Whose State Is This?

Legal measures targeting Latino Oregonians reflect fears of change.

Jen Wick Studio

In the autumn of 1980, Teresa Alonso Leon's father decided to take a rare day off from working in the fields near Clackamas to bring his daughters to what he thought was a public park. Alonso Leon, who was five, and her sister played catch, their feet crunching fallen leaves as they ran across the grass. Then a car pulled up. The driver got out and shouted at Alonso Leon's father. The man spoke in English, but her father spoke only Spanish—Alonso Leon, too. They had only recently arrived from the southern state of Michoacán, Mexico, to their new home in Oregon. The man grew more agitated, gesturing and raising his voice, until her father gathered the girls and left.

“It was a golf course or someplace people didn't want kids playing,” Alonso Leon, who is now forty-one, recalls. “My father couldn't read the signs, and we had no idea what the man was saying. But the way the man spoke to my father, that just stuck with me.”

Alonso Leon's family are modern-day Movers, people who made Oregon their destination of hope for prosperity, renewal, and survival. But her family would not have fit the original ideal. Movers was the nineteenth-century nickname for settlers who drove west in covered wagons. “Restlessness was their dominant trait,” historian Malcolm Clark Jr. wrote in his 1981 book, Eden Seekers. “The gene of it was passed from father to son as a part of the act of procreation. The frontier was constantly reproducing itself.”

For centuries, the new Oregonians worked to make sure the reproducing gene was white. When it won statehood in 1859, Oregon was part of the anti-slavery North—if only because its constitution excluded blacks from living within the state's borders. (The provision wasn't removed until 1926.) Native tribes were shuffled to reservations, and Chinese workers were attacked by white residents in Oregon City, La Grande, and several other communities.

The twentieth-century brought more hostility. In 1920, state law required non-English newspapers to print English translations. Portland's black population swelled when the city's shipyards expanded during World War II, and city leaders segregated African Americans in North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods and nearby Vanport, a slapdash public housing project in a floodplain near the Columbia River. The state didn't outlaw discrimination in housing, restaurants, hotels, and other accommodations until the 1950s.

Oregon can no longer look in a mirror and see a bleached face staring back. In 1980, the first year the first year the Census Bureau included “Hispanic” as an ethnic category, fewer than 7 percent of people in the state identified themselves as anything other than “white.” Now, according to the most recent Census numbers, nearly one quarter identify as something other than “white alone.”

The definition of what it means to be an Oregonian has shifted as the state has seen immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa. The biggest shift has been in the state's Latino population, which has grown five times faster than the state as a whole. According to the Census, 12.5 percent of the population now identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Several cities now count Latinos as the majority.


According to the Census, 12.5 percent of the population of Oregon now identifies as Hispanic or Latino. Several cities now count Latinos as the majority.

One of those cities is Woodburn, a Marion County town of 24,000, where Alonso Leon now serves as a member of the city council, and where an acceptance of languages other than English has helped the community deal with change. “If you don't have that, you instead have misunderstanding and misperceptions about other people,” Alonso Leon says. “We're not sitting down together often enough as it is.”


Oregon has become a state of many languages. But a small, effective, and (many say) xenophobic group is pushing to put a measure on the 2016 ballot that would declare English as the state's official language. Oregonians will need to decide if fear will divide the state over race, ethnicity, and how we talk to each other.

* * *

Jim Ludwick sees a day when Americans will be expected to speak both English and Spanish. It worries him.

“Being a bilingual country is breaking down people according to where they came from, rather than encouraging everyone to be united,” Ludwick says. “It's a tragedy waiting to happen.”

Ludwick, a retired pharmaceuticals salesman from McMinnville, is cofounder of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, which is pushing the English-only measure. Since its founding in 2000, the group has argued that the federal government's failure to enforce immigration laws has wreaked havoc on the country. The group opposes any government privileges for undocumented residents, including schools and health care. Oregonians for Immigration Reform, he says, favors the deportation of anyone the government discovers is living in the country illegally. That includes the estimated 120,000 undocumented people living in Oregon—a number that's actually fallen in recent years. “This country was founded on the rule of law,” Ludwick says. “We're now seeing people openly violating our immigration laws while trying to impose new laws on us.”

