The changemakers reshaping Latinx representation in Woodburn
56 years ago, hundreds of Willamette Valley farm workers gathered in the downtown Woodburn Plaza to celebrate a bountiful harvest. The dry August heat embodied months of hard labor and marked the end of a brutal work period for many immigrants in the region. Convening around savory smells and familiar music, it was a fiesta to remember. And although agricultural laborers had been celebrating in similar ways for generations, this particular year marked the beginning of a tradition that would grow to become Woodburn’s single most profitable event.
Today, the Fiesta Mexicana boasts a parade, car show and soccer tournament. Focusing less on agriculture and more on its potential to showcase local businesses and culture, the Fiesta exposes many I-5 travelers to more than the outlet malls that limit the city’s image. And while the deliberate attempt to incorporate Latinx heritage reflects the majority Latinx population, a lack of representation in the planning process leaves out important voices. Critics of the festival say that the loss of the festival’s agricultural foundations embodies the increasingly problematic narrative of the Fiesta Mexicana.
The Fiesta Mexicana is not the only initiative in Woodburn to exhibit—and to commoditize—Latinx culture. From projects that promote local restaurants to posters that institutionalize cultural symbols, the city is increasingly struggling to consolidate an inevitable path of economic development and a growing Latinx population. Indeed, attempts to embody the reality of the racial makeup of Woodburn are genuine, but a lack of representation on all levels of city leadership makes any attempt to capitalize on Latinx culture potentially problematic.
There are a few standout Woodburnians trying to bridge communication gaps between city leadership and a largely misunderstood and voiceless community. While these individuals are laying the foundation for an effective narrative of growth in Woodburn, there are still significant cultural and linguistic barriers to entry that need to be confronted before the Latinx community’s voices are heard.
Jorge UrzuaThe Woodburn school district is one of the few districts in the nation to offer a dual – language immersion program. According to Mayor Eric Swenson, this program is at the foundation of Woodburn High School’s high graduation rates. Here, students can navigate their education in English, Spanish and Russian. As a result, most students who participate graduate from high school fluent in two or more languages, according to Jorge Urzua.
Urzua, who graduated from Woodburn High School in 2009, now works as a bilingual math teacher at Valor Middle School. Urzua recognizes the importance and benefits of providing a growing Latinx community with the education they need.
During his time as a student here, there was only a handful of bilingual teachers.
“You see the lack of representation among teachers, and you understand when you graduate college the importance; it’s quite significant for students to have that representation too,” said Urzua.
For Urzua, the idea of giving back to the community by committing himself to assist the district to reach its potential is far more meaningful than working elsewhere. Being able to educate students of different backgrounds in their native language provides benefits that stem beyond education, according to Urzua.
“I think the most important thing is [the students’] self-concept. They appreciate the importance of knowing one or more languages, and so they have a higher appreciation for themselves.”
The concept of representation in the classroom also plays a pivotal role. Per Urzua’s experience, many of the schools in the district have a history of low employment for bilingual teachers, and in the past, the school board lacked multicultural representation.
However, the board has slowly transformed over the years, from having almost no diversity to now consisting of a majority of Latinx individuals.
Woodburn and its education system embody a significant cultural shift taking place across the state of Oregon. For Urzua, being a teacher students can relate to on a cultural and racial basis makes him a role model, encouraging them that one day, their bilingualism can be employed as an asset.
“I just wanted to be impactful and more than anything fulfill myself,” said Urzua. “I like to say that teaching math is second and first is being in a position to deliver information that reduces barriers.”
Gustavo Gutierrez GomezOn the front line of this battle to break down barriers to entry is Gustavo Gutierrez Gomez. His formal job title is community relations manager, but his responsibilities go far beyond his work for the city.
Gutierrez Gomez came to Woodburn five years ago. In his short time living in the city, he has filled a fundamental gap, his primary duty being to engage and communicate with the Latinx community. As Lopez explained, while the addition of this position to the city of Woodburn is notable, and Gutierrez Gomez has made unprecedented strides in reaching diverse sectors of the city, city leadership has increasingly turned to him to serve as an all-encompassing and easily accessible representative of the Latinx community–an inevitably problematic dependence.
When asked how the Latinx community is employed in the planning process of cultural events, like Fiesta Mexicana, city leadership almost exclusively cite Gutierrez Gomez’s outreach efforts.
“A big part of our ability to so effectively reach the Spanish speakers in our community is Gustavo,” said Tommy Moore, the city’s public affairs and communication coordinator. “His connections and efforts are invaluable.”
Beyond the radio show that Gutierrez Gomez broadcasts from Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste PCUN, which is Oregon’s largest farm workers’ union, and the city newsletter he translates to Spanish, community members depend on his ability to enter the rural areas of the city and to forge relationships with the leaders of other Latinx-based organizations in order to disseminate information.
