Latin music blares over the sound system inside the Oregon Flea Market while customers eat tacos al vapor or walk down aisles lined with star-shaped piñatas and papel picado to browse the market’s many booths.
Pablo Fuentes, 49, sells hats at the Southeast Stark Street and 182nd Avenue market every weekend after long hours working construction during the week. Fuentes spent his childhood in Tijuana, Mexico, and followed family to California in the early 1990s before the more affordable cost of living drew him to Gresham in the late 1990s.
In his first years in Oregon, Fuentes said he was one of only a few Mexican immigrants in his neighborhood, and it was difficult to find a Latino community. That’s changed considerably over time. Fuentes, speaking through an interpreter, said he now has many more Latino neighbors, and there are more Latino-owned restaurants, businesses and community gathering spots, like the market.
“It feels good to be around people who speak your own language,” Fuentes said.
Oregon’s Latino population has skyrocketed over the last three decades, and experts expect that number will only grow. Driven primarily by immigration in earlier decades, the growing Latino population is now fueled by that generation’s children and grandchildren, born in Oregon or moving here from other states, experts say.
The state’s Latino population grew by more than 30% over the last 10 years as Oregon added nearly 140,000 Latino residents, numbers from the 2020 census show. That growth came after Oregon’s Latino population jumped by 144% from 1990 to 2000 and grew by another 63% from 2000 to 2010.
Oregon’s Latino population now stands at 588,757 and has grown faster than the national rate in each of the last three decades. Latinos are now the largest minority group in the state, accounting for nearly 14% of the state’s population. Among Oregonians under 18, Latinos make up 23% of the population, according to Census redistricting data, a sign that their numbers will continue to climb in the coming years.
About 40% of Oregon Latinos were born in the state, while 28% were born elsewhere in the U.S. and roughly 30% were born in other countries, according to the 2019 American Community Survey.
“In the 1990s up to the Great Recession, the growth in the Latino population was fueled by immigration and high birth rates,” said Charles Rynerson, Oregon State Data Center coordinator for Portland State University’s Population Research Center. “In more recent years, this growth has been fueled by domestic migration and the age structure of the population.”
Victor and Nora Morales moved to Portland in 2020 to escape the rising cost of living in the Bay Area.
Nora, born in Oakland, California, to Mexican immigrants, and Victor, who moved to the East Bay from Guatemala at age 9, worried that their children, ages 10 and 11, would stick out in less diverse parts of the Portland metro area. Ultimately, in 2020 they bought a house in unincorporated Washington County in the Beaverton School District, where they believed their children would be able to get a good education and join a strong swim program — both kids have been involved in competitive swimming since a young age — while being around other Latinos with shared cultural experiences.
“There were other options,” Victor Morales said. “But when we looked at the diversity of the schools, it was almost nonexistent. That’s what drew us back to Southwest Portland, because we wanted our kids to feel welcome.”
More than half of Oregon’s Latino population lives in Multnomah, Washington and Marion counties. All three saw their Latino populations grow by at least 25% in the last decade. Washington County has the largest Latino population, 107,000, while the relatively small Morrow County had the largest share, at 41% of its 12,000 residents. In Clackamas County, the Latino population grew by 38.5% in the last decade to more than 40,000 residents.
Latinos have been in Oregon since well before it was a state, working in the Oregon territory in mines and building railroads. By World War II, Latino communities had put down roots in the state despite repeated deportation sweeps. The state’s farms at the same time depended on a migrant Latino workforce mainly from Texas, California and Mexico.
Levi Herrera-Lopez, the executive director of the Mano a Mano Family Center, which serves immigrant families in Marion County, said many Latinos who came to Oregon before the mid-1980s were farmworkers who would stay for the harvest season and then move on to other states.
That changed as federal policies opened the door for more Latinos to settle in Oregon. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which penalized farms that hired undocumented immigrants while providing a path to legal status to undocumented agricultural workers who had already been working in the U.S. The law allowed migrant farmworkers from Mexico who previously came to Oregon for the harvest season to instead settle in the state.
