go. Let's get out of this town.’ That's how I ended up here. And then, like within a year that I moved here, I got a DUI.”
That DUI led him into recovery, which led him to start volunteering with Umatilla County. He saw the gaps in treatment options, especially for people of color. Today, he runs New Horizons with his wife, Letty Garcia.
“I saw that there was people coming in, they were monolingual, and there was nobody there that was helping them out,” said Garcia, who is Mexican-American and can speak Spanish.
As we drove around, Letty Garcia helped navigate from the back seat. She told him to visit restaurants with new additions that provide a designated space for the 21-and-older video games.
He drove into the lot of a small Chinese restaurant and pulled around back, just as a man entered a door to the backroom poker machines.
“A lot of Latinos live up this street,” he said, pulling back into traffic and past a garden-style apartment building. “This is housing for migrant workers.”
Letty worked in child care before joining her husband in his counseling work. Before his recovery and career shift, Jose Garcia was like many of his clients, working long hours in the rich soil of Eastern Oregon.
“I never, not ever, in my dreams did I think I would end up being a counselor, you know?” he said.
But Garcia got tired of seeing his clients — particularly ones with DUIs on their records — failing to fulfill their court-ordered requirements because they did not work traditional 9-to-5 jobs and couldn’t take time off to attend classes. Having lived that reality himself, he decided to branch off and offer services that would meet the needs of his community.
“I quit the county on a Friday, and then Monday I had the doors open for New Horizons,” he said. “I started with two people. They were right there waiting for me on Monday morning.”
Today, New Horizons treats more than 100 clients for substance-abuse addictions, problem gambling and court-ordered DUI classes. Paperwork has replaced scheduling as the biggest challenge. Some of his clients are undocumented immigrants.
“I do have a lot of people that they have no documentation, and they're so afraid to even fill out paperwork,” Garcia said. The center receives money from the state for its services, which means clients have to fill out large packets with personal information. Garcia said the documents make his clients uneasy, especially under the Trump administration, despite his efforts to reassure them.
“I say, 'Look, this is going to stay here, man. I promise, this is not going to go anywhere,’” he said. “‘This is here for you, and I know if the state someday comes, at least I have something to prove that you did the program.’”
Gambling has always hit communities of color hard, and as access to legalized gambling is getting easier, the risks of gambling addiction expand. The lack of resources — and specifically the lack of culturally specific resources — is becoming more obvious.
When Gambling Becomes A Problem
In Portland, counselors at the Problem Gambling Services Clinic say there are myriad reasons why their clients had a gambling hobby turn into an addiction.
For people who are undocumented and paid under the table, the easy access to cash makes them more susceptible to gambling — and their status can make it harder to stop, said Karla Parra, a counselor at the clinic. One example: People with bank accounts can limit how much they withdraw in a day, one way to curb binge gambling. But to get a bank account, you need a government-issued ID. So that leaves out undocumented immigrants.
Counselors say another big challenge in helping Latino clients is erasing the stigma around gambling addictions and mental-health treatment. Problem gambling is an addiction that people are not as familiar with as, say, alcoholism.
“It goes back to lack of education,” said Alexia DeLeon, program director for Latino problem gambling services at the Lewis & Clark clinic. “Lack of access to someone who looks like them and literally speaks the same language — that's huge.”
Two counselors travel the Portland region, an area of more than 1 million people. One of their meeting spaces is housed within a Latino community organization, and the counselors said their clients feel more comfortable talking there rather than in the sterile office building the university provides.
Meeting on campus feels like they are going to counseling — something not always embraced in the Latino community and some other communities of color, where some people of faith are more inclined to place their trust in God than in institutions. The mistrust in doctors goes back generations, to a long history of trauma surrounding medical studies and testing.
“There's such a thing as historical trauma,” DeLeon said. “I know I was raised with, ‘Don't ask, don't tell. Don't talk about anything outside of the family unless you want to be ostracized from the family. ... Why would somebody who looks like you or me ever want to trust to go into an office where primarily white people work to talk about intimate, deep things?'”
For some of the clinic’s patients, the sheer act of going to therapy is seen as betraying their faith, and even their family.
DeLeon says she hears one particular phrase often: “No estamos locos.”
“‘No estamos locos. We're not crazy. Why do we need to go to therapy if we're not crazy?’” she said.
Jose Garcia hears a similar theme back in Hermiston, where Latino locals have their own name for his clinic: “La casa de locos.”
The house of crazies.
And the counselors at Lewis & Clark face one more challenge: In many Latino cultures, gambling is an accepted part of everyday life.
DeLeon and Parra spoke about La Lotería, a game played in many Mexican households that is similar to bingo but with pictures on the cards instead of numbers. It’s played from an early age, and children can win small dollar amounts, toys or candies. Adults can play for major money. Poker, craps, dominoes and card games also are often played at some family gatherings.
“I think that's in a lot of cultures, we are already doing these things that really fall under the umbrella of gambling,” Parra said. “That makes it much harder to see it as a problem.”
Experts say gambling addiction often occurs alongside substance abuse or other mental health issues. But unlike other addictions, problem gambling can be hard to spot, because there might not be physical evidence that someone is in trouble. No drastic weight loss or gain, for example.
Lewis & Clark provides free counseling for gamblers and their family members, creating one less barrier to treatment. Family members are taught how to confront their loved ones or get treatment as a family. DeLeon said family counseling is important because of the collectivist culture of many Latinos who come to the clinic.
