Hispanic American history

Oregon's Hispanic American community has strong roots and is still growing.

CANTA Y NO LLORESA production by Portland's Miracle Theatre Group, which was founded in 1985.

This section was produced in collaboration with El Hispanic News, a monthly bilingual newspaper that is the oldest Hispanic publication in the Pacific Northwest and a leading source of information for the Hispanic community.

Spanish explorers and Mexican vaqueros were among the first Hispanics/Latinos to visit and work in the Pacific Northwest, but Oregon saw its most substantial early boom in Mexican-American residents and workers when the U.S. government introduced the Bracero Program to address worker shortages due to World War II.

The population eventually began to shift somewhat from migrant workers to more settled families, especially in towns like Woodburn (30 miles south of Portland). In 1963, the first Fiesta Mexicana was held to celebrate harvest season in Woodburn. Fiesta Mexicana continues to be held every year and has grown into a large, authentic and inclusive celebration of Mexican culture.

Among those who heeded the call to leave the migrant stream and settle down to escape poverty were the families  who founded Centro Cultural de Washington County in Cornelius, Ore., in 1972. x

In 1975, Virginia García, the child of migrant farmworkers, died of a treatable wound due to the lack of access to medical care. The Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic was created in her honor in a three-car garage on the Centro Cultural site, and over the years has expanded to serve thousands of people in Washington and Yamhill counties via four primary care clinics, three dental offices, two school-based health centers, and a mobile clinic.

The ’70s and ’80s were a time of action and organization for Oregon’s Hispanic community. Colegio César Chávez, the nation’s first four-year college for Latinos, opened in Mt. Angel, Ore., in 1973. (It closed in 1983.) In 1977, activist Cipriano Ferrel — who had worked with César Chávez in California and attended the Colegio César Chávez — helped found the Willamette Valley Immigration Project (WVIP). In 1985, he co-founded Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), a Woodburn-based farmworker union that is still going strong today.

In 1985, spouses José Eduardo González and Dañel Malan co-founded the Miracle Theatre Group  in Portland. Today, Miracle is one of the nation’s premiere Latino arts organizations, and presents works in Spanish, English and a mix of both, at the Milagro Theatre and via traveling productions.

Today, Latinos are Oregon’s largest minority group, making up 11.7% of the state’s population in 2010 according to the U.S. Census — and the population continues to grow.

Other important events

  • 1971 – The state’s Commission on Chicano Affairs is formed. In 1983, it was renamed the Oregon Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
  • 1981 – El Hispanic News publishes its first issue under the leadership of owner Juan Prats.
  • 1984 – The first Cinco de Mayo Fiesta is held in Portland. It is now one of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the country.
  • 1991 – Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC) is founded to improve the quality of life for low-income Latinos in Portland.
  • 1994 – The Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is formed in Portland.
  • 1995 – Causa is founded to defend and advance immigrant rights in Oregon.
  • 1996 – Clara Padilla Andrews, former secretary of state of New Mexico (the first Latina holding an executive state office in the United States), takes ownership of El Hispanic News.
  • 1997 – Susan Castillo, the first Latina in the Oregon Legislative Assembly, is elected to Oregon State Senate. She becomes Oregon’s superintendent of public instruction in 2002.
  • 1998 – Serena Cruz becomes the first Multnomah County commissioner of Mexican descent.
  • 2001 – María Rojo de Steffey is elected Multnomah County commissioner.
  • 2005 – Paul De Muniz becomes the first Latino chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court.
  • 2008 – The VOZ Workers’ Rights Education Project opens the doors of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Worker Center, a hire site for day laborers in Portland.
  • 2009 – A major Portland street is renamed for César E. Chávez. The following year, a Portland K-8 school is also renamed for the late activist.
  • 2010 – Melanie C. Davis becomes the new publisher/owner of El Hispanic News; in 2012, she launches the only Latina-owned mainstream LGBTQ publication in our country, PQ Monthly.
  • 2012 – Kaleb Canales is named interim head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the first Mexican-American head coach in NBA history before joining the Dallas Mavericks as an assistant coach.

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