Number ten, Rolando Contreras, steps effortlessly through the key and towards the hoop. Although four defenders have clogged the court underneath the basket, it is as if he is alone; he moves forward untouched. In a slow-moving layup, Contreras rises up to the basket, his legs pumping like he's climbing an invisible ladder. At the top rung, he lets the ball gracefully roll from his fingertips.
It is Saturday afternoon in late March in the Woodburn High School gym. Contreras played here six years earlier as part of the first all-Latino team to go all the way to the Oregon state championships; in a gutsy charge, their team made it to the final game before stumbling against a larger and quicker squad from Stayton.
Every year, Contreras returns and reunites with some of his former teammates as part of an all-Latino basketball tournament sponsored by Latino Education and Recreation Network (LEARN). Over the next three days, more than 400 Latino youth and adults will gather on the basketball courts and face off. But, perhaps more important than the games themselves, in between matches players and speakers will host seminars about leadership, college scholarships, and community development.
Almost effortlessly, Contreras's teams wins 67-59. But today and the next few days are about more than winning games. The Latino community--especially the future generation, the teens who face a disgraceful 30 percent dropout rate from high school--is desperate for a program to give them hope.
As the Latino population throughout Oregon swells and as social services--like the public school system--largely ignore their needs, a handful of programs have emerged. Much like boxing matches for Irish and Italian immigrants in the 1900s, programs like REACH are trying to serve double duty: as a nucleus for the community and a launching pad for ethnic pride. But, in the exuberant spirit of that Saturday afternoon, the question no one wants to approach is whether these programs can reach enough Latino youth in time--before the whole system collapses under the weight of an exploding population.
Dreams, Aspirations, and Minimum Wage
Starting in the Fifties, a slow trickle of migrant workers began to make their way from Mexico and Central America into the western U.S. Thousands arrived in small agricultural towns--in California to work in the grape fields, Washington to pick apples, and in Oregon to harvest strawberries. Over the next few decades, the flow increased. In Woodburn, just twenty-five miles south of Portland, the population has swelled from seasonal camps of workers to a year-round majority of the town. As second- and third-generation Latino families have settled into the area--and, increasingly in Portland--the population has boomed.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicted the Latino population in America would grow over the past twenty years; but what actually happened caught everyone off guard. In Multnomah County alone, the number of residents claiming Latino heritage blossomed to 44,000 from 19,000 in 1990--a number double what experts expected.
This rapid growth caught social services and education systems unprepared. In Woodburn, where Latino students outnumber everyone else by two to one, only one out of 100 teachers is bilingual. Even more disturbing, there is little motion to remedy this discrepancy.
In early April, State Representative Cliff Zauner, a first-term legislator from Woodburn (and radio announcer for the Portland Beavers baseball team), proposed that English--and no other languages--be used by teachers throughout public high schools in Oregon. Even with a constituency that contains a majority of Latinos, Rep. Zauner boldly put forth his English-only plan. During hearings for the bill, however, an intrepid local farmers' union stormed onto the carpet of the legislature. Even though their overwhelming voice crushed the proposal, another similar bill, S.B. 919, has remained viable.
According to government officials and community leaders, Oregon is rebuffing Latinos. Instead of integration or even a melting pot that blends flavors from different cultures, this isolationism is creating a nation within a nation. Years after the civil rights movement promised equality, it is almost unfathomable that the federal, state, and city governments--either intentionally or by benign neglect, say government officials--are locking Latinos out of American society.
"There is still this feeling that Latinos are not really us," says Mike McGlade, who conducted far-reaching studies and surveys of Latino communities in Clackamas county, and more recently Multnomah county. As the Latino communities move into their second and third generations in Oregon, the upward mobility that previous immigrant groups experienced simply isn't happening; in fact, the inflation-adjusted incomes for Latino families have dropped as much as 20 percent over the past two decades.
"Whereas parents are saying, 'We're doing better than we were in our home country,'" explains McGlade, "[Latino] kids are at school looking around saying, 'Wait, we're at the bottom of the heap.'"
On Wednesday, April 25, the report surveying Multnomah County, entitled Salir Adelante, was officially released. The bottom line in these studies is disturbing in the moment and even more troubling for what it forecasts.
"We've imported labor and now we have people," concludes McGlade, "but there isn't a recognition that we now have people, and that these people have needs and aspirations."
