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1982: From invisible to vibrant

In 1982, Our Valley looked at jobs people do, with articles on truck driving, ranching, forestry and other occupations. One article, “Invisible Hispanic population pursues American dream,” considered how the Rogue Valley’s Latino families earned a living and worked to maintain their cultural heritage outside of the public eye.

While some of the 1982 article focused on migrant workers, year-round Latino residents were also covered. That year the Mail Tribune reported there were about 2,000 Latinos living in Jackson County, with the number growing to about 4,000 during harvest season.

The Rogue Valley’s Latino community today is an economic engine and a force for social justice, making up 12.9 percent of Jackson County’s population — more than 28,000 persons.

In 1982, the Mail Tribune wrote, “They fill shopping carts at the discount stores on Saturdays, and fill the drive-in theater to watch Spanish-language features on Thursdays. Those are two of the few instances when Jackson County’s Hispanic population makes its presence known.”

Jan Wilson, then a Jackson County Health Department nurse, was quoted as saying, “They are a very invisible population.”

Chela Sanchez, co-founder of el Dia de los Muertos race and celebration, grew up in Talent and remembers how different it was when her family first arrived in 1979. Her parents, Avigael and Gumaro, came to the Rogue Valley from California, seeking a better place to raise a family.

“With documentation issues, people were afraid to be at the head; no one wanted to be the first one,” explains Chela. “I think people back in the day were interested in assimilating, becoming part of the community rather than exposing their differences.”

Avigael remembers how hard it was to find the foods she was familiar with in Mexico, but today Avigael says almost anything she would find in Mexico is in the neighborhood grocery store.

“Before I made do with what I found in the store; prepackaged tortillas were almost impossible to find, the stores never seem to carry enough, so they would always be out. Today, mangos, avocados, Mexican brand dried goods, snacks are all readily available,” says Avigael. “There’s a selection of tortillas to choose from, not to mention various brands of specialty masa.”

The number of Latino-owned businesses has increased dramatically since 1982. That year there were about 1,900 Latino-owned businesses in all of Oregon. Today, Jackson County Latinos own and operate businesses in real estate, sales, manufacturing, services and other industries. As of the last census, there are more than 1,100 Latino-owned businesses in Jackson County alone, representing 10 percent of all businesses operating in the county.

The Rogue Valley Latino community today is an important part of the workforce and is vocal and engaged, sharing a rich cultural heritage with the broader community. Latino leaders participate in all sectors of life in the Rogue Valley and have a seat at the tables where decisions are made. Bilingual education is now in the schools, Spanish language book collections are in the public libraries, and Spanish language fluency is an asset to employers.

Revista Caminos has published since 2010, growing from just a 12-page local publication to serve an ever-increasing regional community both in print and online. Caminos is central to community cohesion.

A number of Latino community members influence inclusion and equity through the Medford Multicultural Commission, a group with the cultural competencies needed to advise the city on policy and procedure.

“We were formed as part of the visioning process that Lindsay Berryman undertook in her administration,” explains Debra Lee, a member of the commission and a lawyer with the Center for Nonprofit Legal Services. “The commission was intended to be broad and not consider only one demographic; we are all part of the community, and we are diverse.”

The commission recently worked with the Medford Police Department to improve relationships between the Latino community and police officers so the officers could be viewed more as community support. The commission also organizes civic engagement through the annual Multicultural Fair, which is now in its 26th year and is the longest-running multicultural fair in Oregon.

Talent’s Dia de los Muertos annual celebration and race started in 2013 with 150 runners; in 2019 it will be a citywide, weekend-long festival commemorating Latino traditions. Its slogan is “Run. Culture. Community.”

“We consider it as a bridge event through food and music and now art,” says co-founder Chela Sanchez. “All our heads are bilingual and bicultural.”

Despite many advances, Rogue Valley Latinos continue to experience discrimination and micro-aggressions, complicated by today’s political climate and immigration policies.

“We have to change people’s hearts in order to change their minds, educating the public so they know Latinos are part of this community,” says Virginia Camberos with Unite Oregon. “It’s a difficult conversation, but it is one that is necessary. People are going back into the shadows because there is so much fear about not being welcomed, because of the color of your skin, how you look. We’re here for the long run.”

You can reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com

Day of the Dead Race participants get ready to run at the 2018 Dia de los Muertos race and celebration. Courtesy photo