Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

OYA staff reflect on the importance of Hispanic and Latino/a/x cultures as well as their own stories.

Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15-Oct. 15) is a time to celebrate the history, culture, and contributions of Hispanic and Latino/a/x peoples worldwide.

Hispanics and Latinos in Oregon are a diverse community of first-generation and long-time residents, some of whose ancestral roots date back to before Oregon gained statehood. Prior to World War II, Spanish explorers and Mexican vaqueros were among the first Hispanic and Latino/a/x people to visit and work in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, 14% of the Oregon population is Hispanic and Latino, and according to the Oregon Department of Education, Latino/a/x and Indigenous Mexican, Central, South American and Caribbean young people make up nearly one in four students in the state.

The growth of Oregon’s Hispanic and Latino/a/x population has brought many positive developments to our culture and economy. Hispanic and Latino/a/x lawmakers, government workers, judges, and community leaders have deep roots in Oregon history, and bring diverse and important perspectives to the ways we run our state.

Hispanic and Latino/a/x Youth in the System

Despite these positive impacts, Hispanic and Latino/a/x young people are overrepresented in the juvenile legal system. I highly recommend this article to learn more about the history of Latinos and other youth of color in the system: “Repairing the Breach: A Brief History of Youth of Color in the Justice System”.

When America entered World War II, the government started the Bracero Program to bring in workers from Mexico to fill our country’s labor shortage. From the beginning, the children of Braceros were treated inequitably.

According to “Repairing the Breach,” Mexican-American youth in California in the 1940s experienced frequent hostility from law enforcement and the public. Their unique clothing, hairstyles, and language led many to assume that they were violent or members of gangs.

Many of these harmful stereotypes continue to impact Hispanic and Latino/a/x youths’ interactions with schools and the legal system. Latino middle-school boys are twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school as their white peers. Studies have shown that police officers frequently perceive Latino youth as older and more mature than they actually are.

It’s critically important that we are intentional about providing appropriate services and environments for Hispanic and Latino/a/x youth. Currently, about 13% of OYA’s workforce is Hispanic or Latino/a/x, and we will keep working to increase that number. Our Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations (OIIR) works hard to ensure that our youth are receiving the right supports and services.

But this is not just a job for OIIR — all of us need to do our part to ensure that youth and their families are treated equitably, which often means identifying and facing our own internal biases. We also need to do our part to create welcoming and inclusive environments for our teammates, no matter what culture they identify with.

We asked several of our teammates to share more about their culture and the ways they interact with youth, and you can read their answers below. Their stories show just how diverse our team is, even within the Hispanic and Latino/a/x community.

Perspectives from OYA

Eva Torres, Youth Services Coordinator, OIIR

Eva has been working at OYA since March 2020 as a youth services coordinator with OIIR. She currently facilitates groups at MacLaren and Oak Creek youth correctional facilities. “My main job is working with youth one-on-one and with their JPPOs to help youth transition back to the community,” she says.

What would you like youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I like to be outside during the summertime. This means going to different beaches and soaking up the sun as much as I can. I like riding my bike and playing volleyball and tennis.

What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

My family comes from Mexico, and my family is from Nayarit. I am a first-generation Mexican born in the U.S. My family comes from an agricultural background, working in the fields and moving from California to Oregon. I was born in Oregon and have been here my whole life. I also have a background in working out in the fields when I was growing up. 

What is your approach when working with our youth?

When I first start working with someone new, I like to tell them a little about myself, how I am, and how I work. Little by little, they will get to know me when I start to work with them. I am straightforward with them, and as they continue to work with me, they hopefully will see that I’m not serious all the time and they can see my funny side.

What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Hispanic or Latino/a/x youth?

If I could tell staff one thing about working with the Hispanic/Latino/x population, it’s that we are so diverse. There are similarities and some differences between each person, and you can’t have one way of working with this population.

Ramón Díaz, group life coordinator, MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility

Ramon started working at OYA in 2016 at Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility, and he moved to MacLaren when the two facilities merged. He spent several years working in Community Services before coming back to MacLaren to work on Haystack Unit. Currently, he is based in the Timberline Treatment Mall at MacLaren, where he does assessments on youth and runs or assists with groups for HOPE Partnership, OIIR, and MacLaren’s treatment team.

What would you like youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I have two kids and a wife, so I like letting youth know about how difficult my daily schedule can get. Even with someone who has some advantages, life is an uphill battle. I try giving them some perspective from my point of view and reminding them that there is a whole other world out there that is waiting for some folks to mess up. With those circumstances, I believe it can be impactful to show them the positives and negatives of the outside world.

What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

I would like them to get to know me first before learning about any of my culture or my background. I feel like we’re all very different people, even those who fall under the Hispanic/Latino/Latinx label. I’ve met such a variety of youth here that are Hispanic, and most don’t even know Spanish. That said, I do believe it is key to know where we came from and how we got to where we’re at today.

What is your approach when working with our youth?

My approach is to treat everyone equally and to show no judgment. I like to focus on youths’ progression versus their past. We can always help them work on their own development, but we can’t change the past. So I treat them with the utmost respect, I try to relate as much as I can, and I try to find a way to connect with said youth.

What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Hispanic/Latino/x youth? I shouldn’t have to think for other staff because we should all be respectful and mindful. With that being said, just be open to learning about Hispanic youth and their culture.

Raquel “Raca” Chavez, Implementation Specialist, Development Services

Raca joined OYA in 2018 after a long professional career elsewhere. She started out at MacLaren, where she worked in dispatch, reception, records, and exec support for the administration team before joining Community Services as the assistant director’s executive support position. In February 2022, she moved to the Youth Reformation System team.

