A history of exclusion in the state of Oregon: a conversation with Oregon State Representative Teresa Alonso Leon

Teresa Alonso Leon is a state representative for Oregon’s House District 22. In an interview with CPI’s Brian Zuluaga during Hispanic Heritage Month, she discussed her own perspective on government legitimacy. “To me, legitimacy means viewing government through an equity, racial, and social justice lens,” she said, “and recognizing that laws are often unjust.” 

As the interview was taking place during Hispanic Heritage Month, she set her political campaigns in the context of her state’s history. “Oregon was admitted into the union in 1859,” she began. “We were the 33rd state, and slavery was prohibited. Nonetheless, we had Black people who were brought to the state as slaves. In 1857, there was a vote on two referendums – one was whether to reject slavery, and the other was whether to exclude Black and mixed-race people from the state. And 75% voted to reject slavery, but 89% voted to exclude Black and mixed-race people. 

“Not only did people of color have no representation among the founding citizens, but the political sphere was formed solely of white men. From the state’s very beginnings, people of color were excluded from decision-making. We had no Latino legislators elected until 1986, when Rocky Barilla represented House District 31, and no Latina legislator before Susan Castillo in 1996. But by 2017, we’d become the most diverse legislative body in the history of Oregon.”

The importance of human diversity

Now that Rep. Alonso Leon is in the Oregon state legislature, she is able to rectify the exclusionary past by introducing more equitable policies. One area Representative Alonso Leon has been adamant about is acknowledging and respecting the state’s linguistic diversity. “Everyone who comes to this country wants to create a better life for themselves, but not everyone speaks English. And we had a law with the Secretary of State’s Office that every document gets to be in English. So, how can a person who doesn’t speak English register to start their business, which – at the end of the day – is going to contribute to the state’s economy? In 2019, we passed a law that all key documents for people seeking to register their small business have to be translated into Oregon’s top five languages. This was a huge win for our communities. I was very proud to change a law that was so unjust.”

And my vision for our state capitol is that one day it will look as diverse as the people that it serves, and our legislation will reflect that diversity

It is essential that lawmakers recognize Oregon’s linguistic diversity. “My English-speaking colleagues who’ve lived in this country their entire lives don’t know how these types of laws impact people. They get to live a life of privilege, where they speak English, and everything’s in English, and they don’t even have to think about it. However, we have immigrants who want nothing more than to contribute to society, but because of language barriers they’re unable to access these sources of information. In my campaign in 2016, I made history by running the only multilingual campaign in the entire state. I published information in Spanish, English, and Russian because, for me, it was important that we engage as many people as possible, knowing that we had a low voter turnout in my district.”

Fighting on behalf of Hispanic communities

Teresa’s family came to rural Oregon from Mexico. “We’re not a political family at all. My parents are farmworkers, and I saw a lot of injustice to our farmworkers when I was growing up, so I couldn’t just sit quietly and watch it all happen. As a child you feel helpless, but as an adult you bring an energy to the problem. And there were a lot of people in our community, in my district, who had very similar experiences to me, seeing injustice all around them. 

However, we have immigrants who want nothing more than to contribute to society, but because of language barriers they’re unable to access these sources of information.

“I had to do my job as a legislator to fight and advocate for just policies, while unions and community organizations were training and preparing everyday families to navigate the political system. This included migrant farmworker families, who would take the day off to come and share their stories with my colleagues – that was a turning point. And my vision for our state capitol is that one day it will look as diverse as the people that it serves, and our legislation will reflect that diversity.

“So the momentum keeps growing, and when there’s an issue that’s incredibly important to everybody, people do come and get involved. One of my favorite memories is being inside the house chamber and hearing the chants of maybe a thousand Latinos, pushing for us to pass a driver’s license policy. It was the most amazing experience as a representative. [Representative] Diego Hernandez and I were both chief-sponsoring this policy – he was sitting right behind me, and both of us got misty-eyed.”

Connecting with Oregon’s Latinos

Representative Alonso-Leon has some advice for other legislators on strengthening relationships with Hispanic and Latinx communities. “From the very beginning, I was transparent with the community that I didn’t have political experience other than being on the city council for three years. I was very transparent about my roots being indigenous, coming to this country from Mexico with my family. And I involved my family in the entire experience, everything from the campaign side to performing traditional Mexican dances to open my swearing-in ceremony. And that had never happened in Oregon’s history.

“It really resonated with the people in my district that I was bilingual. And those who’d been afraid to share their thoughts before were able to speak to me in their own language. From the very beginning, they knew I wasn’t a traditional legislator or candidate. They knew I was super grassroots, because I was like them. They understood my story, because many of them had the same experiences. And my dad, a person of very few words, said to me: ‘for the first time, people get to see themselves in a system that has historically pushed them away or has abandoned them, or has denied or confused them. But because you talk to them with respect, they are able to connect, and you make this whole system accessible to them.’ And I was blown away when my dad said that.

It really resonated with the people in my district that I was bilingual. And those who’d been afraid to share their thoughts before were able to speak to me in their own language.

“We need to treat all our constituents equally. One thing I’ve learned is that our Latino constituents have the same concerns as everyone else. They want their children to have a strong education. They worry about having affordable and accessible healthcare. They worry about retirement, what’s going to happen to them when they get older. And when it comes to specific concerns, you have to take those very seriously – for example when the Oregon government stood up for them and said ‘yes, it’s time for you all to have a driver’s license’.”

Trust depends on a shared language

Rep. Alonso Leon then went on to talk about rebuilding trust. “Once people see their representative delivering on issues that are important to them, that’s when they start believing again. Yes, this person’s really here for me and has heard me and wants to help me. And it’s not just that one time, it’s a continuum. I have to continue working with our community-based organizations to serve our Latino and immigrant constituents and ask what issues are important to them.” 

In Representative Alonso Leon’s case, this means engaging with Hispanic people throughout Oregon. “I’m not just the one indigenous Latino legislator in my district, but also in the entire state. And I take a lot of pride in that. Part of my district is rural, and there are some very rural communities in other parts of Oregon. They’re unable to reach their own legislator because they don’t speak the language, or they don’t look like them, or they just haven’t addressed them. My office actually gets tons of emails and calls from folks all over the state, for the simple reason that they know I’m accessible and my office is bilingual. So, I’ve already removed a couple of barriers that other legislators have unintentionally put up because they live in privilege. They don’t have to worry about these things. But I do worry about these things, and I want all the people to know that I’m here for them.”

#HispanicHeritageMonth