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Latinos In Salem

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.

Despite 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 exercise."

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.  Some 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 climate.

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 Roseburg.

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 Willamette Valley.

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 ethnic identity.

Latino Vocabulary
:  Laborers, especially those who came to the U.S. during WWII

Carnes, chiles and dulces:  Meats, chilies, and candies

Grupo oriundo:  Literally "native group;" an organization that raises money to help their hometown.

Quinceañera:  A Latina's 15th birthday party

Vaqueros:  Cowboys

Michoacán, Oxaca:  States in central Mexico

Las Zarquillas:  A city in northern Michoacán

Written by Kathierine Wallig

Davis, Alex.  "Immigration Transforms Mexican Town."  Statesman Journal, Feb. 17, 2002. [Also available online at <>]

Davis, Alex.  "The Elusive Melting Pot."  Statesman Journal, Feb. 19, 2002.  [Also available online at <>]

Fifteenth Census of the United States:  Population Bulletin, Second Series: Oregon: Composition and Characteristics of the Population.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1931.  [Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection]

Fourteenth Census of the United States:  State Compendium: Oregon.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1924.  [Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection]

Gamboa, Erasmo.  "Mexican labor in the Pacific Northwest: Expanding the Discourse."  Pacific Northwest Quarterly 73: 4 (Oct. 1982), pp. 175-181.

Gamboa, Erasmo.  "Oregon's Hispanic Heritage."  Oregon Humanities.  Portland: Oregon Council for the Humanities, Summer 1992, pp. 2-7.

"Can 'Mexicans' Vote in Oregon?"  Oregon Statesman, July 26, 1859.  2:1.

Gibby, Susan.  "The Dawn of a New Era, 1940-1970."  The Oregon State Fair: A History.  [Marion County Historical Society files]

Gleeson, Marguerite.  "Fiesta for Mexican Nationals held at St. Vincent de Paul Hall."  Oregon Statesman, Aug. 16, 1945.

"Roots of Migration go back Centuries."  Statesman Journal, Feb. 17, 2002.  [Also available online at <]

Sixteenth Census of the United States:  Population Bulletin, Second Series: Characteristics of the Population: Oregon.  Washington:  Government Printing Office, 1942.  [Salem Public Library Hugh Morrow Pamphlet Collection]

Stephen, Lynn.  The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon.  Eugene: University of Oregon Dept. of Anthropology, 2001.


Boys at migrant camp in West Salem.

Three boys at the Eola Village migrant camp near West Salem, 1972.
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Braceros, 1944

Braceros, 1944.

Each man wears a round badge with a number.  Three Anglo women sit in the front row.
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Migrant workers at McGill Farm near Marion 1962

Migrant workers harvest onions at McGill farm near Marion, 1962.
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Sheriff Raul Ramirez

Raul Ramirez. First Hispanic to serve as Marion County Sheriff.
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