What would you like youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I LOVE cars and motorcycles — lowriders, classic cars, drag racing, car shows … all of it! I am a huge outdoor person and animal lover. Hiking in the forest or running on the sand with bare feet helps me feel reconnected and balanced. I also love reading and anything art-related.

What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

One thing that is very important for me that others know is that there is a wide spectrum of who we are and what we represent, and each can be so unique. 

The “Tejano” culture was strong in our Chavez/Cavasos-Gonzalez/Gutierrez family and we spoke Spanglish fluently. We were proud that we could dance to Freddy Fender and the Texas Tornadoes just as good as we could to Garth Brooks. Every morning, we woke up to the smell of fresh homemade tortillas, and we loved foods like migas, and pan dulce with café. Many of our family and friends were part of the time when we hid our culture and tried to perfectly “fit in with the norm”. That is something I am so proud of changing for my family, my children and those I get the opportunity to meet and know.

What is your approach when working with our youth?

Something that is HUGE for me in my interactions with youth is being as real as possible. I always tell them I am not a good faker, so I can’t fake positive or good energy. I have learned that I must truly believe in what I preach, and I need to be 100% real if I hope to have any impact on any youth that I interact with.

What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Hispanic or Latino/a/x youth? Remember that there are a lot of layers that are deeply rooted in us when it comes to our culture. Helping youth learn or share about their culture gives a sense of belonging, pride, and community. It helps reinforce the fact that we can each be true to ourselves and also be part of a community where we don’t have to lose our identity. Always remember that feeling a sense of pride is so crucial and to never try and destroy that, but rather build on it with all the beautiful things about Latino culture that we have to be proud of.

Priscila Hasselman, juvenile parole/probation officer, Lane County

Priscila is the first Spanish-speaking female JPPO in OYA’s Lane County field office. She came to OYA about five years ago after working for almost a decade as a parole officer with Lane County’s juvenile department. Part of what motivated her to move to OYA was to provide more-inclusive services for Spanish-speaking youth and families at our agency.

What would you like youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I love biographies as I feel like I get to learn life lessons from different perspectives and time periods. I love the outdoors, fitness, traveling, learning about new cultures, and trying new food. It fascinates me how food often tells the story of a community starting from the ingredients harvested in the land to the complexity, simplicity, or creativity of the dish, which also tell stories about social norms, gender roles, and lifestyles.

What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

My grandparents migrated from Mexico to California and then Oregon in the late 1940s via the Bracero Program, working the fields to offer their “American Dream” to their children. In turn, their children worked in the food packaging/transportation industry to offer their American Dream to my generation — a gift I feel responsible to pay forward.

I was born and raised in Guanajuato, a state located in central Mexico. I attended law school in Michoacán, Mexico, and upon completion of my legal education, I immigrated to the U.S. to join the rest of my family. Until I moved to the U.S., I did not speak any English. With a vocation for public service and juvenile justice, I resumed my education at the University of Oregon, obtaining a bachelor’s degree and graduating at the top 2% of my class (Summa Cum Laude).

What is your approach when working with our youth?

My main approaches include authenticity, honesty, compassion, and recognizing the youth’s own individuality (regardless of cultural identity). Being genuine and humble, including admitting to making mistakes, can go a long way in building trusting relationships. Practicing honesty does not always translate into what youth want to hear; however, doing it with compassion has often afforded me a sense of respect, trust, and reliability in my relationships with youth.

What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Hispanic or Latino/a/x youth?

One of my favorite quotes that I feel applies here is by American novelist Brad Meltzer: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

My suggestion for staff is to be curious and invest time in learning about not only the barriers and struggles of our community but their contributions and accomplishments in this country and beyond. If possible, educate and encourage youths’ pride in their cultural identity and remind them of their incredible power, potential and responsibility to honor those that came before them and those that will come after.

Vincente Gutierrez, juvenile parole/probation officer, Klamath County

Vincente first came to OYA in 2006 to work as a group life coordinator at Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility. He left there in 2010 to work as a parole officer for the Department of Corrections, which is he did for 11 years before returning to OYA as a JPPO.

What would you like youth to know about you (hobbies, etc.)?

I am very competitive. I love to compete, whether it’s a simple card game or playing an organized sport. I enjoy working out, fishing, and traveling. Most of all, I enjoy live music, visiting new places, and eating good food. 

What would you like others to know about your background, your family, or your culture?

I come from a bi-cultural background. My mom was born in the U.S., however, my dad was born in Mexico and immigrated to the U.S. when he was a teenager. 

Like most Latino families, I come from a large family, and most of my friends are Latinos, too. One of the best parts of being bi-cultural is that I get the benefits of both worlds. I am constantly being invited to celebrate special occasions such as bautismos (baptisms) and quinceañeras (sweet 15 birthday parties). These celebrations usually consist of homemade Mexican food, dancing, and live Mexican music.       

What is your approach when working with our youth?

One way I try to connect with youth is talking about Spanish music or traditional meals. Youth will likely reminisce about their experience and their upbringing. Another way I like to connect with youth is talking to youth in Spanish. Speaking Spanish is fun because it’s easy to twist words or use fun slang around the unit when appropriate.

What do you think other staff should keep in mind when working with Hispanic or Latino/a/x youth?

It’s important to remember that culture is very important to youth. Having simple conversations about their upbringing and traditions will go a long way and it’s a great way to learn about their background.

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