Oregon’s first immigrant congresswoman speaks on representation

Students and staff in Smith Memorial Student Union gathered for the 7th annual Walk of the Heroines lecture on May 9 featuring keynote speaker Rep. Teresa Alonso León.

León is the first Indigenous Latina immigrant woman in the Oregon Legislature and represents District 22, which includes Woodburn, Gervais, Brooks and northeast Salem, Ore.

Lisa Weasel, chair of the gender and sexualities department, stated both the lecture series and the physical Walk of the Heroines space was a “university community collaboration to draw attention to the contributions and influence of women from diverse backgrounds and perspectives.”

The Walk of the Heroines monument is located behind Branford Price Millar Library in the walkway adjacent to Hoffman Hall.

This year has been called the “year of women” in politics, as Oregon has seen more women in state office than men.

When asked why there are more and more women running for office, Weasel said she thinks the “current political situation is encouraging more people to bring their diverse forces into politics.”

She also said she thinks the issues rising to the surface are specifically focused on groups who have been marginalized. “That is causing people to recognize that we need more of these forces,” Weasel said.

Throughout the speech, León recounted the challenges she had to overcome growing as an immigrant in the United States, including seeing a lack of representation in her community, which was majority Latinx.

León grew up in a close-knit family and faced many responsibilities as the oldest daughter, including working to contribute to her family’s income starting as young as age 5.

León said college never seemed like an option until teachers in her life planted the seed that college was possible, which started her passion for education.

After completing a masters degree in public administration at Portland State, León moved home to Woodburn, Ore. and was asked to run for city council by members of her community who said they hadn’t had Latinx representation in over 10 years despite the Latinx majority.

León said she made a choice to run because “representation matters.”

“If people don’t participate in leadership positions, then other people are making decisions for you and are not really thinking about your lens or your perspective.”

Being on city council was not always easy for León. “I started bringing ideas that were not what they were used to—a couple times I was the lonely vote, which is okay, because to be a leader, I heard somewhere that you have to be prepared to stand alone sometimes,” she said.

After serving on city council, León decided to run for the Oregon House of Representatives. She was told for her campaign she would have to raise half a million dollars because she was in a swing district.

“I think about my parents’ journey—they didn’t speak the language, they didn’t understand the culture, but their vision for their kids was to have opportunity. They dared to do this, why not me?” León said.

León went on to run the first multilingual campaign in the history of Oregon state. In the process, she raised $800,000 and was endorsed by former President Barack Obama. She became the first immigrant representative in Oregon when she won her House bid in 2016. 

“I could not believe that a little girl who worked in the fields was now a city leader,” León said of her win. As of May 2019, she is serving in her second term.

León is currently working on passing legislation in the Oregon House that will increase funding for K-12 school programs. She also plans to work on funding for higher education.

León credits her teachers with planting the idea that she could go to college. “We need to tell our girls when they are little that one day [they’re] going to be an amazing leader in any area [they] want to be in,” she said.

Weasel said the Walk of Heroines lecture series, as well as the physical space, aims to “deepen that conversation to focus on diverse lived experiences.”

She also said the lecture series and space aim to recognize all identities of women and the way those identities intersect.

“We recognize that women are not a monolithic unity and that people who identify as women bring with them a wide rage of experiences and identities,” Weasel said.