Oregon’s Latin American communities are thriving as their populations grow

Latin American music is played in the sound system at the flea market in Oregon while customers eat taco al-vapar or walk down the aisles with star-shaped piñatas and ash-darts to browse the many stalls in the market.

The 49-year-old Pablo Fuentes sells hats every weekend on Southeast Stark Street and on 182nd Avenue after long hours of construction work for a week. Fuentes spent his childhood in Tijuana, Mexico, and traveled with his family to California in the early 1990s before a more affordable cost of living drew him to Gresham in the late 1990s.

In his early years in Oregon, Fuentes said he was one of several Mexican immigrants in his area, and it was difficult to find a Latin American community. This has changed significantly over time. Fuentes, speaking through an interpreter, said he now has far more Latin American neighbors, and has more Latin American restaurants, businesses and public places such as the market.

“It’s nice to be around people who speak your native language,” Fuentes said.

The Latin American population of Oregon has grown dramatically over the past three decades, and experts expect that number will only grow. Experts say that primarily immigration in previous decades, the growth of the Latin American population is now fueled by children and grandchildren of this generation who were born in Oregon or moved here from other states.

The state’s Latin American population has grown by more than 30% over the past 10 years as Oregon added nearly 140,000 Latinos, according to the 2020 census. This growth occurred after the Latin American population of Oregon jumped 144% from 1990 to 2000 and grew by another 63% from 2000 to 2010.

The Oregon Latino population now stands at 588,757 and has grown faster than the national rate for each of the past three decades. Latinos are now the largest minority group in the state, accounting for nearly 14% of the state’s population. Among Oregon residents under the age of 18, Hispanics make up 23% of the population, according to the census, which suggests that their numbers will continue to grow in the coming years.

About 40% of Oregon Latinos were born in the state, while 28% were born elsewhere in the U.S. and about 30% were born in other countries, according to a 2019 U.S. community survey.

“In the 1990s until the Great Recession, Latin American population growth was driven by immigration and high birth rates,” said Charles Rainerson, coordinator of the Oregon Data Center at the Portland State University Population Research Center. “In recent years, this growth has been facilitated by internal migration and the age structure of the population.”

Victor and Nora Morales moved to Portland in 2020 to avoid rising cost of living in the Gulf area.

Nora, who was born in Auckland, California, to a Mexican immigrant family, and Victor, who moved to the East Bay from Guatemala at age 9, worried their 10- and 11-year-olds would be stuck in less diverse parts of the area. Portland. Eventually, in 2020, they bought a home in the unincorporated district of Washington in Beaverton School District, where they believed their children could get a good education and join a strong swimming program – both children from an early age engaged in swimming competitions – being nearby with other Hispanics with shared cultural experiences.

“There were other options,” said Victor Morales. “But when we looked at the diversity of schools, it was almost non-existent. That’s what drew us back to Southwest Portland because we wanted our kids to feel welcome. ”

More than half of Oregon’s Latin American population lives in Multnamo, Washington and Marion counties. Over the past decade, the number of Latinos in all three has grown by at least 25%. Washington County has the largest Latin American population – 107,000 people, while the relatively small Morrow County had the largest share – 41% of the 12,000 residents. In Klakamas County, the number of Latinos has grown by 38.5% over the past decade to more than 40,000.

Latinos were in Oregon long before it was a state, he worked in Oregon in mines and built railroads. Prior to World War II, Latin American communities took root in the state despite repeated deportations. At the same time, the state’s farms depended on the labor force of Hispanic migrants mostly from Texas, California, and Mexico.

Levi Herrera-Lopez, executive director of the Mano a Mano Family Center, which serves immigrant families in Marion County, said many Latinos who came to Oregon before the mid-1980s were farm workers who stayed for the harvest season. and then moved to other states.

That changed when federal policy opened the door for more Latinos to settle in Oregon. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which punished farms that hired illegal immigrants while providing a path to legal status for illegal agricultural workers already working in the United States. for the harvest season to settle in the state instead.