In interviews with dozens of families, McGlade continually returned to the lack of integration within the public schools and the sheer dearth of programs available to help Latino youth. Dropout rates for these kids are as much as three times higher than the state average.
McGlade attributes this lack of accountability for Latino needs to the fact that the community, in spite of their vast size, has virtually no political voice. "If they are not viewed as being 100 percent of the community," continues McGlade, "their needs are not recognized." He adds, "When you're not in the room, it's easy to ignore you." (Several observers pointed out that it is unlikely that the Salir Adelante report, which was funded by Multnomah County, would have been undertaken had it not been for the influence of County Commissioner Serena Cruz, the only elected Latino in local politics.)
Latino Youth Seek Hero
"We're living your future,"says Anthony Veliz, referring to Portland and, more generally, America at-large. Veliz is one of the organizers for LEARN and the sole Latino representative on the Woodburn School Board.
"If you want to see what Portland will look like in a generation," points out Veliz. "look around."
Along the main drag in Woodburn is a collection of sullen brick buildings. Inside one store, vegetables and meat for burritos cook on a large grill. The room is crowded with seven or eight Latino families, all talking boisterously in Spanish.
Veliz grew up in Woodburn; his father was a teacher and one of the first Latinos to graduate from college in Oregon. Veliz was encouraged to follow the same path, and graduated from Portland State University before going on to work for a few years at Nike; but he missed Woodburn and soon moved back to the very house where he had grown up.
Since then, Veliz has been one of the primary Latino community leaders in Woodburn, and has fixed his sights on correcting the way the school system caters to Latinos. Several years ago, he conducted an informal survey about the high school classes of 1985 throughout Oregon. "I couldn't find one Latino person who graduated from college," he says softly.
In 1986, he helped start LEARN and, ten years later, co-founded the Oregon Latino Voter Registration Project. Although they only signed up 500 voters in 1996, during the last elections they gathered more than 6,000 new voters. In spite of the daunting tasks facing the Latino community, Veliz has an easy smile and is optimistic.
"We have nothing to lose," he points out. "We already have the worst jobs."
Underneath the dull florescent lighting of the high school's gym, before the second round of games begins, a quiet buzz of talking chatters throughout the bleachers. Strung across a wall behind one hoop sags a plastic white banner. "Education Through Athletics," it reads. Contreras relaxes before his second-round game.
"Basketball brings out the competition in me," says Contreras. "It gave me an outlet." And referring to his years in high school, he adds, "It helped me graduate."
Earlier in the day about 400 youths sat on the gym floors where a team is now warming up and listened as speakers talked about college and staying in school--simple messages, but without a generation leading the way, ones they don't hear or see too often.
"We didn't have too many heroes," says Contreras.
Over the past few years, a couple of Latino-American players have sprouted up in the NBA; most notably, Felipe Lopez for the Minnesota Timberwolves. A few other sports figures have emerged as promising role models, like Alex Rodriguez, who grabbed a $254 million contract with the Texas Rangers to become the highest paid athlete ever. Even so, these men are too new to determine the potential impact on their community.
Other, more established Latino sports heroes have not really carried the inspiration of the American dream to Latino youth, quite simply because they were not Americans. Unlike Muhammad Ali--who rose as a fast-talking street fighter from Memphis to win a gold medal for the United States--a boxer like middleweight champ Roberto Duran held fast to his Panamian roots throughout his career. After receiving cash prizes for his knockouts in the U.S., Duran often returned to the Panama City ghettos and handed out dollar bills. Others sports heroes, like the wiry Pittsburgh Pirate slugger Roberto Clemente, also remained more associated with his home country of Puerto Rico than becoming the embodiment of an American success story. Clemente died when his plane crashed while delivering medical supplies to an earthquake-struck Nicaragua. Such stories don't necessarily have precise relevance for Latino youth growing up in Oregon; the heroes have not lived these youths' lives.
This gap is one of the deficiencies LEARN is trying to reduce. Sitting in the bleachers, Oscar Rodriguez, another of Contreras's teammates, explains, "It's not a big community and they see you going to school, going to college," before pausing mid-sentence. Rodriguez moved to Ashland to attend Southern Oregon Community College. His tone becomes much more steady. "We come back and, well, I won't say that they [the Latino youth in Woodburn] look up to us, but they recognize what we've done."
