By Sarah Evans
Pictured above: Jaime Arredondo ’05 in front of
the inspirational mural at Colonia Libertad
Right: Children at the Colonia Libertad playground
The cheerful golden siding on the apartment buildings and the multicolored concrete near the playgrounds conjure thoughts of sunny days, even in the persistent Oregon rain. The development’s community center provides comfortable space for residents to take yoga, dance or aerobics classes and become conversant with computers. It’s also a safe haven for children, a place where they can seek help on their schoolwork and play together under the watchful eye of older residents.
These sights greet you as you walk through the idyllic community in South Salem. But the crowning jewel is visible before you even enter the parking lot — a bright two-story mural. Jaime Arredondo ’05, who works for the corporation that owns the property, proudly shows the mural to everyone. The painting tells the stories of those who call Colonia Libertad home, and it tells Arredondo’s story as well — one that leads from childhood heartache to unquenchable hope.
Colonia Libertad means “Freedom Colony” — an appropriate name for what the complex represents to the 48 families living there, families who make more than half their income from farmwork. These mostly Latino farmworkers come to the U.S. looking for well-paying jobs to break out of poverty, and they work tirelessly to pick or prepare the food we eat, tend the plants we place in our yards, and care for the forests that blanket western Oregon.
The Freedom Colony represents liberation from the farms where they spend their days, from the labor camps where many lived before, from a life of hopelessness, illiteracy, isolation and the belief that they have no worth.
“I started working with migrants because I wanted to honor my family’s sacrifice. It’s the least I can do for what they’ve done for me. ”
Local artist Hector Hernandez created the mural with help from the development’s young residents. The bottom half is black and white, representing the residents’ past: workers bending over rows in the field, Aztec symbols for their original Latin American homes, and, most important, their hero César Chávez, civil rights activist and labor leader. The top bursts into full color with a view of their future: grinning children holding their arms high in hope, Mt. Hood in the background, Monarch butterflies — themselves migrants — flying freely.
Casual visitors might think the farmworkers have it easy. The pristine facility often fools the Willamette University students who volunteer there, until they remember the alternative for workers who aren’t lucky enough to get an apartment (more than 200 families are on a waiting list).
“When I first went to Colonia Libertad, I was surprised to see how nice it was and how happy the kids were,” says Bekah Hykan ’10, a student volunteer. “It’s easy for me to forget that if the kids were living somewhere else, they would have a really hard life.”
Hykan witnessed that life in March as part of a group of Willamette students examining sustainable agriculture through the Take a Break (TaB) community service program. To learn about the workers who harvest much of the Willamette Valley’s food, the group traveled to several labor camps.
Entering Campo Blanco near Cornelius, Ore., was like stepping into a poor, rural Mexican village. Bracing themselves against the rain, the students saw an elderly Mexican woman washing dishes in a courtyard. Cautious faces peered out of dirty doorways from the 24 surrounding housing units. The woman lived in one unit with her son, daughter-inlaw, two young grandchildren and an unrelated teenager. To go to the bathroom or cook meals, they used filthy community facilities.
The daughter-in-law said they had been living in the camp for about a year, paying $150 monthly rent while picking blueberries in a nearby field. They received minimum wage and, during harvest time, a set rate for each container they filled with produce.
Her two young sons clung to her, dirty and scared. The visitors wondered when the boys last ate, if they had ever seen a doctor, if they were safe.
“I was surprised to see how nice it was and how happy the kids were.”
At another camp outside Woodburn, Ore., a resident named Jorge surprised students by lauding his dismal housing. His rent of $40 per month, including utilities, beat living in an apartment. Pointing across the road at a hops field, he explained that living near his job meant no worries about a car or fuel. The students were stunned to hear Jorge cite the benefits of a camp that appeared unlivable.
“The labor camps were really eye opening for me,” says Yuta Kono ’08, co-leader of the TaB trip and a Colonia Libertad volunteer. “When I entered the housing, it smelled bad. And still people said, ‘This is a great place.’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’”
Others were surprised that such poverty was so close to home — not far from urban centers — yet virtually invisible to most citizens. “People are really aware of urban poverty here, but if you showed them a picture of one of these camps, it’s not the kind of poverty people think we have in the States,” Hykan says. “They think it only exists in other countries.”
