A new accent on diversity
If Oregonians know anything at all about the town of Woodburn, they're probably familiar with its giant outlet mall. Most of the town's visitors never make it past the mall's shops. They buy Gap shirts, Eddie Bauer pants, London Fog coats, and then drive 20 miles north back to Portland.
But a few blocks away from the outlet mall is a town center that may seem surprising this far from the Mexican border: Rumbling lowrider motorcycles cruise the streets, and it's not at all unusual to see men wearing sombreros and strumming guitars. Everywhere there's the lyrical sound of Spanish being spoken.
This wasn't always the case. For the first time, according to the 2000 census, more Hispanics than whites were counted in Woodburn. This gives the formerly sleepy farming community the "brown" face of the future in the United States, as envisioned by Richard Rodriguez in his latest book, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America" (Viking, $24.95).
When you mix many cultures and colors together, brown is what you get, he explains. He speaks not just of skin color, but of foods and cultures, arts and literature, and ways of life, with something completely new resulting from a mixture of many backgrounds.
Mr. Rodriguez believes this "browning" is the beginning of a new era, a realignment of the American sense of identity.
In more than just numbers, Woodburn population 20,100 has become what many towns across America already look like and many more will become in the future. With three main ethnic groups, it is a sometimes-awkward patchwork of cultures and languages, accompanied by occasional social tension and anxiety.
But what may set this town in transition apart from the communities that have already wrestled with diversity issues is its awareness of the need to work out the problems for the benefit of all residents.
According to the US Census Bureau, the nation's Hispanic population will likely grow from 11.8 percent in 2000 to 18.2 percent in 2025. By 2100, it estimates, more than one-third of America's projected 570 million people will be of Hispanic origin.
Already, the US has the fourth largest Hispanic population in the world.
California, Texas, and the Southwest were among the first areas to experience increasingly large Mexican-American populations. The Midwest has had a large influx of immigrants over the past decade. But other regions still have not dealt with this issue, and haven't grasped the lessons that other areas learned decades ago.
"It's a national phenomenon," says Arturo Madrid, humanities professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. "The next wave will be the South."
America has always attracted immigrants, of course. In earlier times, the "huddled masses" came mainly from Europe, so although they experienced a backlash from the mainstream population, they were still white, and their similarities of culture and skin color allowed them to blend more seamlessly into the communities in which they settled.
This new wave of immigration, however, is more diverse, whether it be Somalis in Georgia, Hmongs in Wisconsin, Indians in California, or Latinos anywhere.
With 51 percent of the country's foreign-born population now coming from Latin America and 26 percent from Asia, the current cultural transformation isn't just of a slightly different hue. It means that communities that may have been homogenous for years will have to adapt in large and small ways.
Woodburn's cultural diversity goes beyond Latino and Anglo. Seven percent of the population is Russian, and a retirement community has brought more senior citizens to town.
"[Woodburn is] like a research tank," says Anthony Veliz, who works at the local community college and is a member of Woodburn's school board. "We have an aging white population. We have an emerging 'minority' population. And that's the way the country is changing."
A changing community and country may cause fear, tension, and some strife, at least in the beginning. But as different groups reach out to one another, Dr. Madrid says, "eventually it works out, although it may take a long time."
As Woodburn is discovering, the issues to be worked out include the balance of political power, social services, language, and understanding people who aren't "like me."
What attracts immigrants to a particular area in the first place, Madrid points out, is jobs that aren't being filled by those who already live there.
That was true for Julian and Merarda Sifuentez. They were better off than many migrant farm workers in Texas because they owned their own home. But they had a dream of a better life for their son and six daughters. So one day in 1966, they piled all their belongings in the back of a truck and headed for Woodburn, the "berry capital of the world."
"We were told that there was money lying on the ground," says Elida Sifuentez, who was 14 at the time of the move. "But what my cousin meant was that there were cucumbers and beans and strawberries [on the ground], and you pick them and they pay you."
Thirty-six years later, the Sifuentezes' story is repeated thousands of times every year in Woodburn. The need for unmechanized farm labor still draws people to the town during the growing season. They include workers like Juan Espindola of Oaxaca, Mexico, who came to Woodburn in April from Fresno, Calif., for the strawberry season.
