Latino Political and Cultural Organizing in Oregon: 1950s-1980s
Religious organizations initiated the first services for Latinos in the state of Oregon. The Portland Catholic Archdiocese established a Migrant Ministry in 1955 to serve the Mexican migrant population. The Ministry provided mass, sacraments, and other services to the Catholic Mexican community. In 1955 the Oregon Council of Churches took on the problems of the growing number of migrant workers and formed its own Migrant Ministry Committee.
In 1956 the Oregon Council of Churches requested that the Oregon legislature investigate the serious problems faced by the 40,000 migrants who come to Oregon each year. At the time Oregon was reported to be seventh in the United States in the number of migrants needed each year to plant and harvest crops and work in canneries. This figure is almost twice as much as the one published a year later by the Interim Committee on Migratory Labor. In January 1958 the Oregon state labor commissioner established the Migrant Farm Labor Division, indicating a formal recognition by the state of the significance of the farmworker population.
That same year the Legislative Interim Committee on Migratory Labor carried out an extensive study that examined recruitment, transportation, wages and earnings, housing, health, sanitation, education, and public welfare. The report revealed what the Oregonian called shocking conditions in some of the state’s migrant labor camps.
In 1964, the Catholic Church-based Migrant Ministry changed its name to Oregon Friends of Migrants and formed a coalition of clergy, legislators, farm-labor employers, and Mexican American residents, which became known as the Valley Migrant League. The organization applied for a federal grant to provide adult education, vocational training, day care, health services, and summer school for migrant workers and their families. It eventually received a $680,000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity as well as 80 VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteers to carry out the programs. In 1970, Mexican farmworkers took control of the Valley Migrant League by amending bylaws to raise board membership requirements from 51 to 100 percent migrant representation. After this change labor contractors, crew leaders, and growers had no say in the administration. The Valley Migrant League (later known as Oregon Rural Opportunities, ORO) played an important role in establishing farmworkers clinics such as Salud de la Familia (Family Health) in Woodburn. Although ORO collapsed in 1979, when the federal government revoked its funding after audits had uncovered many irregularities, the Salud clinic continued. The Oregon Human Development Corporation emerged to claim job training and other government-funded programs previously run by ORO.
In the mid-1970s Mexican workers began to work in greater numbers as tree planters and thinners in the reforestation industry work that was previously done by Anglo workers. These Mexicans worked through contractors, and in the off-season they looked for jobs in farmwork, nurseries, and canneries. The number of Mexican laborers in agriculture also continued to grow as the industry did. This growth in the population of laborers created the necessary conditions for the birth of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in California. While the UFW was gaining momentum in California by organizing Filipino and Mexican workers, the United Farm Workers of Oregon emerged in 1968.
Unlike the UFW of California, the UFW of Oregon was not a formal union. Despite this, its members protested substandard conditions in farmworker housing, grower policies denying access to labor camps, and inadequate field sanitation. United Farm Workers of Oregon also worked with other organizations to pressure the state government to investigate migrant housing conditions, even taking a governor’s aid on a housing tour once. In 1976 UFW opened an office in Portland and established support committees in various places throughout the state.
In 1970 the Chicano United Farm Workers of Oregon also emerged to work for farmworker rights. The initiatives of this group as well as that of the United Farm
Workers of Oregon did not fully succeed, but they helped to pressure other groups such as the Valley Migrant League to support the boycott of California table grapes and lettuce promoted by the United Farm Workers. As these farmworker organizations were political, they also began to promote a model of worker-controlled organization and to advocate for farmworkers collective bargaining rights.
In 1973 a novel experiment in higher education began in Mt. Angel. Colegio Cesar Chavez was begun by a group of Chicano activists and educators who took over the failing Mt. Angel College and proceeded to develop the only independent, accredited, degree-granting institution for Chicanos in the country. Colegio Cesar Chavez operated a G.E.D. (high school equivalency) program, an Adult Basic Education program, a child care center, and a migrant summer school. The language requirements for graduation were unique, including knowledge of the English language, knowledge of the Spanish language, and a working knowledge of Pocho Spanish in oral and written form, according to a recruitment brochure. The Colegio was shut down in 1983, after a long struggle to pay an inherited debt to the Department of Urban Housing and Development.
During the late 1960s and the early 1970s there was a marked increase in INS activity targeting migrant Latino workers in Oregon. At that time Cipriano Ferrel, Ramon Ramirez, Larry Kleinman, Juan Mendoza, and others began to talk about organizing an immigration project. In May 1977 the Willamette Valley Immigration Project (WVIP) opened its doors in Portland. Its goal was to provide confidential legal advice and representation for undocumented workers with immigration problems. By the end of 1977 the WVIP had seven bilingual staff members and a summer office at the Colegio Cesar Chavez.
The building of the cultural and political space that WVIP had begun in the 1970s continued with the formation of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Nordoeste (PCUN, or in English, Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United) in 1985. From 1985 to 1986 the PCUN began to build a constituency among farmworkers and forestry workers. During the 1990s it engaged in a series of actions aimed at opening up political and cultural space for migrant Mexican farmworkers, at raising farmworker wages, and at achieving its first contracts with small organic growers. In the summer of 2002 the PCUN finalized negotiations with NORPAK, a large cooperative of growers that had been the target of a ten-year boycott by Mexican farmworkers.