Published in the May 1 edition of Street Roots
Growing up in the riverfront manufacturing town of St. Helens, Yesenia Sanchez knew only a handful of other Latino families. Born in Oregon to Mexican immigrant parents, she was one of the only non-white students in her class. Still, she says, she was never aware of any significant racial tension.
That changed last year, when economic troubles stirred political unrest, which in turn brought animosity bubbling to the surface.
Columbia County, where St. Helens is located, has a small but fairly settled Latino community. Some, like Sanchez, are citizens, some are legal residents, and others are undocumented immigrants.
In November, Columbia County voters passed a ballot initiative to penalize businesses that employed undocumented workers with a $10,000 fine or revocation of their business license. Another measure, which was voted down, would have required construction sites to display large signs declaring them for legal workers only. Latinos in the community, regardless of their immigration status, felt targeted.
“I’d never really experienced overt racism, or at least not that I can remember,” says Sanchez, now a college student at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “I never thought that part of my community wanted to essentially kick me out — didn’t want me there, my family there.”
Columbia County isn’t the only place Latinos are feeling the pressures of the recession in full force.
Oregon is home to almost 400,000 Latinos, most from Mexico. Their median income in 2007 was just over $18,000 per person a year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center; the average for Oregon is about $25,000. Latinos were already more likely than other Oregonians to live in poverty and less likely to own their own homes.