The signs of a vibrant Latino culture are
everywhere in Salem today. Restaurants serving burritos,
fajitas, and enchiladas are as common as those selling hamburgers.
Grocery stores stock traditional Mexican carnes, chiles,
and dulces. Dress shops and party stores provide
all the necessities for an elaborate quinceañera, and
there are dance clubs playing cumbia and ranchera
music. Salem's Mexican-American community has been growing
rapidly since the 1970s, and the flowering of Latino culture
is a relatively recent development in its history. However,
Latinos have been present in Oregon, including the Salem area,
throughout its recorded history.
In the early 1800s, Latinos worked in Oregon
as miners, mule packers, and vaqueros, or cowboys.
Even earlier, Spanish explorers traveled up and down the Oregon
coast and gave names to locations such as Cape Blanco and
Heceta Head. In fact, prior to 1819 Oregon was a Spanish
territory, and until 1848 the U.S.-Mexico border was just
south of Ashland, Oregon.
their deep roots in the Pacific Northwest, Latinos faced prejudice
from the white settlers who flooded into Oregon from the 1840s
onward, expecting to find Oregon reserved for whites only.
This prejudice was particularly strong after the U.S.-Mexico
War of 1846. Latinos were denied many of the rights
enjoyed by white Americans and European immigrants.
In 1859, a number of "native Californians" voted in Oregon's
elections; more showed up to vote but were turned away.
This episode prompted Asahel Bush, editor of the Oregon
Statesman, to devote a column to the question of whether
or not Latinos should be able to vote and be citizens of Oregon.
Although Latinos living in California had been granted U.S.
citizenship after annexation, Bush argued that citizenship
in California did not equate to citizenship in Oregon, and
citizenship in either state did not necessarily imply voting
rights. Bush concluded with comments that reflected
the racism so prevalent among white Americans at that time:
"It is doubtful whether or not [Latinos] can here thus invest
themselves with the right to suffrage, owing to their mixed
blood. To our minds, it is clear that they ought not
to be clothed with the powers of an elector, any more than
the other inferior races, which are wisely prohibited its
In the late 1800s, Latinos lived and worked in Oregon as railroad
builders, along with immigrants from China, Japan, and the Phillipines.
They also worked on farms, built canals in the early 1900s,
and helped to fill labor shortages during WWI. By 1924,
when the U.S. ended its open-border policy with Mexico, small
numbers of Mexican-Americans were living throughout Oregon.
Census records from the early 20th
century reflect the changing attitudes of mainstream white
society toward Latinos. In the 1910 census, no Mexicans
or other Latino groups are listed. The 1920 census lists
Mexicans under the category of foreign-born whites; 569 Mexicans
lived in Oregon at that time, but they were not included in
the listings of separate cities and counties. In the
1930 census, Mexicans are listed along with Indians, Chinese,
and Japanese as a non-white race. Twenty-nine Mexicans
are enumerated in Marion County; 24 of those live in Salem.
An additional four Mexicans are listed in Polk County.
By 1940, Latinos were again considered among the foreign-born
white, but their population in Salem and Marion County had
dropped to 17 and 24 respectively. In Polk County, however,
the Mexican population had increased dramatically to 67.
Central and South Americans were included for the first time
in the 1940 census, with nine listed in Salem, twelve in Marion
County, and one in Polk County.
The beginning of WWII saw a sudden increase
in the Latino population of the Salem area and the revival
of Mexican labor throughout the western U.S. American
farmworkers left for the army at the same time that the U.S.
needed to step up its agricultural production for the war
effort. The solution was the Emergency Farm Labor Supply
Program, more commonly known as the Bracero Program from the
Spanish bracero, meaning "worker." Beginning
in 1942, the program brought 4,000,000 Mexicans into the U.S.
as contract laborers; over 15,000 of them worked in Oregon.
The braceros were mostly young men in their
late teens and early twenties. Most were recruited from
central Mexico, and some came 2000 miles or more away from
home. They lived in mobile camps, patterned after those
used by the Barnum and Bailey Circus. The camps included
laundry facilities, baths and toilets, a kitchen, mess hall,
and a health clinic. Living conditions in the camps
were Spartan, and workers were on call seven days a week.
One of these camps was located in Salem
on the state fairgrounds in 1943, when the State Fair had
been cancelled due to the war. The Willamette Cherry
Growers Association requested that Mexican laborers be brought
to the area to address labor shortages in the cherry industry.
The contributions of the braceros were appreciated and praised.
E. L. Peterson, director of the Oregon State Department of
Agriculture, wrote that "Without this Mexican help it would
have been impossible to either harvest or pack the cherry
crop during the past season."
To a certain degree, the Mexican laborers
found acceptance in the Salem community. One institution
that was instrumental in bridging the language barrier and
erasing ethnic differences was the Catholic Church.
In August 1945, St. Vincent de Paul Church held a fiesta celebrating
both the Feast of the Assumption and the contributions of
the braceros. It included both Latinos and white Americans.