“When you think about communities of color, for example, counseling and therapy as a profession was never meant for people like us,” she said. “Now that some of us are gaining the education and awareness around these things and wanting to give back to our communities, we're having to bridge that gap first: these systems that were not built to benefit people who look like us.”
Family Game Night
Saturday-night entertainment in Hermiston has its limitations. Teens crowd the hallway of the town’s bowling alley; folks flock to a locally owned Mexican restaurant where two women make fresh tortillas at the front.
Just down the road, moviegoers stream out of the theater after the weekend’s latest box-office hit. The next closest theater is 20 miles away at the Wildhorse Resort and Casino on tribal lands in Pendleton.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation are one of eight tribes that own and operate casinos in Oregon.
The Wildhorse itself looks like what you’d expect: It’s dimly lit and smells of cigarette smoke, and the game room buzzes with neon lights and high-pitched rings and dings. Familiar faces and voices from the Simpsons barrel out of one popular terminal.
Mary Liberty-Traughber, the casino’s public relations manager, strolled through the floor pointing out the casino’s resources for problem gambling. At each entrance, gamblers can pick up informational brochures written in Spanish and English at a greeter’s desk. Immediately off the game room floor, there’s a phone patrons can use to reach the problem gambling helpline “1-877-MY-LIMIT.”
Outside the gaming room, the casino has become a destination for family fun, with casual dining options, a movie theater, teen arcade and a childcare center.
On the game floor, Latino servers cater to a Spanish-speaking clientele, providing a feeling of belonging to a community that can often feel isolated.
“Why do you think that the Latinos are so hooked up in the casino? Because they treat them good. They make them feel good,” said Garcia, the Hermiston addiction counselor.
He began worrying about the casino targeting Latino Oregonians when they hosted Mexican entertainer Ramon Ayala. He’s performed there the last two years.
Liberty-Traughber says the casino is just booking acts potential customers want to see.
“We just want to appeal to the local demographics — and by local, [we mean] anybody within an hour's drive,” she said. “The last couple of years, we've had Ramon Ayala, and it has been the biggest crowd ever.”
Casinos are becoming community gathering places across the rural West. In Oregon, each federally recognized tribe is allowed one casino in the state, part of U.S. efforts to make amends with tribes for generations of geographic encroachment and attempted genocide of Native Americans by European settlers.
People who would have never dreamed of setting foot in a gambling hall now happily go to concerts, dinner and the like at casinos.
Liberty-Traughber points to the financial support Wildhorse provides for her tribe. Registered members of the Umatilla tribe receive a quarterly check from the casino’s earnings. The value differs based on the casino’s profits.
And those profits are growing. In April, the casino will break ground on its latest expansion to create a new tower of hotel rooms and a bowling alley. The casino property already includes a truck stop, a golf course, an RV park and teepees where the Boy Scouts camp in the summer.
Across the road, you can see the impact the casino is having on the tribe. There is a governance center, an under-construction school, and the Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center, completed in 2018.
Liberty-Traughber said she is aware that everyone does not gamble in a healthy way and says the health center provides a range of services, including problem-gambling counseling for members of the tribe. While that is helpful for her community, Garcia continues to worry about the impact of the casino on his friends and neighbors.
Another Way to Play
Back on the tour of Hermiston, Garcia pulled his pickup truck into a shopping center parking lot.
“This is where some of my clients say they park,” he said, passing by a Safeway supermarket. At the other end of the lot is a Shari’s restaurant.
This diner-style restaurant is yet another place to gamble. If you don’t want to buy scratch-off tickets at a gas station, you can play video poker while waiting for a slice of pie at Shari’s.
Come the end of the year, Oregonians will have another option to gamble — in their pockets.
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the ban on commercial sports betting across the country was unconstitutional. Overturning the ban is said to have unleashed a multi-billion-dollar industry that was once relegated to the black market.
The Oregon Lottery is positioned to reintroduce a new tech-savvy version of a sports betting game they actually introduced in the late 1990s.
Sports Action was a parlay game in which players bet on NFL teams at local lottery retailers, similar to Keno. The game was shelved after NCAA officials said they were unwilling to host games in states where sports betting existed. The lottery found that the state could make more revenue hosting March Madness games and the like than on Sports Action.
Now, the Oregon Lottery is developing an app they hope to roll out in time for the 2019 NFL season. The app will have unique player profiles, allowing for problem-gambling safeguards such as tracking a player’s wagers, how often they bet and maximum wagers for a game or even a 24-hour period.
“We know there is a small percentage of the state that should not be playing our games,” said Matt Shelby, public information manager for the Oregon Lottery. “Targeting problem gamblers is a hard thing, because it cuts across all demographics. We try to hit a broad market with a message that is not as broad.”
Oregon Lottery donates 1 percent of its annual earnings to problem-gambling treatment and awareness. That's $1.41 per resident. In the latest campaign, they worked with problem gamblers in recovery to create the language for the campaign.
But Garcia said new ads, even ones in both English and Spanish, will not be enough to reach his community.
As he rolled around town on a Saturday night, watching people duck into back rooms of restaurants reminiscent of speakeasies, he talked about his desire to shift his counseling to strictly problem gamblers and leave the rest of the practice to his staff.
Until then, he will keep distributing green-and-yellow Spanish-language problem-gambling awareness booklets that say “¿Quiere Apostar?” or “Wanna bet?” on the cover around Hermiston.
This story has been updated to clarify that Latino problem gambling services is just one service providing by the Problem Gambling Clinic and to correct Alexia DeLeon's title.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the Wildhorse Resort and Casino in photo captions.
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.