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Oregon Hispanics are searching for political clout to match their growing numbers

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT  - David Torres, president of Fulfillment Corp. in Beaverton, is politically aware but not politically active. Torres says his more conservative views don't play well in Oregon's political climate. David Torres has never been active in politics, but he’s thinking about it. More than ever.

Torres, president of Fulfillment Corp. in Beaverton, is one of the most successful Latinos in the Portland metropolitan area. At 67, he has made his fortune, having sold his warehousing and distribution company in December.

The reasons Torres provides for his lack of political engagement are as revealing as the fact that he might be on the verge of getting more involved. Last month, The New York Times published a front-page story, “Latinos Gain Political Muscle, And Fund-Raisers Show How.” The story introduced wealthy Latino donors who are gaining political clout nationally, some having attended a $40,000-a-plate fundraiser and policy session with President Barack Obama.

But as far as local Latino leaders can tell, nobody from the Portland area attended the Washington, D.C., fundraiser, and none are major contributors to the Futuro Fund, a $32 million Obama campaign effort subsidized by Latinos, many from Miami, Texas and California.

Torres could have afforded the dinner. And he’s not apolitical; in fact, he’s very conversant on the subject of Latino politicians and issues. The right candidate, Torres says, might get his considerable support.

But Torres says it’s unlikely he’ll find that candidate in Oregon. He calls himself “a middle-of-the-road Republican.” He says Portland is too liberal for him.

Yet when Torres owned a direct-mail company in San Francisco in the 1970s he worked campaigns for Dianne Feinstein and Harvey Milk. He lists concern for the poor and children along with good law enforcement among the issues he most cares about. So his brand of conservativism is nuanced, to say the least.

Torres says most of the financially successful Hispanics he knows are more conservative, as a group, than their non-Hispanic Portland counterparts. He says it’s hard to find a local politician with similar views. That’s part of what keeps him on the sideline. But that’s not all.

A few years ago, the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, a local organization that helps Latino businesspeople network with each other, invited Torres to a meeting, but it did not go well.

“I said, ‘Don’t you ever again dare introduce me as a Hispanic male,’ ÿ” Torres recalls. “I’m an American.”

Assimilation is another issue about which Torres cares deeply. He says talking about Latinos as a separate voting or education bloc holds them back. He was invited once to talk to a group of Hispanic students and says he refused unless non-Hispanic students were included in the group.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - David Torres here with Raul Vasquez, insists his many Latino employees refrain from speaking or reading in Spanish while on the job. The goal, he says is for them to be fluent in English. “It’s just degrading,” he says. “The segregation bothers the hell out of me. It makes us look like a bunch of poor idiots.”

Consider how Torres runs his Beaverton warehouse. He has hired huge numbers of Latinos, some who can barely speak, read or write English, much less use a computer. He tells them up front that they are not allowed to speak Spanish on the job. All eventually learn to read and write English and become computer savvy.

Latino political power? “Maybe we don’t need it,” Torres says. “Maybe we don’t have as many problems as Laredo (Texas). Maybe they ought to look at us and say, ‘Why don’t (they) have political noise here?’ ”

Not at the table

George Puentes, 65-year-old founder of Don Pancho Authentic Mexican Foods, is among Oregon’s most financially successful Latinos and, unlike Torres, he has been politically involved. He served on the Salem City Council and lost a run for mayor of Salem. When George W. Bush came calling, Puentes became active as a donor and organizer of Latino Republicans.

In fact, Puentes attended the White House Christmas party during the Bush administration. But he’s been politically quiet lately. Like Torres, he feels the Oregon climate a bit frosty. And with liberals and conservatives polarizing, he says, it becomes harder for Latinos to organize as a bloc.

“If you’re more on the conservative side, you don’t want to show your political stripes,” Puentes says. “It might affect your business. It might affect your standing. There isn’t safety in numbers in being a conservative.”

Gale Castillo, president of the 850-member Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, acknowledges the lack of Latino politicians, especially noticeable since Latinas Maria Rojo de Steffey and Serena Cruz Walsh left the Multnomah County Commission. There are no Latinos on Portland’s City Council or on the county commission.

In Hillsboro, where nearly one in four residents is Latino, only one of seven City Council members is Latino. More than half of Cornelius’ residents are Latino, but that town has one Latino council member.

Latino voter registration and turnout in Oregon historically has been low, even when compared to Latino participation in other cities. When Castillo arrived in Oregon in 1970, about 2 percent of Oregonians were Latino. Now that number is close to 12 percent. That’s a relatively unestablished Latino population, Castillo points out.

In terms of political organizing and accumulation of wealth, Portland is “at least 25 years behind California or Texas or Arizona or New Mexico,” she says.

“We have middle-class Latinos, but not everyone who is middle class wants to step up, especially in these times,” Castillo says.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT  - Grassroots organizing by Latinos here has been more successful than most people know, says Marissa Madrigal, chief of staff to Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen.Carmen Rubio says Latinos here are organizing effectively on a grassroots level. Rubio served as community affairs director under Portland Mayor Tom Potter and then as a policy director for City Commissioner Nick Fish. She left that position in 2009 to run the Latino Network, a nonprofit that pushes government to pay more attention to Latino concerns.

Rubio lists the 2009 renaming of 39th Avenue to Cesar Chavez Boulevard as a political victory for Latino organizations. She says Portland Public Schools’ new racial equity policy is a huge achievement that was greatly powered by pressure from Latino nonprofits.

