Mexicanos in Oregon: New to the Northwest? Read This

Nearly a decade after it was written, Mexicanos in Oregon: Their Stories, Their Lives remains a key text to understanding Mexican migration in Oregon. Written by Oregon State University professor and local activist, Dr. Erlinda Gonzales Berry and her colleague, Dr. Marcela Mendoza, the book ensures that individual stories won’t get lost in the debate over illegal immigration due to partisanship or outright xenophobia.  

This book gives an accurate and well-researched, historical account of how Mexicans came to Oregon, the types of difficulties they have experienced and overcame, and how Latinos have contributed socially and economically to the state. Although Oregon has typically provided better living conditions to Latinos compared to places like Texas, this book chronicles the types of discrimination and inequality that Mexicanos have endured – and in some cases – continue to endure in this state.

Today, half a million Latino people live in Oregon, overwhelmingly from Mexico. That number has doubled since 2000, and represents a 72 percent increase according to the Oregon Community Foundation. Communities like Cornelius and Woodburn are now cities with a Latino-majority population. As a result of 150 years of settlement, Oregon has a rich Latino history that is mostly unknown to the average citizen.

From vaqueros to mule packers, the start of the book details the origins of Mexican workers in Oregon starting in the 1850s. The vaqueros were Mexican cowboys brought to Oregon by famous cattlemen like John Devine. Mexicanos were also valued as mule packers, which served military and mining operations across mountainous terrain in the early days of Oregon settlement. As years passed and the Oregon grew, there would be an increased thirst for low-wage workers.

As to be expected, Mexicanos were increasingly needed to supplement Oregon’s growing agribusiness, which would ultimately become the state’s largest industry in the 20th Century. Conversely, there were concerted efforts to resist opportunities for Mexicanos. These instances are well documented in local newspapers like the Oregon Statesman (now known as the Statesmen-Journal), where the press was used specifically “in shaping negative public opinion” against migrant Mexicans.  

Although it has been commonly reported that Mexicanos could earn six times more than they could in Mexico, according to an OSU labor study, the actual number is closer to half that percentage once transportation, food, housing, and other expenses were accounted for. The Braceros program of the 1940s further complicated the racial dynamics in Oregon, but it wasn’t always so bleak. In some respects, Oregon women sought to act as a bridge between Mexican workers and the community they served. Efforts such as teaching migrant workers English were seen as a marker of changing attitudes during that time. 

The last part of the 20th century saw increased urbanization of Mexicanos, at this point some of which were second and third generation Americans by birth. The North American Free Trade Agreement and Immigration Reform of the 1990s proved to be failures, only making conditions worse for low-income Mexican migrants. Although increased networking among Mexicanos have helped job retention and referrals, and ultimately some social mobility, stereotypes of being low-skilled and less educated have persisted.

Interspersed between each chapter are Testimonios or personal testimonials of migrant Mexicanos that detail their experiences of being outsiders in Oregon. In some cases, they recount painful experiences of discrimination on the school bus or on the job, but others recall positive experiences coming to America; receiving help from people who have gone through similar experiences. The exact detail and personal nature of these narratives provide a glimpse of the realities of being a Mexicano in Oregon: the trials, tribulations, and perseverance of working your way from nothing.

Although Oregon is often seen as a state lacking in diversity, we are home to one of the fastest growing Latino populations in the country. The stories and rich history of Mexicano culture in Oregon are inspirational – well worth the time for those interested in seeing another lesser known part of Oregon.

By Chris McDowell