California policies in the 1990s – including those who denied driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and a failed attempt to deny them health and education in 1994 – attracted more Hispanics to Oregon, Herrera Lopez said. And as more and more Hispanics settled in Oregon, more and more of their relatives followed them. Herrera-Lopez said there are now many Latinos in Salem who come from the same villages or cities of Mexico.

“The reason we moved to Salem, which I’ve never heard of in my life, is that we had a family here,” said Herrera Lopez, who moved with her family from Mexico to Salem. in 1992. a lot of population. They chose Salem because they had a connection here. “

As Oregon’s Latin American population grew, cultural centers developed in communities across the state.

Herrera-Lopez said he has watched the Latin American community grow exponentially in southeastern Salem since his family settled there in the 1990s. Latin American restaurants and markets are now filling the shopping corridors along Lancaster Drive.

Maria Caballera Rubio, executive director of the Washington County Cultural Center, which serves the Latin American community in Washington County, has also overseen the development of Latin American neighborhoods in Hillsboro, Cornelius and parts of Beaverton since her family of 196 farm workers .

Centro Cultural has a large community center in Cornelius, where more than half of the population is Hispanic. At the center, the nonprofit organizes community events to bring people together for holidays such as Dia de Los Muertos, hosts holiday food and toy CDs, and provides services such as English lessons.

“As generations have passed, seniors who have lived here for five decades are now coming to our community center,” said Caballero Rubio. “Now their children have children of their own, and sometimes grandchildren.”

However, as the population continues to grow, advocates say more needs to be done for Latinos to thrive.

A Report for 2016 from the Oregon Community Foundation found that Latinos have made progress in education, employment, and health care since 2000, but were still more likely to be poor, uninsured, and uneducated than their white counterparts. About 15% of Hispanics lived in poverty in Oregon in 2019, compared to 11% of white Oregon residents. according to a survey by the American community. (People who identify themselves as Hispanics or Hispanics can be of any race according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)

In Portland, the school board has pledged to boost black and Latin American students in 2019, but last fall a national test found that black and Latin American primary and secondary school students continued to do well for at least a year, and in some cases three or four years, lags behind expectations at the class level.

Tony DeFalco, executive director of the Latino Network, which advocates for Latinos in the Portland area, said policies such as the Preschool for All initiative, which Maltnamo County voters adopted in 2020, could help close education gaps by providing free and quality early childhood. education options for color communities.

DeFalco said providing services and finding ways to engage the Latin American population where they are is especially important, so the Latino Network is raising money for construction Plaza Esperancea preschool that will be located in the part of Gresham where more than 30% are Hispanic.

“As the population grows, we need increasing efforts by the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to balance the needs and priorities of Latin American communities across the state in education, community security, and welfare to continue to benefit us all on the path to prosperity.” said DeFalk.

DeFalco said Latinos need to be better represented among elected officials in Oregon as the population continues to grow. Herrera-Lopez also noted that Latinos in decision-making positions in Salem local government are few, although they make up 28% of the population of Marion County. He said it could leave the community as a whole ignored by the authorities.

There have been some successes in recent years. The Oregon legislature now includes a record 13 knees after four, including two Hispanics, were sworn in last year. But Hispanics still make up less than 8% of lawmakers, even though they make up nearly 14% of Oregon’s population.

Caballero Rubio said she would like to continue to see Hispanics better represented at the state and county level, but she said she was delighted that more Hispanics were running for city council in cities such as Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove.

And in Portland the daughter of Caballero Rubio, Carmen Rubio, became the first Hispanic or Latino to be elected to the Portland City Council in 2020, half a century after her mother immigrated to Oregon.

“I think we’re starting to see change,” Caballero Rubio said. “The younger generations have become more active and we are starting to see more and more people of color and Latinos in elected office.”

Jamie Goldberg; jgoldberg@oregonian.com; @jamiebgoldberg

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