La Promesa de Ayuda?
On April first, the same day of the final game of the tournament, a Mexican laborer was shot by Portland police after being held in custody for sixty hours. He had tried to board a public bus in Portland, but was twenty cents short. When the driver tried to explain, the man, Jose Mejia-Poot, became agitated. He didn't speak English, and the driver didn't speak Spanish; neither did the police officers who were called to arrest him.
Mejia-Poot was taken to Pacific Gateway Hospital, where he was held for the next three days in a seclusion room. Even though he didn't speak English, no one called a translator. After sixty hours in custody, Mejia-Poot, allegedly with a metal pipe in his hand, charged at two police officers who had been called to calm him down; he was shot twice--once in the center of his forehead and once through the heart. (A Grand Jury has exonerated the officers from any criminal liability.)
"It happens to thousands of people a day because they don't or can't speak and communicate," says Ardys Dunn, a faculty member of the School of Nursing at University of Portland. She is referring to the brutal alienation many Latinos feel on a daily basis with even the most remedial of tasks--getting on a bus, going to the doctor, shopping at the grocery store.
Dunn is most familiar with the woes of accessing health care. She explains that while many Latinos show up to physicians' offices, they often can't explain their symptoms--or that their child has an ear infection or a stomachache. The Salir Adelante report found that several of the families interviewed have been turned away from the Northeast Health Center, and that more major hospitals, like OHSU, lack sufficient bilingual staff. Although the report hesitates to draw a definite connection between this lack of access and the consequences, it does remark that, for example, the death rate for breast cancer--a disease which early detection can abate--is double for Latina women than the rest of the population.
Two years ago, Dunn proposed that everything from pediatric care to support services for abused women be brought to the Latino community by being made available to Latino churches. Kaiser Trust agreed and funded several seminars that have served hundreds of Latinos throughout North Portland.
In fact, the bulk of social service programs for Latinos have evolved in the same fashion: from the solitary inspiration of one or two people in the community, and subsequent external funding either from grants or service contracts with the government.
Still, many in the community, while commending these programs, worry this system of independently contracting social services fails to integrate the Latino community into the governmental framework and underscores its vulnerability. Without institutional support, they point out, these programs run the risk of falling apart. Funding could easily dry up, or the individuals running the programs could burn out, leaving all their good work to wither on the vine.
One government official who requested anonymity pointed to the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement, which is under contract with junior high schools in Portland to provide academic tutoring and basic career guidance to Latino youth. He commends their steady string of successes.
"At the same time," he countered, "isn't that really the school's responsibility; aren't they writing a check for someone else to do what they should be doing?" He paused before adding, "In a weird way, by using these programs, the school is able to wash their hands of the problem."
Mañana, What The Future Holds
Sitting in a small classroom, Veliz explains that the LEARN basketball tournament, ironically, has received criticism for being exclusionary. "How many Latino tournaments out there that you know of?" he asks with calm rhetoric. "Can't we just have one?"
On the final day of the tournament the stands are packed with families and young children watching as Contreras makes several effortless three-point shots. The team easily walks away with their sixth title.
"The reason our program works this way is because this is what helped me," explains Veliz, referring to the gravitational pull role models can have. "I had never met a Latino professor until I was twenty-one."
"It's a place to shine and a place to network," continues Veliz, "even if it is just the basketball court." He points to the community leaders that LEARN brings each year; this year's keynote speaker was Ray Lozona, a high-ranking governmental official who has served as the Director of Drug Control Policy and had the ear of two presidents.
Asked whether he sees himself as a role model, Veliz shrugs. Asked whether he would run for mayor of Woodburn or as a state representative, he shrugs again. With the release of the census numbers, congressional districts around the country will be re-drawn to better reflect shifts in populations. Although districts must be color-blind, the sheer bulk of Latino families is bound to re-shift political power toward their communities.
As for any future political plans, Veliz is non-committal. "I've been approached," he says. Then he smiles and changes the subject.
Instead of focusing on his own future, he begins talking about the plans for LEARN--ways to draw in more youth and ways to make their lessons and the good feelings gained from the tournament last longer than just the weekend.
"The box is getting bigger," he says. "We just need to re-package it." He plans to start working with kids as soon as they enter the fifth grade and, more importantly he explains, follow them all the way through college. "Once a LEARN student," he says forcefully, "always."