This poverty is what Arredondo and Colonia Libertad work so hard to fight. It’s a familiar life to the charming 25-year-old who always offers a smile, laugh or welcoming handshake. Arredondo is fond of Willamette, where he majored in rhetoric and media studies and was a resident assistant in Kaneko Hall, a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity and president of the Unidos Por Fin club, now known as Alianza. He was an activist who manned phone banks and canvassed neighborhoods during elections, marched with Oregon farmworker labor union PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United), and worked with Willamette food service provider Bon Appétit to strengthen its policy of purchasing produce from farms that hire union laborers.
He started picking strawberries at age 10 with his father and older brother, and first encountered activism two years later when a group of PCUN members marched by him in the field, shouting through megaphones about workers’ rights.
Before coming to the U.S. in 1992, Arredondo’s family lived in Michoacán, Mexico. Their tiny house, made of rocks and concrete, had no electricity or running water for many years. The children traded chicken eggs and corn seeds for pencils and paper. When they moved to Salem, his parents and their five children crammed into a one-bedroom apartment — the best they could afford. In addition to his farmwork, Arredondo held a job during high school as the “beverage guy” in Willamette’s Goudy Commons, refilling drink machines, washing dishes, serving food.
He watched the Willamette students and told his coworkers, “That will be me someday.” They laughed. But a Latino mentoring program at Western Oregon University helped him realize college was possible, so he applied to Willamette and got in. When he went to Goudy for breakfast during his orientation, his coworkers wondered why he was there. When they heard he was a student, they were stunned silent.
Arredondo’s father has a third-grade education. His mother finished fourth grade and is studying English, learning to use computers and working toward U.S. citizenship. Education is vital to success, the Arredondos told their children. Today, their youngest is in high school, and the others have graduated from or are attending college. Jaime’s sister Lucia ’07 followed him to Willamette.
“When I graduated, one of the reasons I stayed in Salem was I had an attachment to this community,” he says. “If I left this place, it would be like losing a piece of my body. I started working with migrants because I wanted to honor my family’s sacrifice. It’s the least I can do for what they’ve done for me.”
Arredondo became a community organizer at Colonia Libertad, owned and managed by the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC). Several organizations that assist farmworkers founded the FHDC in 1992 to create decent, affordable housing and help workers become self-sufficient. Today the FHDC runs three facilities in Woodburn, one in Independence and one in Salem.
The developments target farmworker families who live in the U.S. permanently. This status has become more common in recent years, as the Northwest’s long growing season and prevalence of nurseries enable workers to find jobs year-round, says Andrea Cano, executive director of Oregon Farm Worker Ministry, a faith-based support organization.
“We want to empower these students to get a college degree and improve their lives.”
Oregon has the sixth largest farmworker population in the country, including an estimated 35,000 in the mid-Willamette Valley. They work largely in nurseries, farm fields, canneries or in forests fighting fires or reforesting.
Historically, workers often lived in grower-owned labor camps on farms, like those visited by the TaB students. As more migrant men brought along their families, they sought apartments or other housing. Such living situations are typically crowded and sometimes worse than the conditions they left behind.
Few other industries provide on-site worker housing, says Willamette Assistant Law Professor Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, who previously provided legal counsel to area farmworkers through the Oregon Law Center. “When farmworkers live on site, they are more susceptible to exploitation. The FHDC’s model of bringing workers off the farm and onto neutral territory, where they pay rent to a party other than the farm owner, is empowering.”
The FHDC teaches farmworkers to be active community members, to function in a democracy and to be good citizens. “There’s an emphasis on creating bridges between this community and the exterior community,” says Arredondo, who now is communications coordinator for the FHDC. “We’re teaching people about civic engagement.”
Each development has a community center where residents take English classes, improve their computer skills, meet members of community agencies and do academic enrichment activities.
The FHDC also hosts a resident association program, through which resident-elected officers for each property meet to hear presentations from community groups and discuss ways to improve their development. The president of each association also holds a seat on the FHDC board.
“The resident association model is giving these people a voice and teaching them leadership skills,” Arredondo says. “You don’t need to be college educated to be a leader. You lead by example. These people want to contribute, and they want to learn.”
The developments’ success has made them a magnet for volunteers, particularly college students. Colonia Libertad draws hundreds of volunteers from Chemeketa Community College, Willamette University and Tokyo International University of America who want to contribute to a program that improves the lives of a marginalized population.
Among those volunteers is Kono, a transfer student from Tokyo International University who has studied English and Spanish and hopes to one day work for the United Nations.
The minute Kono enters Colonia Libertad’s community center, children’s cries fill the air, “Yuta! Hi, Yuta!” Young girls immediately crowd around him, wanting to chat or show him their drawings. Kono is as excited about working with these children as they are about interacting with him. “The kids are amazing,” he says. “You can see their eyes sparkling.”
