Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Farmworker Housing and Spaces of Belonging in Woodburn, Oregon

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Farmworker Housing and Spaces of Belonging in Woodburn, Oregon

Article excerpt

The town of Woodburn lies at the heart of Oregon's richest agricultural region, the northern Willamette Valley (Figure 1). Like many small and medium-sized cities across the United States, over the last two decades changing immigration rates and settlement patterns have transformed the community. The region has been economically reliant on Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers since the 1940s, but until the 1980s most of those workers had been transient in time and spatially contained. This began to change with the intensification and diversification of forestry and agriculture in the 1980s, when the demand for rural workers increased in terms of both raw numbers and length of the hiring season. These regional dynamics, in combination with broader political economic changes to which I will return to below, facilitated a process through which a growing number of farmworkers began to transition from living in camps seasonally to seeking long-term housing in nearby towns throughout Marion County, including and particularly Woodburn. According to the 1980 census, 17 percent of the town's population of 11,196 was Hispanic (USCB 1982). By the year 2000, after nearly doubling in total population (to 20,100), 50.6 percent of Woodburn's residents identified themselves as Latino, most of them Mexican-born (USCB 2000). Today Woodburn is

Oregon's largest city with a majority Latino population.

In this article I explore the renegotiation of social belonging that occurred locally during and in the wake of this demographic transition. As I will explain in more detail, farmworkers arriving in the 1980s were positioned subordinately in terms of race, class, and legal status in comparison to most longtime residents of Woodburn, particularly those with the greatest political and economic power in the community. The socially constructed, yet socially powerful, differences between immigrants and most long-term residents set the stage for a renegotiation of belonging in the community. Here the concept of social belonging gauges how actors, in the context of daily life and social interactions, develop a sense of affiliation to a place and social acceptance. The concept is highly contested, particularly in studies of migration: For newcomers it often applies to the process of developing a sense of local affiliation and social acceptance; for longtime residents it usually captures how their sense of belonging may shift in response to the arrival of newcomers.


Negotiations over social belonging are inherently spatial. In the case of Woodburn, I examine how farmworkers and farmworker advocacy organizations subverted the taken-for-granted geography of farmworkers' living space--the isolated labor camp--by successfully and publicly claiming space within Woodburn's urban landscapes. In 1991 a coalition of Latino organizations in Woodburn founded the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation (FHDC) in order to build state-subsidized farmworker housing within city limits--and therefore in reach of needed services. Opposition to the FHDC's efforts was fierce among the largely white longtime residents of the town who exercised a significant amount of power over the City Council and Planning Commission. Nevertheless, persistence and strategic allegiances with county and state officials allowed the FHDC to eventually build two highly successful farmworker housing projects in the town: Nuevo Amanecer in 1994 and Esperanza Court in 1997.

In an era of increased immigration flows and diversified settlement patterns in the United States and throughout the globe, the story of Woodburn and the FHDC helps elucidate the conditions under which immigrant groups can claim belonging despite the exclusionary power of class, race, and legal status. The flow of undocumented workers into the United States, particularly since the 1980s, has been crucial to the competitiveness of service-based economic growth stimulated and facilitated by globalization (Sassen 1998, 2001). …

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