Policies in California in the 1990s — including those that denied driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants and a failed effort in 1994 to deny them public health care and education — drove more Latinos to Oregon, Herrera-Lopez said. And as more Latinos settled in Oregon, more of their relatives began to follow. Herrera-Lopez said there are now many Latinos in Salem who come from the same villages or cities in Mexico.
“The reason that we moved to Salem, which I had never heard of in my life, is because we had family here,” said Herrera-Lopez, who moved from Mexico to Salem with his family in 1992. “That’s become a thread through a lot of the population. They chose Salem because they had a connection here.”
As Oregon’s Latino population has grown, cultural hubs have developed in communities across the state.
Herrera-Lopez said he has seen the Latino community grow exponentially in southeast Salem since his family settled there in the 1990s. Latin American restaurants and markets now fill the shopping corridors along Lancaster Drive.
Maria Caballero Rubio, the executive director of Centro Cultural de Washington County, which serves the Latino community in Washington County, has similarly seen Latino neighborhoods develop in Hillsboro, Cornelius and parts of Beaverton since her migrant farmworker family settled in Washington County in 1969.
Centro Cultural has a large community center in Cornelius, where more than half the population is Latino. At the center, the nonprofit hosts community events to bring people together for holidays like Dia de Los Muertos, holds holiday food and toy drives and provides services like English language classes.
“As the generations have passed, we now have elders who are coming to our community center who have lived here for five decades,” Caballero Rubio said. “Now, their kids have their own children and sometimes grandchildren.”
As the population continues to grow, though, advocates say more needs to be done to ensure Latinos can thrive.
A 2016 report from the Oregon Community Foundation found that Latinos had made strides in education, employment and health since 2000, but were still more likely to be poor, uninsured and undereducated than their white counterparts. About 15% of Latinos were living in poverty in Oregon in 2019, compared to 11% of white Oregonians, according to the American Community Survey. (People who identify as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
In Portland, the school board made a commitment in 2019 to boost Black and Latino student achievement, but last fall a national test showed that Black and Latino elementary and middle school students were still consistently at least a full year, and in some cases three or four years, behind grade-level expectations.
Tony DeFalco, the executive director of Latino Network, which advocates for Latinos in the Portland area, said policies like the Preschool for All initiative, which Multnomah County voters passed in 2020, could help close educational gaps by providing free and high-quality early childhood educations options to communities of color.
DeFalco said providing services and finding ways to engage the Latino population where they are is especially important, which is why Latino Network has been raising money to build La Plaza Esperanza, a preschool that will be located in a part of Gresham that is more than 30% Latino.
“With an increasing population, we need increasing levels of effort from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to balance the needs and priorities of Latinx communities across the state in terms of education, community safety and wealth building in order to continue to put all of us on a pathway to prosperity,” DeFalco said.
DeFalco said Latinos need to be better represented among elected officials in Oregon as the population continues to grow. Herrera-Lopez, too, noted there are few Latinos in decision-making positions in Salem’s local government, even though they make up 28% of the population in Marion County. He said that can leave the community broadly ignored by those in power.
There have been some gains in recent years. The Oregon Legislature now includes a record 13 people of color after four, including two Latinos, were newly sworn in last year. But Latinos still make up under 8% of the members in the Legislature, despite making up almost 14% of Oregon’s population.
Caballero Rubio said that she’d like to continue to see Latinos better represented at the state and county levels, but she said she has been excited to see more Latinos running for city council in cities like Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove.
And in Portland, Caballero Rubio’s daughter, Carmen Rubio, became the first Latino or Latina elected to the Portland City Council in 2020, a half a century after her mother immigrated to Oregon.
“I think we’re starting to see changes,” Caballero Rubio said. “The younger generations have stepped up and we’re starting to see more people of color and Latinos in elected positions.”