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Woodburn's Latino Community May Finally Find Its Voice

Throughout the West, historic discriminatory laws have excluded people of color from settling and owning property. Because of that, many Western states are largely white — but that’s quickly changing.

In Oregon, Latinos have worked on farms since 1942.  That’s when an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico brought thousands of farmworkers through the Bracero  guest worker program. But in the last couple of decades many workers have settled in Oregon.

Several rural towns in the state now are now up to 60 percent Latino. Woodburn, in the rich farmland of the mid-Willamette Valley, is one such town.

Producer Dmae Roberts has this profile.

Luis Quintero of Luis’ Tacqueria runs a popular restaurant on Main Street. Quintero and his wife, former farmworkers, started their business 20 years ago and felt welcome enough to bring family members from Mexico to this small town.

Luis & Luisa Quintero of Luis' Tacqueria. Photo by Richard Jensen

Luis & Luisa Quintero of Luis’ Tacqueria. Photo by Richard Jensen

“Since we moved here we brought 1-2-3-4-5 families, because I saw the potential. We saw better results than working for somebody else. A lot of opportunities here in Oregon. We just need to look for it. Just do your work, do your part and leave the rest for somebody else,” Quintero says.

Woodburn has a long history of live and let live. For generations, it’s been a haven for outsiders — like the Russian Orthodox community called the “Old Believers”.

And though a town of only 24,000 people, Woodburn is now home to the largest population of Latinos in the state. Nearly 60 percent of Woodburn’s fulltime residents are Latino, according to the 2010 Census.

City Councilor Pete McCallum and Mayor Kathryn Figley. Photo by Richard Jensen

City Councilor Pete McCallum and Mayor Kathryn Figley. Photo by Richard Jensen

Kathryn Figley has been Woodburn’s mayor for 11 years.

“Woodburn is snapshot of what America is likely to be in 2050, and I can tell you that if that is so, not only do you have nothing to be afraid of, we have a lot to look forward to,” she says.

Despite her optimistic view, she’s weathered her fair share of town crises. A 2008 bank bombing that killed two police officers and more recently, three Latino youths were convicted of setting fire to their high school.

Figley called it a prank gone bad that caused $6 million in damages. For Figley, the daily challenge of diversity is communication.

“Communicating with younger people is a challenge. People who are recent immigrants, in some cases not documented immigrants, who speak a variety of languages and who have different sources of information. And sometimes getting out the word can be a challenge.”

For example — recently the town sent out notices that the town’s drinking water tested unsafe. But  wanted to make sure Latinos got the word so they ran the notice on Spanish language stations.

A lot of communication involves working with several Latino organizations that have helped farmworkers who wanted to settle in Woodburn. In 1985 agricultural workers formed a union of tree planters and farmworkers called PCUN. That union fostered several organizations to help farmworkers.

Roberto Jimenez of FHDC. Photo by Richard Jensen

Roberto Jimenez of FHDC. Photo by Richard Jensen

One is the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation. Roberto Jimenez is the executive director.

“Some of the worst housing is on farm housing. They’re unregistered labor camps so the state doesn’t have any oversight of them. There may be no running water or heat. There may be families living in units that were just  designed for seasonal workers living year round with no access to kitchens and they’re very, very isolated.”

The Nuevo Amanecer project is one of two apartment complexes on a 14-acre site being built by the corporation. The units will include 40 farmworker families with close to 150 children. 300 more families are on the waiting list.

“Woodburn has long been known as a good place to live. It’s going to be larger and there’s going to be a larger population of Latinos and probably other immigrants moving into farm work. There’s also going to be a lot more education available and a lot more documented young Latinos with ambitions. And I think that’s going to be a positive thing for the local economy and local communities.”

Roberto Jimenez of FHDC & Jaime Arrendo, Capaces. Photo by Richard Jensen

Roberto Jimenez of FHDC & Jaime Arrendo, Capaces. Photo by Richard Jensen

One young Latino with ambitions is Jamie Arrendo. Arrendo is the director of special projects for CAPACES Leadership Institute. Its goal is to train the next leaders of Woodburn.

“There’s half a million people in Oregon that are Latinos and ending Woodburn you’re  talking 14 or 15,000 folks, 60 percent of the population. And out of that 40 percent are under the age of 18 in the Latino community. Super young community; they’re all U.S. citizens.”

Arrendo says CAPACES (which means capable) is banking on their young people to stick around once they go to college — so they’re starting early classes and mentorship on civic issues. Part of that training involves figuring out how to make city government work for the Latino community.

Laura Isiordia, the executive director of CAPACES, remembers long nights of contentious city council meetings in the late 90s when the first farmworker housing project was being developed — and the remarks of one council member in particular.

Laura Isiordia, CAPACES. Photo by Richard Jensen

Laura Isiordia, CAPACES. Photo by Richard Jensen

“… and he goes ‘just go home. Go back to your countries! You don’t belong here!’ And I respond to him with tears. We are here this is our land, we’re not going anywhere.’ You know tears come to me when I remember that time.”

Isiordia says the same community that told her to go back home now shows support — especially recently when CAPACES wanted to paint a mural to depict farmworker struggles. But Isiordia says the next steps are the school board and the city council.

“The board doesn’t have people of color. Woodburn doesn’t have representation for people of color. When we talk about representation, we’re talking about positions in power.”

And with six city council seats up for election in 2014, Woodburn’s Latino community may finally get the representation it’s seeking.

This story originally aired on the NPR program “Latino USA.”

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