Woodburn celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month: Giving people a voice
Gustavo Gutierrez-Gomez believes that "a healthy community is an informed community."
The community relations manager for the city of Woodburn has reached beyond his job description to get involved in various organizations, seeing himself as a voice for the Latino community. Additionally, he has sought creative ways to get information out to the community and to bring the community together.
A budding businessman
The middle child of a single mother who worked as a seamstress in a working class neighborhood of Colima, Mexico, Gustavo had to start paying rent once he started a shoe shining business. He was 8.
"She wanted me to be a person of good," he recalled. "I learned early on how to pay my way."
He thinks she also did it to keep him away from the negative influences around him -- gangs, drugs, vandalism. He said he didn't think he would live beyond the age of 25 because of the dangerous surroundings.
"It's tough to ignore that situation when it's all around you," he said. "That environment was just not safe."
Gustavo went on to get a technical degree in business and accounting and then pursued a bachelor's degree in marketing, all the while pursuing his own business ventures. After selling food and then running a small restaurant, he soon owned and operated an arcade, which became so successful he dropped out of school. But the success came with a price: Because he had repossessed a gaming system from a man who couldn't pay for it, Gustavo was attacked and beaten by the man outside his store after he locked up for the night.
"I thought, you can lose your life for something very little in Mexico," he said. "That's when I started thinking about going to the U.S."
It wouldn't be until he was 27, in 2002, that he would be able to settle in the United States. That came about when he gained custody of his two children, who had U.S. citizenship through their American-born mother.
"I wanted a better future for them," he said of his children Joseph, 17, and Ally, 16, and more recently Jadrian, who was born two years ago.
"I wanted a better future for me too, but I didn't get that until five years ago."
2013 is when, after working various jobs to support a family and an education (all while learning a new language and culture), he got a Bachelor of Science from the Oregon State University's College of Business (he has since added online degrees in nutrition and marketing to his resume). He started his new career working for Marion County Health Department.
That was also the year he moved to Woodburn -- though he sheepishly admits he didn't even go downtown until interviewing for his current job almost three years later.
"When I first walked to the Downtown Plaza, it reminded me of my childhood," Gustavo said. "I set up my shoe shine business in a plaza like that."
Promoting and embracing Woodburn
Since becoming community relations manager with the city of Woodburn in February 2016, Gustavo has made a point to connect with downtown business owners.
"I understand them because I've been a business owner myself," he said. "I think that's why I'm able to be effective, because we share those experiences."
He's also been active in helping promote downtown, particularly through tours. Educators at Catlin Gabel School, a private school in Portland, reached out to him a couple years ago for a tour of Woodburn. He's now provided multiple tours for high school students and teachers.
"These are kids who have seen the world, so they can compare Woodburn to their own experience," Gustavo said. "They're excited, they'll say, 'This is like when I went to Argentina' or something. That says a lot about Woodburn, that we have kept the food tradition, of course, but also the culture."
Part of preserving the culture of Woodburn is through Fiesta Mexicana, something Gustavo tries to promote year-round.
"We have a good working relationship with print media, social media and other groups, so I try to foster those relationships through the year," he said.
Gustavo has also coordinated the Fiesta Court for the past three years.
"It was tough because at (first) I had no experience; I thought it was a beauty contest," he admitted. "But when reading about it I saw that it's very focused on culture and giving back to the community. ... I've really embraced the program, and I think it can continue to grow."
While encouraging the Fiesta Court participants to give back, Gustavo himself has given back to the community. Not only has he been part of Kiwanis, Chemeketa Community College's budget committee and the Woodburn School Board (he recently resigned due to personal reasons), but he is active in multiple health-related organizations, like the Marion and Polk Counties Communicable Disease Task Force, the Willamette Valley Health Equity Coalition, Salem Free Clinic Advisory Committee and the MAPP (Mobilizing for Action Through Planning and Partnerships) Steering Committee.
"I think health means a lot of things for different people," he explained. "I think information is not given to a lot of people because they haven't had representation at the level where people make decisions. By my being there at the table, I think it helps it be more equitable."
One example he gave of a lack of information getting out is the recent rise of sexually transmitted infections in Marion County.
Providing meaningful communication
So what's the solution to effectively communicating with the community?
One way is through a weekly radio show hosted and produced by Gustavo, who also streams it on Facebook live.
"Charla Informativa," which means informational chat in Spanish, came about because the city is allowed air time through its contract with Radio Movimiento, which uses the city's water tower for its antenna. Gustavo realized early on that a Spanish-language e-blast, a method that has worked for the English-language version, wasn't going to be as effective as he hoped, as Latinos don't like to give out personal information, he said. But with radio, they can get the information without having to give anything up. It's also a convenient medium for laborers who can listen while they work with their hands.
The bilingual show, which airs from 11 a.m. to noon every Friday, features information from the city's weekly e-blasts and also invites special guests to share with the community. The show with probably the largest audience (2,000 Facebook live feed views) is when U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader visited the show.
"I love that my job is the same methodology every week but it's different circumstances," Gustavo said. "It's fresh all the time."
A sense of belonging
Gustavo said promoting a healthy community also means building connections.
"Part of my job is building bridges and connecting the community," he said.
Noticing that different groups tended to keep to themselves, Gustavo reached out to Oregon Humanities to bring the Conversations Project to Woodburn. The project has done two series that have been free and open to the public. These series are led by moderators and are discussions that focus on controversial themes, like racism, equity and immigration.
"They've been small groups; however, the conversations have been very crucial," Gustavo said. "We found that the senior population is very much like the migrant population: they've left everything behind to come to a new culture when they move to Woodburn. Both have been displaced and are trying to create a new life here."
A healthy and vibrant community, Gustavo said, is one that has a sense of belonging, a prominent theme for Place Matters Oregon, a statewide media campaign from Oregon Health Authority that included an interview with Gustavo in commercials that started running earlier this year.
"That's what creates a community, a sense of belonging," Gustavo said in the commercial. "You belong no matter where you came from ... I think you'll find that here in Woodburn."