Hispanic Committee Making a Difference in Hermiston

Hispanic Advisory Committee
In its short history, the Hermiston Hispanic Advisory Committee has made a big impact. Pictured, back row, left to right: Hector Ramirez, Manuel Gutierrez, Robert Amaya and George Anderson. Front row, left to right: Bryan Medelez, Virginia Garcia, Eddie de la Cruz and Alejandra Meza. Not pictured are Fawny Vernon and Clara Fitzgerald.

Question: What do the Oregon cities of Woodburn, Cornelius, Milton-Freewater, Umatilla, Ontario, Hayesville, Madras and Independence have in common?

Answer: They all have a higher percentage of Hispanic residents than Hermiston’s 34.9 percent. Yet none of those aforementioned cities has an advisory committee that represents their Hispanic communities.

But Hermiston does – and it appears to be the only city in the state that has reached out to its Hispanic community in such a real and tangible way. In fact, there are very few cities in the country with a committee, board or commission designed to serve as a liaison between the city government and the Hispanic community. There are some in Texas and Colorado and a few other cities throughout the nation, but as far as the Northwest is concerned, Hermiston might be unique in its recognition of – and appreciation for – its Hispanic residents.

And the Hermiston Hispanic Advisory Committee is no token gesture to placate the city’s Hispanic residents. In less than two years, the committee has racked up an impressive list of real, impactful accomplishments.

By working with Hermiston’s adult soccer league, the Hermiston City Council and the Hermiston School District, the committee helped establish a home for the league at Rocky Heights Elementary School.

The committee responded to safety concerns of Hispanic trucking companies by working with the county to widen the curbs at Oldfield and Baggett Roads making it safer for trucks to enter and exit Highway 395.

At its very first meeting in 2012, the committee heard from a resident complaining about a lack of street lights in his neighborhood. The committee wasted no time working with the city to get street lights installed in the neighborhood.

The committee was the impetus for the city council to write a letter to our elected officials asking them to support “fair and sensible” immigration reform.

Hermiston Advisory Committee 2
Attendance is strong at most meetings of the Hermiston Hispanic Advisory Committee.
The committee worked with the city to bring the Cinco de Mayo celebration to downtown Hermiston and the result was the biggest, most festive Cinco de Mayo yet (this year’s event promises to be even bigger).

Each of the nine members of the committee is justifiably proud of their accomplishments.

“We’ve gotten in the lead and set the tone for becoming an inclusive city,” said committee member Bryan Medelez. “That’s huge.” Even bigger, however, is the difference the committee’s existence has made in the Hispanic community.

“The Hispanic community feels they are a part of the community now,” said committee member Robert Amaya. “We know that by what they’re sharing with us.”

The committee, led by Chairman Eddie de la Cruz, meets at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of each month. And unlike many committee meetings in any given city, attendance is robust at the Hermiston Hispanic Advisory Committee meetings. This month’s meeting was typical with about two dozen people in attendance. There’s a reason for that, said member Hector Ramirez.

“We have a sense we belong to the community,” he said. “There’s a feeling in the Hispanic community that they have a voice they didn’t have before.”

Hermiston City Councilor George Anderson serves as one of the city’s representatives to the committee. He downplays his role on the committee, but Hermiston City Manager Ed Brookshier is the first to give Anderson credit for the idea to form the committee in the first place. What Anderson does not downplay, however, is what the committee has provided to its Hispanic residents.

“What this committee has done is provided a forum for the Hispanic community, which is unprecedented,” he said.

Hermiston’s efforts to embrace the city’s Hispanic culture were recognized last year when the National League of Cities awarded Hermiston the Cultural Diversity Award. The award honors municipal programs that encourage citizen involvement and show an appreciation of cultural diversity. Hermiston was one of just four cities in the country that received the award.

“Hermiston is an inclusive community and we’re working really hard to unite the community,” de la Cruz said at the time. He means what he says. Last spring, when a news story highlighted a small rift between two city councilors that was sparked by some comments made at a Hispanic Advisory Committee meeting, de la Cruz took issue with the tone of the article. He wanted to make it clear the committee wasn’t interested in side issues that could be used to divide the city.

Hermiston’s embrace of its Hispanic community extends beyond city government. The Hermiston Chamber of Commerce created the Latino Business Network to promote, serve and support Latino businesses in the Hermiston area through networking, advocacy and partnerships.

“The chamber has done a great job,” Anderson said.

The committee has quickly developed a reputation for getting things done. In July, a group wanting to form a Family Cultural Center in Hermiston came before the committee to ask for its support. This month, Susan Kay approached the committee seeking help in bringing a Portland theater group to Hermiston to put on a play about immigration. Candidates for office make a point to introduce themselves to the committee, knowing it serves as the eyes and ears of the Hispanic community.

It’s that function that makes the committee such a valuable asset to the city of Hermiston. Before the committee existed, the Hispanic community didn’t feel nearly so connected to the city it calls home, and the city had no way of connecting to the Hispanic community. That has clearly changed for the better. And, said committee member Virginia Garcia, both Hispanics and Anglos appreciate the difference.

“We’ve gotten a lot of support from the Anglos,” she said.

Perhaps it was Hermiston Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan who, back in March 2013, summed up best the attitude the city has toward its Hispanic community.

“All Hispanic issues in Hermiston are city issues, and all city issues are Hispanic issues,” Morgan said.