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Building a Community Starts with a Home

November 19, 2009

"We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community...Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own."
César Chávez

In July, the City Council of Portland, Oregon, renamed a major thoroughfare, 39th Avenue, "Cesar Chávez Boulevard." This was not only a recognition of Portland's Hispanic population—its fastest-growing minority—but a testament to the values of strong community leadership and grassroots action.

Oregon has experienced a significant growth of its foreign-born population in the past two decades with a 163 percent increase between 1990 and 2007. This increase is partly a result of a growing demand for immigrant labor—and specifically Latino workers—in nurseries, canneries, service, transportation, construction, and production industries. According to the U.S. Census, the 417,000 Hispanics living in Oregon now represent 11 percent of the state’s population, compared to 4 percent in 1990.
The majority of farmworkers in Oregon nurseries are Latino, most from Mexico. They have been a force for economic growth in the state, filling labor shortages and keeping food prices low. However, theirs are usually low-paying jobs with no health insurance and, in many cases, their housing is inadequate, overcrowded, poorly located, and unsafe. Many farmworkers—due to their low income, limited access to transportation, or employers’ oversight—still live in makeshift facilities near the fields, away from the community and from their families.

For Pietro Ferrari, Executive Director of Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC), and Ramón Ramírez, President of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN), the need for adequate and affordable housing is a social justice issue and is key in supporting the Latino community's socioeconomic mobility. Ferrari, a Bolivian, and Ramírez, a Mexican American, have been at the forefront of efforts to build housing developments (colonias) with affordable rentals for low-income families.

But this urban renewal effort goes beyond providing a roof and a safe environment for Latino children; the various colonias in Salem, Woodburn, Portland, and surrounding areas include community centers that support residents’ integration by providing education programs, leadership and skills training, and health services. Describing this community building agenda, Ferrari explains that "beyond housing, our goal is to provide tools for residents to integrate and succeed in work and life."

Hacienda CDC has 400 rental rental units in Portland serving 2,000 residents, of which 85 percent are Latino and 10 percent Somali. Families or individuals earning between 30 percent and 60 percent of median family income or with housing vouchers are eligible for these subsidized apartments. A key element of Hacienda's award-winning model for economic, social, and political empowerment is a financial literacy and homeownership training curriculum, which is available to residents and non-residents. As well, Hacienda’s microenterprise program has helped Latino and Latina entrepreneurs start successful businesses and develop skills for self-employment.

South of Portland, along the Willamette Valley, where most of the nurseries are located, PCUN and other organizations joined forces in 1990 to establish the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC). Since 1992, FHDC has established five colonias with more than 100 units in Woodburn and Salem. FHDC's mission is to offer affordable housing, bring the farmworkers into the community and "strengthen families through education and economic development programs" that are offered at each of the housing developments’ community centers. Their services include youth leadership programs, English-language classes, citizenship courses, financial literacy, and training on workers' rights. To reach the large population of indigenous migrant workers, which are among the most vulnerable campesinos, PCUN established a local radio station that broadcasts in at least five indigenous languages.

Hacienda CDC and PCUN/FHDC are good examples of how integration programs work best through collaboration between the public, private and non-profit sectors. Banks such as Wells Fargo, Bank of America, US Bank, and Banner Bank have supported Hacienda CDC's programs. Beyond the social good, their investments help to create an educated, reliable client base. Several foundations, community groups, churches, individuals, and businesses (including Bank of America, Sterling Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, US Bank, Safeco Insurance, and Wal-Mart), have funded FHDC's projects. School districts support these organizations' after-school and English- language curriculums and the Mexican consulate in Portland is a partner for their adult literacy programs in Spanish (Plazas Comunitarias).

Ramírez and Ferrari emphasize that these efforts won’t be enough without increased Latino civic participation (only 34.6 percent of the foreign born in Oregon were citizens in 2007). For them, it is necessary for the community to become more actively involved in local issues and make their voice heard. The Oregon Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, the Coalition for Working Oregon, and the recently formed Latino Agenda for Action, among others, have been working to bring Latinos together and draw the government’s attention to their needs. The recent legislative proposal to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants in Oregon, the Portland City Council’s statement in support of the Dream Act, and the city of Portland’s funding for day laborer worker centers are positive results. But an anti-immigrant climate, particularly in the context of an economic recession, has also led to the tightening of rules for undocumented immigrants’ access to certain services, as is the case with identification requirements to obtain or replace an Oregon driver's license.

A more educated, organized and participatory Hispanic community can help change the misconceptions that commonly lead to backlash. In this case, the opportunity to have a home and build community through these housing developments is laying the foundations for the next generation of leaders and the “comunidad viva” that Hacienda CDC and PCUN imagine. In keeping with Chávez' spirit...!sí se puede!

Alexandra Délano is a Post Doctoral Fellow in Politics at The New School for Social Research where she teaches courses on U.S. immigration policies and international migration. She is also the Senior Researcher for AS/COA’s Hispanic Integration Initiative.