Kono fell in love with Colonia Libertad while volunteering with a TaB trip his junior year. He arranged with Arredondo to do an internship last spring, tutoring students in the after-school program and assisting with adult computer classes. He even led a class on Japanese culture for residents last summer.
Yuta Kono ‘08 visits students at Colonia Libertad and helps them with schoolwork.
“Children’s cries fill the air, ‘Yuta! Hi, Yuta!’”
Kono feels a connection with Latino culture. “They are a minority and people of color,” he says. “I’m also a minority in this country, so I felt a familiarity with them. I like to help people who don’t have all the benefits in society.”
He’s also inspired by Arredondo’s spirit and good-natured way of approaching others. “My dream is to work in Latin America and build a secure community for people who want a better way of life,” Kono says. “Jaime is creating a good community for the migrant workers, which is exactly what I want to do.”
Arredondo is dedicated to nurturing the relationship between Willamette and Colonia Libertad, and he estimates more than 250 Willamette students have volunteered there since it opened three years ago. Their involvement ranges from class projects and senior theses to volunteer work through TaB or the Jump Start pre-Opening Days orientation program.
Students from Tokyo International University of America are especially enthusiastic, Arredondo says. “The TIUA students are still working on their English, and they don’t speak Spanish, but they speak through action. They’re nice, and they’re here to learn, and our residents see and respond to that. The residents are foreigners here, too.”
As Arredondo knows so well, being valued by others can have a lifelong impact on a child, whether the others are activists marching through a field or college students taking time to listen. “The kids don’t care if the Willamette students are black, white or whatever. They just see college students who care about them. We want to empower these students to get a college degree and improve their lives. It expands their vision and gives them hope.”
Mexican workers harvesting cucumbers in Columbia County, Ore., c. 1944 (P40:304, Courtesy OSU Archives)
The U.S. government implemented the Bracero program in 1942 to address a shortage of agricultural labor due mostly to men fighting in World War II. The U.S. brought in Mexican farmworkers, asking them to return to Mexico after the harvest. About 15,000 Braceros came to Oregon before the state ended the program in 1947; in many other states, the program lasted through the mid-1960s. Many consider the program the start of modern farmworker migration.*
In 1943 the U.S. government established the H-2 guest worker program to allow agricultural employers to bring in nonimmigrant temporary foreign workers if the employers could prove a shortage of domestic workers. H-2 evolved into the H-2A program, and today agricultural organizations lobby to expand it.
* Sources: Keith Cunningham-Parmeter, Willamette law assistant professor; “The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon” by Lynn Stephen
Chávez at a United Farm Workers Union benefit, c. 1976
César Chávez formed the United Farm Workers of America labor union in the 1960s to address minimum wage and workplace rights for grape farm laborers. PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United) formed in 1985 as Oregon’s primary union for farmworkers.
The Immigration Reform Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 introduced the I-9 form, requiring documentation of legal eligibility for employment. It imposed a fine on employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, although critics claim the act is poorly enforced. IRCA allowed undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. prior to 1982 to apply for amnesty and permanent legal residency. Nearly 3 million immigrants received legal residency, the majority from Mexico.
Robin Wright ’10 (right) hoes weeds with Raymond Fordyce ’95, MAT’96 in his strawberry field in Salem during the Oregon Sustainability TaB trip.
Take a Break (TaB) is a student-led alternative break program that takes Willamette students, faculty and staff across the country for community service and learning about social justice issues. The program promotes critical thinking, social action and personal growth. During spring break 2008, 118 students and advisors participated in eight trips:
Willamette Staff Writer Sarah Evans participated in the Oregon Sustainability trip. Look for her exploration of the local and organic food movements in the next issue of The Scene. In the meantime, read about her TaB experience online at www.willamette.edu/go/tab.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 disqualified many prospective immigrants from receiving legal status if they had been living in the U.S. without authorization. It created a deadline for undocumented family members of legal residents to file petitions for legal residency.
In the 2002 case Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, the Supreme Court ruled that federal immigration policies prohibit undocumented workers from receiving back pay as a remedy if illegally fired due to union activity. This was one of the first times the court held that labor rights may differ depending on an employee’s immigration status.
Illegal immigration continues to be a hot political debate, with much argument surrounding what to do about the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. The U.S. House and Senate drafted competing bills in 2006 for immigration reform; neither became law. That same year, Congress authorized the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.