Yet the controversy about the Cesar Chavez Boulevard led to Rubio leaving a City Hall position that brought her access to power. She recalls receiving hate mail about the proposed name change that forced her to realize the lack of acceptance Latinos still faced in the Portland area.

Government and the political parties here take Latinos for granted, Rubio says. That leaves nonprofits as the alternative to affect political change. Both the Latino Network and the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber are running programs to develop Latino leaders.

“I left City Hall because I was really tired of seeing that we were not at the table,” Rubio says.

Those grassroots efforts are having an effect, says Marissa Madrigal, chief of staff to Multnomah County Commission Chair Jeff Cogen. Madrigal says there have been four major protests organized outside the county building this year, and two, both focused on jailing of illegal immigrants, were Latino dominated. She says the local Latino community’s political clout was greatly responsible for the recent proposal by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office to not jail many undocumented residents.

“The Latino community shows up to the budget meetings and testifies in greater proportion than their actual percentage of the population,” Madrigal says.

Madrigal says she still finds non-Latinos in Portland often clueless about who Latinos are, or what they want. Not long ago, a colleague who needed “a person of color” for a panel wanted to ask her to participate, but didn’t quite know how, Madrigal says.

“They said, kind of like, ‘Can you check that box?’ They needed a person of color, and they weren’t sure if I counted,” says the light-skinned Madrigal.

Madrigal is politically savvy, having successfully run campaigns in Clark County before managing Cogen’s 2006 campaign. She says she could see running for office when her children, now 3 and 10, are older.

Madrigal can also see where some of her votes might come from, with the latest census count showing one in four Oregon kindergarteners is Latino. Twenty years from now, she says, those kindergarteners will be voters she might be able to woo — if they identify themselves with Latino concerns.

Living in conflict

Umpqua Bank Executive Vice President Rick Calero is another successful young Latino who could help Latinos flex their political muscle in the years to come.

Calero, 33, was born and raised in New York City, his parents having emigrated from Puerto Rico. He has also lived in Dallas and Miami.

In New York, he saw Latinos organizing around issues such as bilingual education in the schools and immigration support.

In Miami, he saw a Latino community dominated by Cuban immigrants organize around anti-Castro sentiment.

In Texas, Calero says, cross-border immigration is such an immediate issue that Latinos there naturally organized around it. In California, labor laws brought together a large part of the immigrant Latino population.

But in Oregon, Calero says, the political agenda for most Latinos is very similar to the agendas of all Oregonians, and that makes it harder to develop a single political voice, much less a pushy one.

“Without that unifying issue to rally around, we assimilate into the general population the same way anyone else does,” he says.

Gerardo Ochoa cites age as a reason Oregon Latinos haven’t gained political power. Ochoa, 33, works as an independent consultant helping high school students around Oregon win college scholarships, in addition to serving as assistant director of financial aid for Linfield College.

The Latino population in Oregon averages about 24 years of age, compared to 38 for Oregonians overall. In Multnomah County, 48 percent of Latinos are younger than 25, compared to 25 percent of whites. Ochoa is convinced Portland’s Latino population is also significantly younger than the Latino populations in other cities.

“I just think of all the entrepreneurs and small businessmen my age or younger, give us 10 or 15 years, I think our level of organizing and philanthropy will increase,” Ochoa says.

Another obstacle, according to Ochoa, is the large percentage of undocumented Latinos in Oregon. When working with high school students, he often hands out pieces of paper on which students are asked to anonymously write whether they are legal residents or undocumented.

“It’s usually about 50-50,” he says.

Eighty-four percent of Oregon Latinos can trace their families to Mexico, compared to a national average of 66 percent. Those Mexican immigrants, Ochoa says, learned back home not to trust the government or the political process. He thinks Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City might feel very differently about getting politically involved than immigrants from Mexico, where a more corrupt government remains in power.

Ochoa has dual citizenship and thinks someday he might return to Mexico. He says he’s caught between two identities, and finds it hard to maintain his Latino identity in Portland, where there are so few distinctively Latino places to go.

“Do I invest my time and energies and resources in my home in Mexico or in my home here?” Ochoa asks. “There are many who don’t know where they want to be in 10 years. There are a lot of people who live in that conflict.”

That conflict might also be keeping many Latinos from becoming fully invested in politics here in Oregon, Ochoa says.

But there are plenty who will, says Gerardo Sandoval, an assistant professor of planning, public policy and management at the University of Oregon and author of “Immigrants and the Revitalization of Los Angeles.”

A 2011 Pew Research Center report shows Oregon tied for 10th with New Mexico among states having the largest percentage of illegal immigrants. Sandoval says Oregon’s high number of illegal immigrants damps down political enthusiasm, as does its history of racism. Latino immigrants in Oregon tend to try to get ahead economically but keep their heads down.

Still, Sandoval has no doubt that Latinos will become impossible to ignore as a political force once all those kindergarteners grow up.

“Five to 10 years from now, I think this state is going to blow up politically for Latinos, and I think that’s why you’re seeing all these organizations focus on youth development and leadership,” he says.

Sandoval says it could happen very soon if immigration reform to allow undocumented residents to become citizens, being debated in Washington, D.C., becomes a reality.

“If immigration reform happens and all these unauthorized immigrants gain legitimacy, it could take five years for them to start voting, and that would be a sea change in Oregon,” he says.

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