Casa Latinos Unidos: Dreaming of Home

Yazmin Brambila is the executive director of Casa Latinos Unidos de Benton County, a non-profit that helps Latinos adapt to life in the U.S. by providing key services that promote equality and improve quality of life. Like countless Latinos before her, Brambila had to work her way from the very bottom. Her personal journey is inspirational, and is also what makes her so fitting as leader of her organization.

Brambila considers Corvallis her hometown. At age 9, she left the small city of Coluca, Jalisco in Central Mexico with her parents and six siblings, and immigrated to the U.S. Born to a family of migrant farmers, her family traveled up and down the I-5 corridor in search of seasonal work. Ultimately settling in Oregon, they found work at Christmas tree farms. Despite the uncertainty of their future, her parents’ primary focus was for their daughter to get a high school education. But when Brambila’s great grandfather fell ill, the family uprooted once again, and returned to Jalisco. At that point, her high school education was put on hold.  

When Brambila made it back to Corvallis, she was too old to finish high school, but she found a High School Equivalency Program at the University of Oregon where she could quickly get a GED. She became the first in her family, a “very large family” she quips, to receive a high school diploma.

Along the way, Brambila met her mentor, the late Oscar Montemayor, an academic advisor with the Education Opportunities Program at Oregon State University. Montemayor, who helped aspiring students find success at the collegiate level for nearly 30 years, was also born into a migrant-worker family, and understood the tough road of educational attainment for low-income Latinos. Building on her newfound success, Brambila received her Bachelor’s degree from OSU while working as a custodian on weekends. In 2016, Brambila graduated with a Master of Public Health. That same year, she was selected to become the director of Casa.

Casa Latinos Unidos provides several critical services to the Latino community, such as translating and interpreting legal documents, resolving education issues, addressing labor complaints, providing leadership opportunities, and capacity building.

Clients of Casa come from as far away as Monroe to seek assistance in filling out forms, understanding court documents, or simply have someone translate at health clinics. In addition to basic services, Casa helps Latino children (many of whom are born in the U.S.), understand their cultural heritage because it is not taught in school.  

Casa was the creation of Dr. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, a retired OSU professor who saw there was a desperate need for a local organization to provide outreach to Latinos. Burnt out from the world of academia, she saw this as an opportunity to teach fellow Latinos “how to negotiate the system.”

In 2009, with no operating budget or interest in taking a salary, Dr. Gonzales-Berry found a permanent home for the center in the dilapidated Sunflower House. The first money to trickle in, she recalls, was a $5,000 grant to fund an exercise and nutrition class for Latino mothers. Soon thereafter, those small grants turned into much bigger grants. After several directorial changes, Dr. Gonzales-Berry found a perfect successor in Brambila.

Casa is now beginning a new chapter in their history as they move from the Corvallis Multicultural Literacy Center to a new space at the Corvallis School District called, the Western View Welcome Center. Although, the former space at CMLC was helpful because of its proximity to other cultural diversity programs, the new partnership with CSD provides Casa a larger space with private meeting rooms, a computer lab, and an ability to better coordinate with cultural immersion programs already provided through local schools.

In recent months, Casa’s staff has seen the effects of an increasingly xenophobic and polarized nation. Physical and mental health in the Latino community is a serious problem, not only because of trauma inflicted from the arduous journey that immigration requires, but also evidenced in everything from bullying at school, to housing discrimination, and constant worries about family members being detained and permanently separated.

The isolation felt by the Latino community, specifically immigrants from Mexico and Central America, extends beyond recent arrivals to people that have lived here for decades, as well as naturalized citizens. Even as more Latinos are leaving the U.S. than coming, which has been the trend since the Great Recession, the highly politicized immigration debate has ramifications for nearly half a million Latinos that live and work in Oregon.

Casa is doing what Dr. Gonzales-Berry designed it to do, which is to make Latinos feel welcome and safe in this community, just as it is expected for all foreign-born visitors, students, and workers of diverse ethnic backgrounds that have made the Corvallis region their permanent home. What people call home is a dilemma to some in the Latino community. Brambila says that, “what you call home is where you feel safe.” But for some, particularly people of color, you may not feel welcome anywhere.

For now, Casa works to promote a better quality of life for all Latinos; promoting the belief that everyone shares equal rights, and anyone should be able to reach the goals they wish to achieve. Until then, they work hard and dream of a home where everyone lives free.

By Chris McDowell