Indigenous Under the Radar

Mar 15, 2018

Representative Teresa Alonso Leon
Credit Rep. Leon

There may be as many as 150-thousand indigenous Latinos in Oregon, with a recent boost from immigrants fleeing organized crime and violence in Guatemala. They are very much under the radar and are amongst the most vulnerable people in Oregon, but they are seeking political representation.

Teresa Alonso Leon is unique in Oregon. She is a state legislator who is a woman, an immigrant, a Latina, and an indigenous person.  She is from probably the most diverse district in Oregon--Woodburn and North Salem:

"For me, it's very special to be able to say that coming to the state legislature I get to bring the voice of everybody who represents our district and it's an honor for me."

Alonso Leon is Purépecha, a subset of Latinos that first came to Oregon in the forties when a government program brought them here from Michoacán, Mexico:

"I celebrate the indigenous side of myself so when I spoke to people who were Mexicanos but also indigenous, there was a lot of pride in having me."

She is one of just four Latino legislators in Salem, but they're having some impact on the house floor:

"Colleagues....today I urge your support for house bill......"

For example passing legislation to ban schools from disclosing personal information for the purpose of immigration enforcement:

"I have heard from teachers, principals, and educators who do not know what to do to protect their students in ICE comes asking for information."

They have also passed state health coverage for undocumented children and funds for prenatal care for undocumented women, many of them indigenous. Farmworkers union leader Ramón Ramierez estimates there are more than 20-thousand Purépecha in Marion County alone:

"People don't realize that there's a huge population of indigenous people, of farmworkers. "

The Purépecha have their own radio program with native music and a language that sounds not at all like Spanish:

(Purépecha language and music..)

In total, there are an estimated 150-thousand indigenous people in Oregon with Mixtecos being the largest group.  There are concentrations in Washington County, Hood River, and Springfield.  They speak 17 different languages and Ramón Ramierez says the discrimination they experienced in Mexico due to their darker skin and separate language and culture, has followed them here:

"A lot of internal racism, substandard housing, lack of wages, but more important was the lack of respect and dignity to these people because of their indigenous roots, on the part of other Latinos."

They are subject to exploitation and sexual harassment at work in the fields.

Political influence is coming slowly for Latinos. Almost one hundred thousand are undocumented and, of course, can't vote. But the ratae of green card holders who become citizens is relatively low, and Latinos in Oregon are young.  Political analyst Jim Moore at Pacific University says young people in general are far less likely to vote:

This year we may see the influence of Latinos if Oregonians vote on a pending ballot measure. A yes vote would allow local police to help enforce federal immigration laws. Moore thinks it will be close, but Oregonians will vote no:

"There is every chance that there's going to be an anti-Trump wave out there."

And while there are four Latino state representatives and a Latino population of a half million, there are no representatives who are Asian. Asians are Oregon's second-largest minority group with a quarter million people.  More than half of them are immigrants, according to Joseph Santos Lyons who heads the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon:

"Our communities have doubled in size in the past 20 years and so the issues of our communities have also changed. We have a growing number of Asian Pacific Islanders who do live in significant poverty."

Like Latinos, Asians in Oregon tend to be young, and some are undocumented:

"Oregon's statistics do mirror the national in that about 13% of undocumented immigrants are Asian Pacific Islanders, so after Latinos we are the second largest group of folks who are undocumented. And there is a lot of fear."

ICE--Immigration and Customs Enforcement-recently reported a 25% percent increase in arrests of undocumented immigrants and immigrants thought be be undocumented in the Northwest in 2017.

Funding for KLCC's Borders, Migration, and Belonging series is provided by the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.