Woodburn, just north of Salem in Marion County, is the largest city in Oregon with a majority Hispanic or Latino population. Although representation of Hispanic and Latino members on Woodburn’s city council and in city government is limited, Woodburn’s community relations department works to provide engaging opportunities for community gathering and connection. Gustavo Gutierrez-Gomez, the city’s community relations manager, has coordinated a multitude of public events for hundreds of Woodburn’s residents, including La Fiesta de la Madre, El Día de los Muertos, Cinco de Mayo, and Mexican Independence Day.
Last year, one of his proudest accomplishments was getting Woodburn’s longstanding Fiesta Mexicana formally recognized as an Oregon Heritage Tradition, a designation given by the state of Oregon to acknowledge events that are more than fifty years old and represent what it means to be an Oregonian. “We should take pride in who we are as a city,” Gutierrez-Gomez says. La Fiesta Mexicana, which today includes food, a parade, and a soccer tournament, originated in the summer of 1964 as a celebration of farmworkers and the end of the harvest.
“This recognition from the state of Oregon shows how long Hispanic people have been around in Woodburn. They’ve been overlooked,” Gutierrez-Gomez says.
Gutierrez-Gomez comes from a background of bringing people together. He is originally from Tuxpan in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a town where residents celebrate festivals 270 days out of the year. Now he spreads the word about Woodburn community events on Friday mornings with his Spanish radio show, Charla Informativa, to reach Spanish-speaking residents who otherwise might not hear about local opportunities.
When Gutierrez-Gomez came across Nosotros: The Hispanic People of Oregon, a publication by Oregon Humanities, he knew he wanted to share the stories it contains. “I thought it was important that Latino and Hispanic Oregonians see their contributions in the history of the state and I also wanted to share that knowledge with others who weren’t familiar with it,” he says. He gave the book to social workers, teachers, the Mexican consulate in Portland, and other city offices in Independence, Tigard, and Newberg.
This spring, Gutierrez-Gomez attended Manuel Padilla’s Conversation Project program, “The Space Between Us: Immigrants, Refugees, and Oregon,” in Salem. “I loved the broad community approach of the event,” he says. “A lot of events are targeted towards Latinos or everyone else, and with Conversation Project, it wasn’t about ‘them’ or ‘us’—it was about the ‘we.’ No matter where you come from, we can all get involved. Whatever issues we’re dealing with, we’re dealing with together.”
Afterwards, Gutierrez-Gomez coordinated a partnership between the Legacy Woodburn Health Center and the city to host a series of Conversation Project events. In May, Woodburn hosted “What’s in a Label: Thinking about Diversity and Racial Categories,” “The Space Between Us: Immigrants, Refugees, and Oregon,” and “Power, Privilege, and Racial Diversity in Oregon.”
Race, privilege, and immigration are topics that Gutierrez-Gomez knows are important to Woodburn residents. According to the 2010 census, the city is 59 percent Hispanic or Latino and 29 percent foreign-born, with a poverty rate of 30 percent. The Conversation Project programs brought together a diverse group reflecting the city’s unique makeup.
“We realized we were connected by experiences in our lives when we all had to endure changes and adapt,” Gutierrez-Gomez says. “Together, we created a trusting atmosphere and long-lasting connections.”
The city is excited to continue hosting conversations in the future. Gutierrez-Gomez acknowledges how important they have been for the community: “We are in new territory at Woodburn. There have not been conversations like this here before—we are making history.”
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