He says that comes with the territory when you’ve got darker skin and a name that suggests places other than Oregon.
“That’s true even with Spanish people or Hispanic people,” he said. “Then the questions invariably start. ‘Oh, where are you from?’ ‘I’m from Portland.’ ‘No, where are you from originally?’ It’s almost like saying, ‘Clearly you’re not from here.’ It’s like, ‘Well, why? Because I’m brown? Because I have an accent?’ Of course I’m from Portland, I’ve been here 10 years.”
Barrera was born in Colombia. He says many people assume he’s Mexican. But it would be just as accurate for him to say he’s a child of the world.
“My parents immigrated when I was four years old. We arrived on a Boeing plane, not some migrant farm program. So I’m very fortunate,” he said. “I got an education, and landed in New York like many immigrants in the 1960s.
“If you look at a picture of my kindergarten class, it’s almost like looking at an ad for the United Colors of Benetton, or something. There’s just this mix of everyone and any shape, size and color. People from all over the world in that little kindergarten classroom. That was my reality, that this is a diverse society.”
His parents divorced when he was around nine. But if anything, that made his perspective on the world even broader. His father remarried to a tall blonde woman from the Pacific Northwest and he took Barrera along as his career carried him around the world.
“I’ve been a minority in Africa, because I was white. Or because I was Christian living in Indonesia, in a Muslim country. I’ve been called everything under the sun,” he said. “I’ve been called a spic, a wetback, a beaner. I’ve been called a white monkey in Indonesia, all sorts of racial slurs. But I just don’t dwell on it. To me, it’s all just ignorance.”
Barrera, who runs a Portland trading company, could have settled anywhere as an adult. He’s one of four brothers, and they all live on different continents.
“For all our faults in the U.S., I still think that we’re more open about race in the states than a lot of countries care to admit,” he said. “For example, if you were to go to Spain or Germany, they’re getting a lot of immigrants now or over the last 20-30 years, but you will never look at a Moroccan or a West African in Spain, even though they have may have been there for generations and say, ‘Well he’s Spanish.’
“You look at the parliament in a lot of European nations, they’re not very mixed. Look at our Congress, at least you’re going to have Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, you’re going to have a better cross section representation. It might not be perfect, but it’s better than a lot of other countries.”
His travels have given Barrera a point of view that he admits is, in this age, weirdly optimistic when it comes to race.
“We have so much in this country, honestly. We’re so wealthy, we’re so rich. I just laugh,” he said. “Until you’ve been to West Africa and seen how so much of the world’s population lives, or parts of Asia, or South America, you have no idea. Everything pales by comparison. We’re fat, dumb and happy, we just don’t realize it most of the time.”