New immigrants follow well-worn path to county

DEEP ROOTS -- Local forum emphasizes the staying power of Latino families in Oregon

Last August, at the height of a national debate over illegal immigration, protesters drew lines outside of Centro Cultural over day laborers and immigration.

In Cornelius, where the 2000 census reported 37.4 percent of the city's population was Hispanic, the protest was a rare public flare-up in a debate that often smolders out of sight.

For Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, head of ethnic studies at Oregon State University, what often gets lost in the heat of the immigration debate is the fact that Hispanics in Oregon, and particularly Washington County, have deep roots.

'New immigrants don't come here in a vacuum, they can take advantage of the community that's already here,' she said of the increasingly Hispanic Tualatin Valley Highway corridor of Forest Grove, Cornelius and Hillsboro.

Tonight, Gonzales-Berry will give a lecture in the Forest Grove Community Auditorium examining the history and issues surrounding Hispanic culture in Oregon, including the founding of the Virginia Garcia Clinic and Centro Cultural in the 1970s and present day immigration issues.

Hispanic immigration to Oregon can be broken down into a few major waves, according to Gonzales-Berry. The first Hispanic families started appearing in the 1930s in eastern Oregon, but it wasn't until the Bracero program, a guest-worker agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that ran from 1942 to 1964, that they showed up in sizeable numbers.

The program was an effort to provide skilled labor for the agriculture industry in response to worker shortages brought on by World War II.

'The Bracero program was hugely important and established the visibility of Mexican labor,' Gonzales-Barry said.

After the end of the Bracero era, a third wave of immigration from Texas brought many of the families that established themselves in Washington County.

Longtime Washington county resident Jose Garcia experienced both major waves. He worked in Texas as a border guard during the Bracero program, processing new migrants as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, and came later to Oregon in the summer of 1967 to make extra money picking strawberries with his family.

'It turned out that 1967 was a very hot year and the strawberries burned up in a week,' Garcia recalled. 'There was nothing to do so I started looking around.'

What he found was a job teaching math at Hillsboro High School that paid twice as much as his job teaching high school in his native Texas.

'It didn't take me long to figure out that was a good deal,' he said.

After two years teaching math, Garcia moved on to get his master's in public administration and eventually to run the state's migrant education program.

During his 18 years in Salem, Garcia visited every county in Oregon and saw the challenges that young Hispanic children face in schools around the state.

'I see a continuous way of life of kids not staying in school because they don't feel a part of the school or feeling alienated,' Garcia said.

But Nancy Christoph, a language professor at Pacific University who works with recent Hispanic immigrants, said that a budding Latino middle class in Washington County is a telltale sign of the speed of assimilation - and the similarity of experiences across the country.

Some of the new Spanish-speaking transplants Christoph works with have stories that sound like they could come from a retired tech worker buying a condominium in downtown Portland.

'The people I talk to have already lived in California and then they come up here because it's too expensive there,' Christoph said.