"Oregon is very famous for work," says Mr. Espindola, sitting on one of the downtown benches where the town plans to build a plaza.
Espindola says he likes the area because it's tranquilla (peaceful), and has none of the gang problems that the California cities of Fresno and Madera have. The climate is better, too, he thinks.
Firmo and Yahir Lopez, two brothers buying pastries at a grocery store, are also from Oaxaca. They say they like Woodburn, and can each make $80 to $90 a day in the strawberry fields.
But the work itself, said Firmo, is not always easy to find here, whereas in Fresno people will come looking for them to work. Both the Lopez brothers and Espindola expect to go back to California for the grape harvest season.
But more and more of the farm workers are choosing to settle down in Oregon, rather than continuing to remain migrants. Workers like these have made Woodburn what it is today people such as the Sifuentez family who came and stayed, instead of moving on to the next crop.
Often they find work in one of the city's factories or at the Smucker's plant, or they may start their own businesses. They have brought their families, bought houses, and sent their children to the local schools.
"Education was very important to my parents," says Elida Sifuentez. "When they would migrate to west Texas to pick cotton, they would leave me with my grandmother and grandfather so I could go to school."
Her parents' sacrifices paid off. With the help of a scholarship and loans, Ms. Sifuentez, the oldest of her siblings, was able to graduate from college. She is now a member of the Woodburn City Council, a licensed practical nurse, and an active community volunteer. All her siblings have also become successful.
In Texas, Sifuentez's classmates were overwhelmingly Mexican-American. In Woodburn, she was only one of six Latinos in her school in 1966.
But now Woodburn's schools are 67 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Russian, and 20 percent Anglo.
Increasingly crowded schools are a fact of life in communities that have many new immigrants. The new arrivals often have larger families than native-born Americans, and those who immigrate to the US also tend to be younger, which means that more are of child-bearing age.
This combination, while revitalizing to older communities, "comes with social costs, says Trinity University's Madrid. "It puts demands on healthcare, on schools...."
"The city is trying to meet these needs, but it's struggling," Sifuentez says. "We know we're eventually going to have to build a newschool," and this is a source of some friction in the town, especially among retirees.
"I don't blame them," she says. "Some of them live on fixed incomes. They resent that we're asking for more money for schools. But I'd rather pay to educate [children] to be doctors and lawyers than to have them turn to crime."
It's not just school costs that bother Anglo residents. Some retirees won't go downtown anymore because they feel as though they're visiting a foreign country.
What used to be the Coast to Coast hardware store is now a sprawling restaurant-cum-grocery store called Salvador's Bakery and Taqueria. The former Ben Franklin five-and-dime store is now called Lupita's.
Soccer has replaced baseball at many city parks. The old 1930s-era gas station is now Centro Gas.
The entire downtown has been transformed by tiendas de abarrotes (small stores), carnicerias (butcher shops), and endless ads for envios de dinero (money orders) to send back to Mexico.
The shops are now filled with piñatas, sombreros, and blaring Colombian techno music.
In an average day, Sifuentez could eat at Mexico Lindo, one of many such restaurants in what Anglos call "little Tijuana."
She might hand her paycheck to a bank teller born in Siberia or drive past the bulbous spires of Woodburn's Russian Orthodox church. Or she might stroll through the massive factory outlet mall, and stop to eat at the Country Cottage, serving "home made pies."
Every day, she and other Woodburn residents are faced with the different outlooks people have brought to this town in search of a better life, and the different worlds they have created once they arrived.
Inger Stigerts, golf chair of the Senior Estates Golf Course, laments that when she goes downtown, she seldom hears English spoken. "I resent that," she says, "because if you go to Mexico, they don't put everything in Spanish and English, and you'd better know what you're doing."
Having some residents long for a return to when English was the norm doesn't change the fact that Woodburn and other towns with large immigrant populations have to face the reality of different languages and the continuing need to communicate.
Often, Latinos are disproportionately charged with not obeying seatbelt laws and not having driver's licenses, Madrid notes. Part of the reason is cultural "They're not used to doing it," he says but language is also an issue.
Recently, the town hired a community-relations specialist to translate many of its laws into Spanish. But illiteracy and a myriad of regional dialects complicate the task.