A reporter for the Oregon Statesman wrote that "Interest
and good will seemed at their height. when an Italian-American
boy played an Irish jig on his violin at the fiesta for the
Mexican nationals." In a demonstration of Mexican-American
solidarity, the musical program opened with the Mexican national
hymn and closed with the Star-Spangled Banner. In between,
several Latinos sang and played the guitar, and one man gave
a speech in Spanish that was applauded by everyone present,
including the English speakers.
This era of Mexican-American harmony came
to an end along with WWII. In 1947, the Bracero camps
shut down in Oregon, and laborers were given the choice of
returning to Mexico voluntarily or facing deportation.
Despite the end of the Bracero Program, Mexican-Americans
were the main source of farm labor in Oregon from the 1950s
on, with 40,000 migrating through the state each year.
of these workers entered the U.S. from Mexico without documentation;
others, like Raul Ramirez, came from other states with large
Latino populations, such as California and Texas.
In Salem itself, the Latino population
remained small. Isabela Varela Ott moved to Salem in
the early 1950s to live with her daughter, Mary Varela Martinez,
and her husband Pablo Martinez, a native of Peru. Ott's
grandson, Dr. David Martinez, recalled that theirs was one
of only four Latino families in Salem in the 1950s and 60s.
A new wave of Mexican immigration to Salem
began in the 1970s. The majority came from Michoacán
and Oxaca, two of Mexico's poorest states. In Salem,
they found work in tree farms and canneries, as well as the
migrant farmworker circuit. Once workers became established
in the area, they provided job contacts and housing assistance
for friends and family so that they too could come to Salem.
Many of these recent immigrants return to Mexico on a yearly
basis to visit family and spend the winter holidays in a warmer
The rural village of Las Zarqillas, in
Michoacán, has been called Salem's Mexican sister city.
Each December its population swells to 3,000 as nearly 2,000
Mexican-Americans from Salem return home to spend the winter,
and the town fills with signs of a foreign culture: Cars with
Oregon license plates, baseball caps sporting the Portland
Trailblazers logo, and t-shirts bearing the names of Salem-Keizer
schools. These symbols of American prosperity stand
in sharp contrast to the rural village of crumbling buildings
and traditional ways.
Juan Ceja was one of the earliest immigrants
from Las Zarquillas when he came to Oregon in 1976.
He worked in forestry in the Santiam Canyon for fifteen years,
and started his own company, Forestry for the Future, in the
1980s, doing tree planting and reforestation. Ceja's
company now employs 100 people in Oregon, Washington, Idaho,
and Montana-a considerable accomplishment for a recent immigrant
with a sixth-grade education.
Another success story is that of Angel
Baez, who came to the U.S. in 1965 and lived in Sacramento,
Cal., before moving to Salem in 1973. Baez had the advantage
of having learned English while he lived in Mexico, and devoted
himself to learning more about the culture, politics, businesses,
and schools of his new home. He bought an old fish-and-chips
restaurant and transformed it into a successful Mexican restaurant,
Los Baez, which now has three locations in Salem and one in
Like the European immigrants of the early
20th century, the Mexican-American population in
Salem has formed a close community based around their common
language and culture. An informal support network provides
help with loans, legal problems, hospital bills, and funerals.
Those who have succeeded in the U.S. often want to use their
prosperity to help other Latinos.
In 1973 Collegio César Chávez (named after
the famous labor leader of the 1960s) was opened in Mt. Angel,
offering adult education, G.E.D. preparation, migrant summer
school, and childcare for farmworkers. Meetings held
at Collegio César Chávez led to the formation of Pineros y
Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and
Farmworkers United), or PCUN. Since its organization
in 1985, PCUN has pushed for better living conditions and
collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers in the
Mano a Mano, a nonprofit agency, opened
in Salem in 1988. It provides English classes and social
services for Salem's Latino community. Other groups
have formed to provide assistance to their families and hometowns
in Mexico. One grupo oriundo, headed by Adán
Morales, has 150 members who have collected money to purchase
electrical lines, ambulances, and other improvements for their
hometown of Santa Maria Tindú in Oxaca.
Between 1990 and 2000, the Latino population
in Marion and Polk counties increased 162%, reaching 55,000.
Of this number, 85% come from Mexico. In the 2000 census,
17% of Marion County residents identified themselves as Hispanic,
up from 8% in 1990. 4,200 Salem-Keizer students are
enrolled in English a second language classes, and in 2001
the waiting list for English classes at Chemeketa Community
College reached 800. Latinos in Salem still struggle
to master English, achieve success, and carve out a place
for themselves in society, while still retaining their unique
Braceros: Laborers, especially those who came to
the U.S. during WWII
Carnes, chiles and dulces: Meats, chilies,
Grupo oriundo: Literally "native group;"
an organization that raises money to help their hometown.
Quinceañera: A Latina's 15th birthday party
States in central Mexico
Las Zarquillas: A city in northern Michoacán
Written by Kathierine Wallig
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