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Bus Tour Newsletter #13 – September 2021

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September 15th through October 15th is National Hispanic Heritage month. Originally observed as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 before being expanded in 1988, the month aligns with the anniversaries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile declaring their independence. In this month’s newsletter, we will look at the unique history of Hispanic and Latino communities in the Portland metro, as well as the critical role they play in Portland’s cultural tapestry. We will also discuss the patterns of discrimination and segregation that these communities have faced, and the continued inequities we see as a result. 

Mexican men attending a celebration at Oaks Park, 1944, Source: OHS Research Library

History of Latino Settlement in Oregon

Spanish explorers were some of the first non-Indigenous people to reach what is now known as Oregon, but it took many centuries for Oregon’s Latino community to become what it is today. From the 16th century until 1821, Spanish colonial possessions extended from the tip of South America to the present day Oregon-California border. The northernmost section of this vast territory, known as Alta California, was a part of Mexico from their independence until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. During this time, Mexican vaqueros, or horsemen, were sometimes hired to work cattle drives in the Oregon Territory. It was not until 1850 that a person of Latino origin was listed in the Oregon census, a thirteen-year old boy in Oregon City named Guadalupe de la Cruz.

It was not until the First World War that the Latino population in Oregon began to grow significantly, driven by the sharp increase in demand for agricultural workers. Unlike other immigrant groups which we have talked about in previous newsletters, this settlement was largely in agrarian areas outside of the Portland metro – the 1920 census listed just 37 “Mexicans” in Multnomah County. During the Great Depression, Latino farmworkers were scapegoated for the economic downturn, and as many as 1.8 million Latinos in the US were “repatriated” to Mexico, in spite of the fact that many were American-born citizens.

This disturbing pattern repeated just a decade later, when the Second World War again created a massive need for farmworkers. In Oregon, this need was exacerbated by the internment of thousands of Japanese American farmers in 1942. The US created the “Bracero Program” in 1942, which brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers in to meet the demand, including 15,136 to Oregon. While most of these workers returned to Mexico at the end of their contract period, many stayed and attempted to put down roots. In the 1950s, the Immigration Bureau and the Border Patrol began to conduct massive, military-style roundups and deportations of Latinos across the country, including Oregon, in what was offensively called “Operation Wetback.”

In spite of these threats, the Latino population in Oregon continued to increase over the subsequent decades, and included an increasing number of Central Americans. In the 2000 census, Latinos became the second largest ethnic group in Multnomah County, and with this growth has come an explosion of cultural impacts including a thriving Latin music scene, a touring theater company and arts space, and of course some spectacular food.

Portland Mercado, a community space for Latino food, art, and entertainment at SE 72nd Avenue and SE Foster Road

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite decades of promising advancement, many serious disparities in housing, wealth, and health outcomes persist for Oregon’s Hispanic and Latino communities. The latter has played out horrifically over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hispanic and Latino Oregonians representing some of the highest per capita infection rates in the state.

According to data released on September 9th by the Oregon Health Authority, Hispanic and Latino Oregonians are almost three times more likely than non-Hispanics to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, and one and a half times more likely to die. Culturally specific health organizations have done tremendous work to overcome these discrepancies, but there is also still concern that these numbers could be a significant undercount. Many in the Latino community fear that seeking medical attention or even advice will lead to them being targeted federal immigration authorities. And they do not need to go far back in history to justify those fears.

On June 12, 2007, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided the Fresh Del Monte food processing plant in North Portland, arresting 168 people. It was a massive operation which echoed the dark days of the the 1950s, and had a deeply traumatic effect on the community for years after.

One bright spot is the steadily increasing homeownership rate among Hispanics and Latinos, particularly in suburbs like Clackamas and Tualatin. While still far below white homeownership rates, this progress, aided by organizations like Hacienda CDC, is a promising sign for the future.

We want to hear from you

Is there a particular topic we discuss on the bus tour that you are interested in learning more about? Does your organization host events related to racial justice or other topics that come up on our bus tour? Email your events and ideas to to have them included in our future newsletters. 

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