For years, Oregonians for Immigration Reform wasn't taken seriously in Salem or seen as a political threat. Its leaders' tendency to broadbrush Latinos leaves many people uncomfortable. When asked about immigration, for example, Ludwick steers the conversation to “illegals” stealing Social Security numbers, Mexicans running drugs, and undocumented residents committing other crimes.


For years, Oregonians for Immigration Reform wasn't taken seriously in Salem or seen as a political threat.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Alabama–based watchdog on issues of discrimination, maintains a nationwide list of “nativist extremist” groups it says go beyond advocating on immigration policy to targeting immigrants themselves. Oregonians for Immigration Reform is one of nineteen groups on the organization's nationwide list.


Ludwick says this characterization of his group is unfair. “If I even question our immigration policies, then I'm a racist,” he says. “That's not it at all. I want the United States to be a great country that welcomes people from all over, as we always have. But it's foolish to think it will be if we continue with our immigration policies.”

The group's status as an outsider—and its leader's view of its place in Oregon politics—changed in 2014.

Oregon once had relatively lax laws when it came to granting drivers' licenses. Starting in 2008, the state legislature required proof of citizenship or legal residency, such as a Social Security number or other papers. Latino groups (long courted by the Democrats who run Salem) spent the next five years pushing to overturn the law. They succeeded in 2013 when lawmakers established a “driver's card” for residents who could not prove they were in the country legally.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform fought the new law by gathering the 58,000 signatures needed to put the question on the November 2014 ballot. A “yes” vote would uphold the legislature's actions. Backers, including some farm groups, said the measure was practical and compassionate. But the measure became a proxy for frustration about the nation's broken immigration system, and Oregon voters crushed the measure two to one.

The victory, Ludwick says, shows Oregonians agree with his group's views that immigration is out of control and that the government should not be rewarding people who are here illegally.

He says much of the country is with his group—and the success of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's rhetoric about immigrants is proof. When he announced his candidacy in June 2015, Trump said Mexico was dumping drug dealers and rapists into the United States. “And some, I assume,” Trump added, “are good people.”

“When he did that,” Ludwick says, “he shot right up in the polls. He chose to talk about immigration because he's a guy who likes leverage. He knows that's a subject that appeals to regular Americans.”

* * *

Oregon saw its Latino population grow after World War II when the United States opened its borders to braceros, guest workers from Mexico who labored in the fields. The program ended in the mid-1960s but the state's farmers were by then dependent on migrant workers. United Farm Workers (UFW) leader Cesar Chavez often brought his protests to Oregon, denouncing the low wages, unsafe conditions, and abysmal housing for many of the state's estimated 40,000 migrant workers, half of whom took seasonal jobs in the Willamette Valley.


In 1971, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to stop farmworkers from organizing. “Hell,” McCall said when the bill-signing deadline approached, “I'm going to veto that son of a bitch.”

The UFW's actions sparked backlash against Latinos in many places, but Oregon turned away from a cultural battle. In 1971, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill to stop farmworkers from organizing. They put intense pressure on then-Governor Tom McCall—a fellow Republican who grew up in a ranching family—to sign it. McCall nearly did, but protests and vigils against the bill moved him (as did Chavez's threats of boycotts), and it troubled him that the state was about to deny rights and protections for people who came here to work. “Hell,” McCall said when the bill-signing deadline approached, “I'm going to veto that son of a bitch.” And he did. Over the years, many migrants stopped moving around and settled in the Willamette Valley, and they beckoned others from their home countries to join them.


Teresa Alonso Leon's family was among those who heard the call. Her parents arrived in Oregon without documentation. Her father left their home in Michoacán in early 1980 and moved to Clackamas, where relatives had told him he could find better-paying work than he had in Mexico. In Oregon, her parents worked at least two jobs at a time, often seven days a week. For four years, her family lived in a ramshackle house in Gervais without plumbing. They used an outhouse and hauled in buckets of water, filled from a garden hose, to cook and clean. In the winter, the water stored in the buckets indoors froze.

Her parents wanted their children to avoid the life they had as laborers, and for Alonso Leon, school was transformative. She quickly saw the need to learn English—her teachers made her repeat first grade because she struggled with the new language. But she soon caught up and became the family's translator during doctor's visits or meetings at her school.

