Juanita Constante fronts a display of family photos.
Clarice Keating Of the Catholic Sentinel
Like the Oregon Trail pioneers before them, the Pioneros of Marion County discovered the temperate climate and beauty of the Willamette Valley and decided to stay.
Nearly 70 years later, historian Miguel Salinas believes he has pinpointed the original four men who moved from Southern Texas in 1943, prompting a tide of migration to Marion County. Salinas and his wife Lidia have interviewed and recorded the stories of hundreds of people who helped them identify the first Tejano families to settle in the county.
“We wanted to collect personal accounts of migrant life, from the farmers who are still farming today, the offspring of farmers, or the farmers our parents worked for,” said Miguel, a retired school principal. “Sometimes it’s hard to look back. There are good memories, but there are also many sad memories.”
Recently, descendants of the “cuatro hombres solos” gathered at St. Luke Church in Woodburn to reminisce about their lives working the farms of Marion County. Tears were shed, but many of the recollections filled the parish hall with laughter, as people told stories about the four men whose car broke down in near Woodburn.
One of the men, Arturo Salinas, was Miguel’s father. The other three were Manuel Garcia, Santos Vasquez, and Cleofas Cruz. The Tejanos (Spanish-speaking Texans) had come from Asherton, Texas, and were headed to Washington in search of seasonal agriculture work.
Miguel and Lidia have been organizing these reunions for 10 years. This will be their final year. They hope someone will pick up the lead and continue tradition.
Meanwhile, they are working on launching a website that will include the many personal accounts, videos and audio recordings they have collected. The two retired educators are also creating information capsules that can be used in Oregon schools to broadcast the untold stories of these people who long were the backbone of Oregon’s agriculture industry.
Mexican and Tejano laborers lived in the Pacific Northwest since the 1800s. During World War II, the United States government imported temporary contract laborers from Mexico, Braceros, who worked on farms while the country’s men served overseas. But, at the time, diversity was still unusual in Marion County, where migrant farm workers would visit seasonally, but go home when the harvest was complete.
Miguel believes a man named Harry Kessler invited the four men to come work on his family farm. What the “cuatro hombres solos” discovered were higher-paying jobs working in the hops and berry fields, more favorable living conditions, and a community that, for the most part, welcomed them. The men sent word home to Asherton, and soon friends and family were traveling north to this new land of plenty.
Miguel remembers his parents telling him about their arrival in Marion County when he was a child.
“As a child, it went in one ear and out the other, but when my parents passed, I began to reflect on their accounts,” he said. “So I began to talk to people. If I wasn’t able to get the information I should have from my mom and dad, I thought I would get other people’s stories.”
This went on for four years. Soon, Miguel discovered something unexpected: He’d sometimes interview people and after a while they would discover that they had relatives in common. This fueled their interest in finding more information about the migrant “pioneros.”
Miguel and Lidia have hundreds of pages of notes, as well as video and audio recordings. They’ve traveled to Mexico, Texas and California to seek out and verify the places from the stories their parents told, and he knew or had met most of the Tejano-Mexican families who came to the St. Paul area.
“I was able to confirm that my mom and dad were indeed, if not the first, at least the first handful that came in the ‘40s to the Marion County area,” he said. In those days, migrant workers did not come to live in Oregon because housing was unavailable, so most of the workers lived in ranchos, or farms camps, where people would stay while they worked seasonally, and then return to Texas.
In Asherton, Miguel said, there had been a divide between Tejanos and Anglos. Tejanos were not allowed to enroll in the public high school in the small town, and because they didn’t speak English or even Mexican Spanish (after generations in Southern Texas, many families had developed a unique form of “Spanglish,” Miguel said), they were further alienated and isolated. So when the families arrived in Oregon, they were delighted that their children could go to school.
But it wasn’t easy for those students, who would go back home in late October, and return to Oregon in the spring. Learning time was lost as they migrated back and forth.
“Over time, the parents would realize, ‘Things aren’t too bad in Oregon. We might as well spend the winter here,’ and after spending a few winters, they found out they could survive on the money they earned during the summer,” Miguel said.
The families lived in the camps at the farms, shacks with concrete floors, wood stoves, a light bulb and outhouses. Considered hardship to many, to the migrants workers, this lifestyle was (and in many places today, is still) commonplace. Despite the small amount of money they made working in the fields, Miguel’s parents paid for him to attend the local parochial school.
In 1954, Miguel was the only Mexican child enrolled at St. Paul Catholic School. After class, at night and during the summer, Miguel worked in the strawberry and hops fields alongside his parents. After finishing his time at Gervais High School (as the first Mexican to graduate from the school in 1966) Miguel joined the National Guard and enrolled at Mount Angel College. Later, he transferred to Oregon State University, where he earned a degree in education.
During this period, he married Lidia, who was the first Mexican to graduate from Woodburn High School in 1966 (an area that today is nearly 60 percent Hispanic).
They both taught in Woodburn, and then moved to Portland for 20 years, continuing to work as educators. They’re retired today in West Linn.
The story of St. Paul’s Tejanos began in the mid-‘40s but was solidified in the late ‘40s when World War II ended, Miguel said. Soldiers were returning home, trying to pick up where they left off, and the migration continued.
“Once things stabilized, migrants from Texas decided that Marion County was the place to be,” he said.