The easiest way to reach the Latino community, is through Spanish- language radio, Woodburn and other towns have found,
As Woodburn struggles with language difficulties, the school system has embarked on some ambitious programs to help solve the problem.
One is the English Transition Program (ETP), which differs from English as a Second Language in that it ensures students are literate in their native language before transferring those skills to other languages. ETP starts in kindergarten with a high percentage of instruction in the students' native language and lowers that percentage until sixth grade, when all the students are moved to English-only instruction.
The program has been almost completely implemented in all grades now.
"Our goal is not to be trilingual," says Mr. Veliz, the school-board member. "Our goal is to be a school that's triliterate. There's a big difference there.
"Within the next two years, every student in Woodburn will be biliterate. Triliterate," he admits, "is going to be a little harder."
Apart from language, Woodburn's diverse nationalities don't always see eye to eye. At the same time that people from different backgrounds are being pulled together, there is also some pushing apart.
The Russian community, for example, is widely considered too insular.
There's also some resentment about Latino businesses not joining the Chamber of Commerce.
On a more personal level, some Latinos perceive Anglos to be friendly only on the surface. "They say, 'Hi, how are you?' But it never goes deeper than that," one longtime Latino resident complains.
Now that Hispanics are a majority of the population, a few Anglo residents are concerned that Mexican-Americans will "take over" the town and initiate projects that benefit themselves and not others.
Typically, in towns that have several ethnic groups, tall sides jockey for control, says Madrid. A community may find itself divided between "people who want to maintain control and people who want a voice in what happens. The new group wants to have its voice heard."
Retiree Donna Gramse moved to the city four years ago with her husband. As a member of Woodburn's new minority, she is concerned about possible changes to the political power structure.
"It's a worry," she says, "because what they vote in, we've got to pay for with taxes on our homes.... The rest of the city wants and wants and wants, and now they have the ability to vote it in."
But the fact is that despite their numbers, Woodburn's Latinos haven't voted in anything yet. To date, Sifuentez is the only Mexican-American council member.
Veliz learned about Latino political apathy the hard way when he ran for state representative in the primary this year and lost by a large margin. Of the roughly 50,000 Latinos in the district, he estimates on the basis of examining surnames that only about 800 voted in the primary.
Veliz is a third-generation Oregonian who lives in the Woodburn home his grandparents bought when they came to the city in the 1950s. Now he gets to watch the current generation growing up in Woodburn.
In many ways, say observers on the scene, the city's future will be determined in the schools and among young people. Every day, those in Woodburn's schools face the reality of their town's changing population.
"You don't walk into our cafeteria and see all the Hispanic kids on one side and all the Anglo kids on the other," says Jody Fischer, director of personnel and community relations for the school district. "It's not to say there aren't cliques, but they don't break down by race. They break down more by economics, by who are the new immigrants."
"The kids get along great," confirms Veliz. "It's the adults that have the issues, when you get down to it. With the kids, everybody's mixing and dating. Where you can find a difference is that language can divide a group."
Seventeen-year-old Isaiah Constante was born in Woodburn, although his family originally came from Mexico. He sometimes gets harassed by recent immigrants because he knows no Spanish. But he says most people get along.
"I remember when I was in middle school there used to be a lot of gang problems here at the high school," he says. "But over the years it just kind of cleared up."
"The preppies have taken over now," says Jessica Leon, who came to the US from Guanajuato, Mexico, when she was 1 year old and is now a senior at Woodburn High School. "Everybody wants to be a preppy Russians, Mexicans, and whites."
In common with teenagers everywhere, Woodburn's students have been united by fashion.
"It's no longer the thing to be in a gang," says Isaiah, who adds that most kids listen to the same radio station, which plays hip-hop. "Everybody pretty much knows the situation," he says. "There's no hating."
Dan Dozier recently moved to Woodburn from Portland because he wanted his daughter to live in a diverse community. He sees barriers of ethnicity breaking down at her school.
"Times are changing," he says. "With the kids playing together and going to school together, that's going to force a change. When I pick [my daughter] up from school, they're all hanging [out]. They're just friends. It's no big deal."
Writer Rodriguez is enthusiastic about young people as the crucible of a new culture. "These kids who are going to be trilingual in this little city are growing up with a global sense of themselves," he says. "I did not have a global sense of myself. I thought I had to choose, as an American, between that place south of the border and this place. Now I'm beginning to see that there's a kind of accommodation in America to a larger sense of its connection to the world."