This exclusive dependency on one individual to represent the entirety of a diverse and changing community fosters a number of communication gaps and cultural divides. This problem is further confounded when cultural heritage is leveraged to define a distinct Latinx community.
Referring to a poster on the lamp posts around town, which feature a piñata on one side and a Russian doll on the other, Gutierrez Gomez expresses his frustration with a lack of cultural understanding.
“We talk about freedom, we want freedom. We talk about future, we want future. We talk about education, we want education. Let’s put that shit in the poster,” he said. “But what’s on there? A stupid piñata. I don’t want a piñata just because I’m Mexican. We are all people and we all want the same things.”
But the problem of representation is not easily dissected. When asked if increased representation within city council would mitigate gaps in communication, Gutierrez Gomez adamantly responded, “No.”
He explained that beyond the systemic and linguistic barriers to entering positions of leadership within the city, there also exists profound cultural barriers.
“Your lenses and your point of view or worldview are from Mexico, but you’re in the United States and they start giving you all this information. I think it is overwhelming,” Gutierrez Gomez said. It is this transnational perspective that defines the Latinx experience in America. And while the Latinx American identity is a rapidly growing cultural space, the effects of this necessary consolidation of two sets of values are misunderstood and broad.
Additionally, Gutierrez Gomez explained that, due to the diversity of the Latinx community in Woodburn, increased representation within city leadership would not necessarily solve the divide in cultural understanding. Referencing the city’s attempt to incorporate Spanish speakers in all departments–a source of pride for many leaders in the city–Gutierrez Gomez questions the authenticity of their Latinx culture.
This persistent fight for representation isn’t restricted to Gutierrez Gomez’s outreach efforts. The need for representation is present in many other organizations and movements within Woodburn, such as PCUN. The organization works on legislative and social levels to increase Latinx representation in the political sphere and advocate for change on the individual level. For PCUN, this mission is driven by Reyna Lopez, their newly appointed executive director, who is no stranger to the fight for Latinx equality.
Reyna LopezFrom a young age, Lopez recognized the lack of representation and equality for the Latinx community in Oregon. The child of Mexican immigrants, Lopez experienced discrimination that would ultimately influence her professional career.
Lopez still vividly recalls her first day of school in Salem. She got in trouble for speaking Spanish with her two cousins.
“As I got older, I realized that it was oppression,” Lopez says. “It was a part of an oppression we were feeling in school to force us to assimilate to a system that wanted us to be a certain way: perfect little white kids with no accents,” she said.
Shortly after Lopez graduated from college, her career plan of becoming a lawyer and helping those in need evolved into a passion revolving around political advocacy and equal representation.
“I just didn’t agree with the ways some laws worked. I don’t want to work in a space where I have to make do with these constraints—I want to change the laws.”
Over the coming years, Lopez played key roles in major campaigns throughout Oregon, including Oregon’s first bilingual ballot measure campaign. Although the resulting vote was a loss, it was a huge milestone for the Latinx population in Oregon. Lopez would spend a few more years with other organizations such as Causa, Oregon’s immigration rights group, before taking her current position at PCUN.
For young individuals who are products of their communities, like Urzua and Lopez, the idea of giving back to the place that molded them is supreme.
“I love my community. I love Oregon. I am constantly inspired by humanity, and I truly believe that we’re on this earth to make life a little bit better for everyone,” said Lopez, who is excited to see more representation on the administrative level, despite the linguistic and cultural barriers to entry the Latinx community faces.
Lopez and PCUN are working alongside Latinx representatives in Woodburn’s school board elections, with the goal being to have the board be “representative of the Latinx community,” according to Lopez. On the national level, PCUN is working toward passing the Farmworker’s Fairness Act, which would guide farmworkers in the process of becoming legal citizens.
However, Lopez admits that the relationship between the Latinx community in Woodburn and city organizations has a long way to go. The lack of communication between community members, organizations like PCUN and city officials is the key reason as to why the Latinx representation doesn’t translate to what Lopez defines as “city-level equality.” Without being able to bridge communication gaps with its residents, the city will never effectively implement true equality–regardless of its intentions.
Woodburn has changed significantly since the agricultural laborers of the Willamette Valley first gathered to celebrate the Fiesta Mexicana. The diversity and the resilience of the Latinx community are only some of the cultural aspects city leadership must confront in order to accurately reflect the interests of their majority Latinx population. And while the strides the city has taken in the last five years alone are unprecedented and significant—due largely in part to changemakers like Urzua, Lopez and Gutierrez Gomez—the city of Woodburn has a long way to go before it can legislatively embody the vibrant cultural space Mayor Swenson hopes to see it become.
“We want to celebrate all of our diversity here,” said Swenson. “But there are still many conversations to be had before Woodburn can serve as an example where people from different cultures and different language backgrounds can get along and thrive.”