Immigrants Reshape Hillsboro

Angie Chuang and Esmeralda Bermudez, The Oregonian, Jan. 14, 2007

Laurence Hughes and her husband, Steve, are one of the last remaining Anglo families along Southeast Oak Street where they settled 25 years ago. For roughly 10 square blocks, Latinos have moved in. Taco trucks line the streets and Spanish banda music flows from backyard family celebrations.

“You see a lot of families and kids,” says Laurence Hughes, a French and Spanish high school teacher who likes dropping into the Mexican bakery down the street for sweet bread. “They live their lives out a lot in the front yard. It makes it lively, makes it human.”

Yet she hesitates to walk her dogs because the heavy traffic agitates them and, she says, Latino men sometimes gawk at her.

It’s this mix of discomfort and attraction that casts Hillsboro as a real-world laboratory for the forces rapidly reshaping Oregon into a more populous, diverse and, some say, divided state.

Once a traditional farm town, Oregon’s fifth-largest city has more than doubled since 1990, adding nearly 50,000 residents because of the surging high-tech economy. Today, migrant farm laborers shift to service and construction jobs while other immigrants design Pentium processors.

A fourfold increase in Latino residents—Hillsboro’s largest ethnic minority—encompasses a broad socioeconomic range, from the city’s poorest residents scraping by in low-rent apartments to well-heeled homeowners.

Longtime residents and newcomers alike say the city—now roughly 20 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian and 70 percent white—has been left unsettled by the changes. The mayor comes under fire for his “friendly” attitude toward immigrants—legal or not. Others call for the police chief’s removal because he refuses to have his officers root out illegal immigrants.

But Hillsboro’s identity crisis isn’t just about an Anglo vs. Latino culture clash. It’s about the demands of a changing economy and how people earn their livings. It’s about a small town that seems to have become a city overnight. It’s about other minorities, like Asian immigrants, and how the city’s new mix mingles at work, at the grocery store and in the schools.

“We are a pretty good petri dish,” says Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie. “This is a complicated community that struggles with its own identity and demographic change. Some see it as an invasion and others see it as an enrichment.”

A culture clash evolves

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Thayer Optical has become an anomaly along the Southeast 10th Avenue business strip: It’s owned by one of the few non-Latino, non-Spanish-speaking business owners left in the area. An all-Anglo staff continues to greet a nearly all-Anglo clientele.

Of anywhere in Hillsboro, the juxtaposition of cultures—and rifts that exist—can best be seen on 10th Avenue. The main drag cuts across clusters of Latino-owned stores. Here, like in other diverse parts of Oregon and the nation, residents from opposite worlds live in a cultural tug of war. They buy into each other’s food, music and commodities, but for lifestyle and socialization, they stick to what’s comfortable and familiar.

In the neighborhoods along Southeast Walnut Street, Oak, Maple and Alder, the Latino population has ballooned to more than 80 percent during the past two decades. Shopkeepers use Spanish to sell quinceanera dresses, snakeskin cowboy boots and money wiring services to Latin America.

No one at Dave Thayer’s shop speaks Spanish, and he doesn’t plan to hire anyone who does.

“English is the language of our nation,” says Thayer, 67, who is white and Chippewa. “If I don’t understand what you’re saying, I don’t know what you want.”

Yet he has no plans to relocate his shop. Ten years ago, friends and colleagues began asking him, “Do you plan to stay down there, with the criminal element, with all the Mexicans?”

Thayer says he would tell them, “What criminal element? They’re hardworking people. They’re not criminals.”

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At the city’s rapidly developing southern edge, Alexia Castrejon lets her two cocker spaniels run into her yard in Arbor Roses—a subdivision of $300,000 homes with model names such as “Chardonnay” and “Bordeaux” that she and her husband, Efrain, call “our ‘Brady Bunch’ neighborhood.”

Like the city she now calls home, Castrejon has fashioned a life between the color-coordinated subdivision pushing at the urban growth boundary, and the commercial strip a mile north that she frequents. Southeast 10th Avenue, where she finds her favorite pan dulce pastries, looks more like her birthplace of Michoacan, Mexico, than “The Brady Bunch.”

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Power of the economy

Entire communities are being planned in Hillsboro to cater to the high-tech stream, especially well-off singles from South and East Asia who have altered the face of the city’s west side.

Here, Indian families have bought entire condo complexes. And the library boasts one of Washington County’s most expansive collections of books and videos in Asian languages, from Bengali, Chinese, Farsi and Hmong to Khmer, Samoan, Tibetan, Urdu and Vietnamese.

This Hillsboro was hardly recognizable to Patti Williams—who grew up here, spending summer vacations picking strawberries, beans and cucumbers in the fields—when she returned a decade ago to run a neighborhood mediation program for the police department. In her office, a Spanish-English dictionary sits next to a copy of “Nonviolent Communication.”

