Reyna Lopez used to pick blueberries, marionberries and cherries during her childhood working on area farms. A first-generation immigrant, her parents moved to Oregon from Mexico in search of a better life.
That experience colored her worldview and shaped her life’s purpose. Today, she’s the executive director of Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste (PCUN). The organization is the largest Latino union in Oregon, created to amplify the voices of Latinx farm workers in 1985.
“I, myself, am the daughter of immigrants that came to Oregon following the migration of farm work north,” Lopez said. “Farm workers are essential, before and after the pandemic. Time and time again I hear the testimonies of my people, of agricultural workers who feel forgotten. They feel essential but yet disposable.”
Lopez was among the invited guests Thursday, Sept. 9 as the Board proclaimed the month between Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, 2021 as Hispanic and Latinx Heritage Month in Multnomah County. The proclamation recognizes and celebrates the many contributions of Latinx residents to the County and our community.
The theme of this year’s celebration is the resilience of the Latinx community. The community has endured several recent hardships. Many people have worked as frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, risking their health and safety for the broader community. They have also faced the threat of eviction, heat waves , and disproportionate health and economic impacts from COVID-19.
“Our society is in debt to the work of our teachers, our childcare providers and our farm workers and yet they are continually denied the rights and dignity they deserve,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who brought the proclamation forward. “Despite the hardships of the last year, our community has stepped up and will continue to do.”
About 14 percent of the County population identifies as Latinx, yet the Latinx population has experienced disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection. In the last year, the average life expectancy among Latinxs has dropped three years -- that’s compared to less than one year for whites. Throughout the pandemic, Latinx workers have also experienced loss of income and a higher risk of eviction.
And recent wildfires and heat waves have caused unsafe working conditions for outdoor workers. Sebastian Lopez, a 38-year-old from Guatemala who works in agriculture, collapsed while working outside Saturday, June 26 — the same day that Oregon broke its previous all-time record high temperature of 107 degrees.
“I just know that for so many in the Latinx community, the challenges that we’ve faced this past year in particular have felt especially steep and even insurmountable,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “And while we often say that COVID has affected everyone, we know that not everyone has been affected in the same ways. And that’s been especially true for so many Latinx community members.”
“This proclamation does seem particularly appropriate for the moment in time in which we find ourselves,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “With the Latinx community so disproportionately impacted by the COVID pandemic, everything that has taken a toll on community members and, always, the continued resilience and contribution to our community. It does feel particularly meaningful this year.”
“We are struggling” - Leaders describe state of the Latinx community
Reflecting on the state of the Latinx population, Tony DeFalco, executive director for Latino Network, said the community is struggling.
Between COVID-19, the threat of evictions, loss of income and unemployment benefits, and the impacts of climate change, t the Latinx community is being hit “first and worst,” he said.
“It’s undoubtedly true that these cumulative impacts are, you know, really combining with this economic system that stubbornly refuses to include us and in meaningful ways so that we can build intergenerational wealth,” DeFalco said. “The constant low wages, long hours, being on the front end of climate and economic disaster is not just wearing and exhausting, and things that we can be resilient to, but it is increasingly deadly for our communities.”
At the same time, the Latinx community is growing. Across the country, Latinxs are among the highest-growing demographic groups, accounting for more than half of the country’s population growth. In Oregon, the Latinx population has grown by 3 percent since 2010.
In order to thrive, DeFalco pointed to several policy measures: reform the state’s revenue structure to help Latinx workers get out of dead-end jobs, guarantee summer jobs to youth of color, invest further in domestic violence and LGBTQ+ services, address the climate crisis in ways that address the needs of communities of color, and strengthen access to physical and mental health care.
“As an immigrant, I can understand that far too many of us are faced with,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “We are leaving far too many people behind, without the opportunity to have access to family wage jobs”
“Mental health care, particularly that is bilingual, that is culturally specific, and particularly when it comes to our youth, that is so tremendously important right now,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “That is at the core of the work we do at the county and that is something that I anticipate we’ll be able to elevate and move forward.”
“Our dreams are bigger than our fears”
More than 20 years ago, Victoria Lara arrived in the United States without documents, without money, and without any English-speaking skills.
“That’s a way we come to this country: with a dream,” Lara said. “Yeah, a lot of fears, but I will say our dreams are bigger than our fears.”
Lara dreamed of opening a communications firm that supports her community. In 2000, she founded a culturally-specific media company serving underrepresented communities. Today, Lara Media is the only Latina woman-owned marketing agency in the Pacific Northwest.
Despite the challenges facing the Latinx community, Lara is optimistic. The Latinx community is not just growing, she said, but also very young. “We are here to stay, and we help our country flourish,” she said.
To celebrate the community, Lara Media is co-hosting El Grito on Wednesday, Sept. 15 at the Rose Quarter. The event, which coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month, aims to honor Latinx heritage and tradition.
After a devastating year for small businesses, Lara said the event will employ Latina women-owned businesses as food vendors. The event will also include live music, dance and a special ceremony by the Mexican Consulate of Portland. There’s also a dedicated kid’s program.
“I have seen and experienced how our Latinx families go to this event and they feel so proud with their identity,” Lara said. “They feel so proud to share it with their kids. They feel so proud and say at least this day, this hour, I can be very proud to be Latino here in the middle of the city that is very White.”
Oregon Health Authority will be offering free flu vaccines and COVID-19 testing, and Multnomah County will be hosting a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the event. Masks will be required both indoors and outdoor areas of the event.
Depending on the type of COVID-19 vaccine and whether it is the first or second dose, there will be financial incentives ranging between $50 and $150 in the form of a gift card. To learn more about El Grito, including health and wellness resources at the event, visit the event website.