“I had to become the spokesperson for the family,” she says.

In 1986, Congress passed an immigration amnesty bill that offered legal residency to 2.9 million people. Not yet a teenager, Alonso Leon represented her parents as they met the requirements to earn legal status: gathering work histories from past employers, studying US history, and demonstrating basic English skills. (Her parents earned legal residency that covered Alonso Leon. She became a US citizen in 2013.)

Her family eventually moved to Woodburn, where she attended high school before earning her GED through a program at the University of Oregon. She went on to graduate from Western Oregon University and Portland State University, where she earned a master's degree in public administration.

Alonso Leon has spent most of her career looking for ways to make school more available to low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college. At Portland Community College, she helped develop a program to guide migrant students in adjusting to their first year in college. Today, she runs the state of Oregon's GED program in the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, which each year helps 1,700 students gain their high-school equivalency.


“You can say to my parents, ‘Why have you not done a better job of learning English?' The answer is they spent all their time making sure their children were fed and clothed.”

Families like hers have worked here for decades, paying taxes and working to offer their children better lives. And Alonso Leon worries that Oregon will declare its government recognizes only English.


“It sends the message that as a state we're denying that people should be able to live here and speak their native language,” Alonso Leon says. “It also sends the message that immigrants arrive and reject the language that's spoken here. That's not the case. People try to learn English because they want to succeed.”

Alonso Leon's parents still struggle with English, even after three decades in Oregon. Mastering the language, she says, often requires education and training—something that her parents and many other immigrants have lacked.
“My parents worked two or three jobs at a time, at low wages, all these years,” she says. “You can say to my parents, ‘Why have you not done a better job of learning English?' The answer is they spent all their time making sure their children were fed and clothed.”

* * *

The measure supported by Oregonians for Immigration Reform would, if passed by voters, require state and local governments to conduct business in English. Oregon law already requires that in many cases, even though Oregon is one of nineteen states without a blanket official-language declaration.

But the Oregon measure could go beyond what other states impose: its language suggests that (with some exceptions) it could become illegal for government agencies to provide communications with the public in languages besides English—despite the fact that 15 percent of Oregonians speak a language other than English at home. Portland Public Schools, for example, prints materials for parents in several languages—a practice Ludwick says is a waste of money.

Ludwick recalls an illustration he saw in a social studies textbook he had in high school. “It was of this giant cooking pot,” he says. “People from all over the world are jumping in—people with sombreros and so on. And in the picture, Uncle Sam is stirring it—stirring the pot, the melting pot. And the people who had jumped in earlier are now climbing out dressed like Americans. They had coats and ties on.”

“The point is,” he says, “it was about assimilation. It used to be you come to America to become an American. Not a Hispanic American. New immigrants today don't want to be assimilated. They want to divide themselves off from us while imposing their cultural beliefs on us.”


The threat Ludwick sees is about more than language. It's about influence and power

The threat Ludwick sees is about more than language. It's about influence and power—less about reforming immigration laws than it is about forcing a cultural norm on Oregon's immigrants. His group's attention to Latinos in particular is based in sheer numbers—40 percent of immigrants in Oregon were born in Mexico—but also on the success of organizations such as Causa Oregon to push a political agenda. These groups have had some victories, including a 2013 law allowing college tuition grants for undocumented students who attended Oregon high schools. But the doors of power have not been knocked open. The state has seen only one Latino elected official statewide (former state schools superintendent Susan Castillo) and only a handful of legislators.


What Oregonians for Immigration Reform plays on is fear—the fear of a non-Latino majority losing influence and facing discrimination for not speaking Spanish. In its troubled history, Oregon has turned on the “other,” foreigners, blacks, any faceless group accused of stealing something from the rest of us, including jobs, culture, and—now—language.

The last thing Oregon needs is another dark chapter of racism disguised as nationalistic duty. What the state could use instead is a moment of illumination and courage.

It's happened before in another context. A half century ago, Oregon set out to protect its farms and forests by carefully planning for the rapid population growth that was coming. Its leaders (primarily Governor Tom McCall) engaged in a long, often rending discussion about the need for land-use laws. Invective followed—foes called Oregon a communist state, and voters in many parts of the state would still erase land-use laws from the books in a heartbeat given the chance. But it took someone with guts to challenge hardened beliefs and prepare Oregon for the future.