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Len Nguyen experiences the city’s shift through the clientele of her upscale nail salon at Orenco Station—the first and best-known of the trendy mixed-use developments.

Though her clients are still mostly white, Nguyen—who emigrated from Vietnam in 1990—is seeing more families from India, China and Korea. “Most of the people who come here, no matter where they are from, are wealthy. They like to go shopping, go work out and get their nails done. They have good jobs and know what they want.”

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The low-rent sections of downtown and Orenco Station seem worlds apart to Nguyen. “I honestly don’t know much about downtown. I’ve only been there a couple times. (At Orenco Station), it feels like the city has a very good future. People are moving here and new things are being built all the time.”

Washington County has had lower unemployment than the rest of the metro area because of high-tech, says Charles Rynerson of Portland State University’s Population Research Center. Hillsboro, especially, has built up large amounts of housing.

But prosperity has also led to disparity between classes, cutting down opportunity for poor whites and Latinos alike.

Recently, the city received help from the state to use a wealthier industrial area near the airport to try to create jobs for struggling residents on the city’s southwest end, where the average per-capita income is $15,343. The zone near downtown includes the city’s greatest concentration of poverty.

“The Survey”

Often in Hillsboro, cultural differences are dealt with privately—among friends, in living rooms. When residents speak out, city leaders can get caught off guard and unprepared to handle a conversation that’s never taken place publicly.

That was the case in 2003 when a question on a city livability survey caused 400 randomly selected residents to bring race to the forefront.

One survey question asked: “What ONE aspect of living in Hillsboro satisfies you the least?”

Five percent of residents surveyed wrote “influx of Hispanics”—almost as many as those citing crime.

Many people, like Carlos Perez, assistant superintendent of the Hillsboro School District—where the proportion of Latino students has doubled, to 28 percent, since 1996—simply refer to it now as “The Survey.”

“It’s a sore spot for me,” says Perez, who helped form a Human Rights Council to deal with tensions.

At the time, Mayor Tom Hughes said he almost wished he had never asked the question. In his five years heading city government, Hughes has seen unease grow over Latino growth.

Last summer, Hughes took heat from some residents for attending a conference hosted by the Mexican government to discuss issues Mexican nationals face abroad. And repeatedly, he has raised ire by emphasizing that the city’s job is to serve all residents, whether they’re in the United States legally or not.

Also last summer, the contentious national immigration debate hit close to home when a local branch of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps helped organize a picket at a day labor site in front of Centro Cultural, a few miles from downtown Hillsboro.

Louie, the police chief, underscores that the city has deliberately taken a hands-off approach to illegal immigration. “To use local resources for federal immigration enforcement is the wrong thing to do.”

Some residents have called for his firing because of that stand, Louie says. But city officials have stood by him, funding programs for gang-prevention officers who focus on Latino youths, a domestic violence specialist and extra pay for any officer who speaks another language fluently.

Still, in a more recent survey to gauge public sentiment about a local option tax, 7 percent of respondents said the city’s increased minority population is one of the biggest issues local government should address.

Buying into a community

Humberto Reyna and Erika Chavez say they feel at ease in their neighborhood. In October, they bought a house in Brookwood, a pocket of mostly older homes where immigrants are trickling in. But in Hillsboro at large, Chavez says, discrimination still lives. “I felt it many times. You feel those little things, just how they talk to you.”

She sees how workers at the employment office are rude to her mother when she stumbles with English. How her colleague at the loan office where she used to work told her she assumed any Latino’s Social Security number was stolen.

But overall, Reyna says, they love the city and have heard from friends in Portland and other places that Hillsboro is more welcoming of Latinos than most cities. “Here you can walk around anywhere and nobody will look at you.”

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Irma Valdez, a Portland-based bilingual real estate broker with a primarily Latino clientele, works with her clients and others—through her nonprofit, the Latino Homebuying Initiative—to help them become more involved in the U.S. system.

“You’re not buying a house. You’re buying a community,” Valdez tells the families. “You should get to PTA meetings. You should get involved.”

In 1999, Valdez became a presence in Hillsboro when she challenged the City Council for trying to restrict loncheras, or taco trucks. She rallied Latinos to appear before the council to argue that the taco trucks were being singled out over other mobile businesses.

“There’s an ignorance in the white community, a sense that ‘these people’ are too difficult to connect with, so therefore they’re threatening. Mayberry is changing,” she says, referring to the idyllic North Carolina town in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Hughes, the mayor, says the change is more complex than Anglos learning to live -side by side with Latinos. Compared with the city’s overall growth, Latino growth has not been significant enough to leave old Hillsboro unrecognizable.

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