For students in Woodburn's schools, this means that it has become normal to see their handouts, newsletters, and signs throughout the school in Russian, Spanish, and English. They routinely sign up for classes such as classic Hispanic literature and Russian composition. They attend a quinceanera, the 15th birthday party of a friend. They have a sense of connection to the outside world.
"The thing that keeps us optimistic and committed," says the school district's Ms. Fischer, "is the sense that this is a model for the whole world. Seeing how it works, and making it work in Woodburn, means that it will work elsewhere. We are where ... probably the entire country is going."
Still, making it work isn't always easy, as communities that have already traveled this path know. Fusion of cultures can be difficult and tumultuous.
Adults know that and may tread warily, but Woodburn's younger population lives, talks, interacts, and plays on teams together. As they grow up together, they get to know one another as individuals first and as members of another group second.
This model holds hope for cross-cultural understanding among the community's adults. Sifuentez likens the process to a marriage, one that individuals need to nurture every day.
"We need to really get to know each other, neighbor to neighbor," she says.
When her family first moved to Woodburn and lived in a camp for migrant workers, it was easy for her to imagine that all Anglos were rich and had an easy life. But once she got to know them as individuals, she began to understand "they're not any different than we are. A lot have the same obstacles [Latinos] do."
As a town like Woodburn works to assimilate different races and cultures, tension in the social area is natural, because "we're used to seeing, and dealing with, people like ourselves," Professor Madrid says.
"It may cause people consternation to see different-looking people on street corners or in parks," he adds. But this is part of Latino culture. "Hispanics are more public-space people [than Anglos are]."
Understanding these cultural differences starts where the various groups meet each other, Madrid says: churches, stores, the workplace, and among families of children attending the same school or on the same soccer team.
It's not realistic to think that people will just start inviting one another to their homes. But similar results can be achieved by mixing and mingling at Rotary or Lion's Club meetings. "People need to invite each other to public functions," Madrid says.
More than 20 years ago, a friend of his was one of the first Mexican-American players for the Los Angeles Rams football team. Hoping to foster better understanding between the Anglo and Latino communities, the athlete started a program called Take a Gringo to Lunch, because, he had learned, Anglos and Latinos didn't really know one another.
"If you know people, it's going to be easier to understand them," Madrid explains.
But understanding someone doesn't mean that all differences or tensions have been erased.
"I have a dilemma right now," Sifuentez says. "One of my daughters is involved with a Russian. Well, my Anglo friends and my Russian friends keep telling me to separate them because there's no future [in it]. She'll never be accepted in the Russian [Orthodox]culture. She would have to completely give up her culture and go into the Russian culture. And I think my daughter is too strong, and she would never do that. But there is that problem."
As Richard Rodriguez sees it, this is a natural, painful, and inevitable part of this process.
"We are at one of the great moments of civilization," he says. "Nothing as audacious as what we are trying to achieve has been attempted in human history, where you have the Iranian living next door to the Pakistani, living next door to the Cambodian, living next door to the Irishman, living next door to the Mexican. There is just no country that has ever tried this at the level at which we're trying it."
The danger is fragmentation instead of amalgamation.
"Iowa has just declared itself an English-speaking state," Rodriguez says. "That's happening because of this migration. So the migration is happening at the same time there's a withdrawal from it. These two impulses are happening simultaneously. The country is getting browner that is, more mixed racially at the same time that people are trying to reestablish boundaries in the culture.
"Only further confusion can save us," Rodriguez writes in "Brown," because from that confusion can some new kind of America emerge.
"What I want," he says, "is something melted. I want something mixed. I want us to realize that we create each other." That is, assimilation is a reciprocal process.
By that measurement, Woodburn is on the right track. "Whenever there are families in need," Sifuentez says, "the people of the town [Anglo and Latino] always come forward."
According to projections, the percentage of Hispanics in the United States will grow from 11.8% in 2000 to 18.2% in 2025.
By 2100, the Census Bureau estimates, more than one third of America's projected 570 million people will be of Hispanic origin.
Currently, the US has the fourth largest Hispanic population in the world.
Of the country's foreign-born population, 51 percent now come from Latin America and 26 percent from Asia.