This month we spotlight Lorena Mora, Division Midway Alliance’s Latinx Community Liaison, and learn about her passion for serving others, the importance of bilingual outreach work, and her interest in pursuing a career in community engagement. Responses have been edited below for clarity.
You’ve had many different jobs in public service. How did you become interested in helping your community?
In high school, we were all required to complete 200 hours of volunteer work. At first, I wasn’t so interested in volunteering, but after becoming more involved I found that I really enjoyed helping people and my community. I ended up completing 284 hours of community service and was awarded a special certificate and cord for graduation.
Also, I grew up in the Rockwood-area. I’ve seen my neighbors struggle to pay rent and not know where to go to get help. I realized that I liked the feeling I got when I could help someone and felt rewarded by my community’s appreciation for my help.
Do you have role models or people you look up to in this work?
I have three that come to mind; my mom, my AVID teacher from high school, and my co-workers at Division Midway Alliance (DMA).
My mom is very similar to me. She would volunteer within Reynolds School District, cook food for my friends and teachers, and work at food pantries every week. She also supports me by driving me to volunteering events. I know my mom is proud of the work I do.
Another role model was my AVID teacher in high school. She was very attentive and cared about her students a lot. I saw her host events that would bring students of different backgrounds and cultures together. I appreciated her hard work to create a happy space where students can share their culture.
Lastly, I look up to my co-workers at DMA for their work in the community. I appreciate how they do so much and always find a way to make it enjoyable.
Can you tell me about your experience working on the 2020 Census?
After graduating from high school, I applied for a job working with East County Rising on the 2020 Census. At the time I started this job, I didn’t know anything about the census and I was nervous about the idea of phone-banking. I knew that the job would involve me working with community members, especially people who are often left out of the count like people of color and immigrants, so I was interested in getting involved.
What was that like?
As one of the only young people in this job, I felt lucky to have this experience and be able to take part in direct civic engagement. Young people want so much in our world to change. I saw the census as a way to make a difference.
What were some of the challenges?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I did this whole position remotely. This meant I wasn’t able to go door-to-door. I was sad that I didn’t get to experience the direct connection you get when you speak with a person face-to-face.
Why is it important to have bilingual outreach workers for this project, as well as others?
As a fluent Spanish speaker, I translated information and assuaged people’s fears about the count, especially people who are undocumented. I wanted them to know that they should not be afraid to fill out the census and that it would not impact their documentation status. I found that when someone speaks your language, they feel instantly more comfortable and at-home. Sometimes I would even help them fill out the paperwork over the phone.
How did you become involved with DMA and what is your role at the organization?
My boss at East County Rising introduced me to Lisha Shrestha, DMA’s Executive Director, and told me about the open position serving the Latinx community as a liaison.
As the Latinx Community Liaison, how do you engage with the community?
I engage with Latinx community members by calling them to let them know about events or opportunities to get resources. Since being vaccinated, I’ve been able to interact with more people in person. I am connected to roughly 30 families in the area. A lot of people will come up to me at events and ask to give me their phone numbers. They want me to call them if we are hosting an event or giving donated items.
During the pandemic, DMA has been giving away gift cards to support residents financially. I worked with a business owner recently who owns a Mexican food store to help her apply for a gift card by filling out the application for her over the phone. I was very happy to be able to help!
Are there any issues that come up repeatedly in your work with the Latinx community?
A lot of people within the Latinx community that I work with struggle to pay for things like rent, food, medical bills, and house supplies. I feel upset when I see community members unable to pay for these basic necessities due to low paying jobs or being undocumented. At DMA, we try to support those who cannot make ends meet by giving away free cleaning supplies or food in addition to the gift cards. I am also planning an 8-week English-language course for ESL learners starting in mid-October.
Do you and your family celebrate Latinx Heritage month or Mexican Independence Day?
Some years, my family will celebrate Mexican Independence Day by making food, wearing traditional Mexican clothing, dancing, and doing the 'grito.' My mom will make tamales, posole, or enchiladas. When I used to live in Mexico, I would wear braids and special clothing; women wear ornate blouses called 'guanengos' and men wear shirts called 'camisolas.' We would do 'el grito' and shout “viva Mexico.” My mom and I have been to the El Grito celebration at the Moda Center. Local celebrations, like El Grito, make me feel like I am back in Mexico. They bring back memories, make me feel connected to my community, and make me proud to be Mexican.
Do you participate in celebrations at school? What were those celebrations like?
In high school, my friends and I organized a school dance where we hired a band to play Mexican banda music and served Mexican food. There are a lot of Latinx students at my high school so I know they appreciated the event. More than that, it was an opportunity to bring together students of all backgrounds and show them our Mexican culture. Everyone had a lot of fun. It was actually the last event before the pandemic started in March 2020.
You are a student at PSU, right? What are you studying?
I just started my sophomore year at PSU studying public health with a focus in dental hygiene so that I can become a dental hygienist. I need to have a serious talk with my academic advisor because I am currently reconsidering my major and career path. I want to keep doing the things I’m doing now, like my role at DMA and the census position.
Do you think you’ll stay close to home in Portland after you graduate?
I get very homesick, so I don’t think I’d want to move. It is very helpful that I have so many deep connections within the community and understand firsthand why people are struggling. Both of these things allow me to be able to make a difference. I also want to stay close to my family and help them out.
If you left, what would you miss the most about Portland and why?
I would miss my family and friends since I love to be around people and am very outgoing. Most of all, I would miss my mom’s cooking and the beautiful greenery in and around Portland. I love being able to go outside and breathe in the fresh air.
Thank you, Lorena, for sharing your insights and for your dedication to serving the community around you.