Story of a Critical Movement Sheds Light on Oregon’s Latino Population

In August 2012—just as incoming University of Oregon President Michael Gottfredson was headed to Woodburn, Oregon, for one of his first public appearances at the Fiesta Mexicana— the UO’s Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (CLLAS) was also focused on Woodburn with the release of the book The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon (CLLAS, 2012).

Founded in 1985 in Woodburn to represent the Latino farmworkers who are central to Oregon’s agricultural industry, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) is now the largest Latino organization in the state. The group has played a crucial role in the evolution of Oregon’s Latino population, which has jumped from 2.5 percent in 1980 to 12 percent in 2010 says UO College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor Lynn Stephen, the author of the book and a professor of anthropology who directs CLLAS.

“My MO as a researcher is something I call ‘collaborative research,’” Stephen says. “The level of research that I do and the way that I do research results in things that are important to communities.”

Stephen’s research starts with a discussion that asks the questions “What do you want to know? What kind of information is theoretically interesting?” When she first posed those questions to a leader in the PCUN organization in 1998, his answer was simple:

“He said he wanted someone to tell the story of the PCUN organization,” Stephen recalls.

At that time, Stephen was a new professor, fresh from Boston, who was surprised to discover how little academic interest there was in regional immigration issues. The story of California’s migrant workers had been told time and again, but Oregon’s Latino agriculture workers were widely ignored from a research standpoint. As Stephen saw it, there was simply no way to ignore this enormous blind spot any longer—and what better way to tell the story of Oregon’s Latino population than to tell the story of PCUN.

In the fall of 1999 Stephen traveled to Woodburn on a weekly basis with a half-dozen students to pore over the PCUN archives. They conducted interviews with PCUN members, sat in on union meetings, visited workers in the fields, and built trust and established relationships. She continued this work in the fall of 2000 with another group of students and also carried out additional research on her own.

The research resulted in the first edition of Stephen’s book, published in 2001. The partnership between the UO and PCUN was cemented and gave rise to numerous other collaborations— from a bilingual theater production to a special collection in the UO Libraries that includes all of the historic PCUN documents. Stephen also published an academic book, Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Duke University Press, 2007), which documented the lives of indigenous immigrants in Oregon with a special focus on Woodburn and PCUN.

Stephen’s updated version of the PCUN book tells the tale of the state’s Mexican labor movement, rooted in Oregon agriculture and the Bracero Program it grew out of in the 1940s. It documents early efforts at political and labor organizing in the 1960s and 1970s, the laying of the groundwork for the birth of PCUN in the 1970s and 1980s, the establishment of the organization in 1985, and the ensuing struggles for collective bargaining, as well as the battle to stop anti-immigration laws and the movement for comprehensive immigration reform.

Stephen says many of the students who assisted her in the PCUN research were changed by the experience. One went on to become an immigration lawyer, another teaches history and another earned a PhD in anthropology and now holds a teaching position in France.

And to think it might not have ever happened had Stephen not traveled to Woodburn to connect with some friends she met while working in Mexico.

“The connections we made and the relationships we forged,” Stephen says. “All of that creates tremendous appreciation of the UO and knowledge about why the research is important and why people are doing it.”