It's time for another conversation, this one about the changing face of the state. Oregon's long history with a whites-only club running things is ending. Imagine seeing a leader in Oregon brave enough to embrace that future—especially now that the nation's political debate is oozing anti-immigrant poison.


It's time for another conversation, this one about the changing face of the state.

A future Oregon leader who gets up the nerve to talk about the value of a more diverse Oregon—and the need to account for it—need look no further than Woodburn, a city that thirty years ago no one would predict would be a model for cultural tolerance. The town struggled with change as Latino and Russian immigrants came to the area. Today, Woodburn proudly talks of its “Little Mexico” business district. The school district has seen enormous success in graduating students from high school, in large part because of its bilingual approach in the classroom. The city routinely sends out information about the library, parks, and water bills in English and Spanish. And the city's website has a button that allows visitors to translate its pages into thirty-six languages.


Alonso Leon says that, despite Woodburn's progress, the city has a lot of ground to gain when it comes to making itself open to everyone. She says the city council rarely sees members of the Latino community appear before it, and that the only Spanish speakers who attend meetings on a regular basis are usually her parents, who like to watch her in action. She says the city has formed a committee to find ways Woodburn can knock down cultural and language barriers that keep non-English speakers from believing they have a role in civic debates.

“We need to do more to make ourselves inviting and available,” she says. “Telling people only English is acceptable in government runs against the idea that everyone has the right to be heard.”

Alonso Leon won an appointment to city council in 2013 and must run for her seat this year if she wants to keep it. She's never sought public office before, and she could appear on the same election ballot as Trump and the Oregonians for Immigration Reform measure—an irony that isn't lost on her.

Alonso Leon expects a campaign will test her. She'd be the third Latino elected to the council (she's the only one serving there now), and she says she has never been afraid to tell her story.

“If people are asking questions and scrutinizing who I am, that means they're considering me, or someone like me,” she says. “And that in itself is progress.”


Belonging, Education, Immigration, International, Land, Laws and legislation, Oregon, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Place, Politics, Public Policy, Divides, Home, Global and Local


6 comments have been posted.

I am appalled to read about Mr. Ludwick’s initiative to eliminate the use of Spanish language from government forms and publications. I would like to share information about a public programming series that is about to start in early January at the Canby Public Library. Thanks to generous funding from NEH and ALA our library is offering extensive programming around the subject of immigration. Latino Americans: 500 Years of History will explore our communities’ immigration experience through the viewing of films, community reading events, literacy discussions and cultural programs. As a small, largely agricultural town with an almost 25% Hispanic population, we see the need to engage community members from all walks of life and backgrounds in a thoughtful exploration of diversity and inclusiveness from a scholarly perspective. And of course we are offering all of our programs in English and Spanish including all the printed materials. In addition to this grant funded programming series our library offers citizenship classes, computer classes and English language classes to our immigrant population

Hanna Hofer | January 2016 | Canby, OR

Oregonians for Immigration "Reform" has ties to the Oathkeepers and white supremacists. I learned that from the Rural Organizing Project, our marvelous statewide advocacy group for democracy and human dignity. We must defeat any such measure that makes it to the ballot.

Faith Reidenbach | January 2016 | Corvallis

Thank you - also I hope you'll look at the impact on other immigrant communities including the fast growing Asian & Pacific Islanders.

Joseph Santos-Lyons | January 2016 |

Excellent article discussing the challenges Oregon faces in terms of diversity and inclusiveness. As a Latino and native Oregonian, I was moved by the storytelling and fascinated by the history of Oregon illustrated here, much of which was new to me.

Valdez Bravo | January 2016 | SW Portland

Good work by Brent Walth. The article is well-reasoned and well-written.

Kathy Nokes | December 2015 | Tigard

Thank you Brent Walth for a good story that shows the narrow mindness of wanting Oregon to be an "English only," state. It's time for leaders in all Oregon political races to stand up in support of a diverse Oregon and speak out against an "English only" measure.

Francie Royce | December 2015 | Portland and The Dalles

Related Stories

Also in this Issue

Objects in Motion

What We Pass On

Whose State Is This?

Community in Flux

This Way through Oregon

So to Speak

Getting Out

All the Same Ocean