Interview with Juan Carlos Gonzalez by Alicia DeMellier
Illustration by Nathan Paul Rice

When I arranged an interview with Juan Carlos Gonzalez, Development Director at Centro Cultural, I had my questions ready, a few expectations, and hopes of how the interview would go, and my general topic, “Community in a Time of Conflict.” I had gotten everything ready the night before, and was up early to make the drive out to Hillsboro. I even got there early, only to quickly realize I had gone to the wrong coffee shop. So I ate my bagel in the car on my way to the correct location (there are two Insomnia Coffee’s in Hillsboro, just in case you were wondering). Juan Carlos was patient and understanding, and everything went smoothly. At the end of the interview, Juan Carlos asked me a question for which I had not planned. He asked me what I wanted to achieve from writing this article, other than making sure diverse narratives were being told. It wasn’t like I hadn’t given any thought to this, but when he asked, I had a brief moment of panic (why did I think this was so important?), followed quickly by clarity. This story is important because starting positive conversations with individuals of all cultures leads to multicultural interactions breeding understanding, empathy, and acceptance.

Centro Cultural got its start in 1972 at the peak of the Farm Workers movement. The first image on their website boasts a quote by Ceasar Chavez: “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” Centro Cultural, or simply, Centro, as Juan Carlos says, is one of the original Latino activist organizations in the Portland Metro area. Centro was a place where migrant families could meet, and it became a gathering place that evolved into a social services and advocacy organization. Juan Carlos became involved with Centro because, about 27 years ago, his own parents immigrated to the United States. His father was working at nurseries and Centro was there for him and his family. “I wanted to be able to go back and continue that good will. Continue building on the legacy that has helped so many people… and create programs that help remove barriers to prosperity and integration.”

Recent political actions and enforcement have caused increased concern for many residents of the United States. The community at Centro is no exception, and people are afraid. Increasing conflict has caused a palpable fear and anxiety stemming from not knowing who or what they can trust. As Juan Carlos said, “People are afraid to take their kids to school, to go to work. They’re afraid to go to the grocery store or a doctor appointment. There is a fear that everything could fall apart in a second… People are scared, but Oregon is still their home.” Despite their fears, people are doing their best to continue to live a normal life. Places like Centro are doing what they can to inform and educate their community to make this possible.

Bringing people together for educational events has aided in keeping the community informed and safe. Centro has, “Know Your Rights,” workshops that bring in over 130 attendees. They have had ICE and Homeland Security representatives visit to speak about what is actually going on: what they can and cannot do and what parameters they are working within. Cutting through all the rumors and hearsay gives security to community members. “At some points it was nice to hear the ICE representative say, ‘You know what, that’s a rumor, that’s not happening,’ or, ‘We are doing that. This is what the law is, we’re allowed to do that.’” While not everyone agrees with the actions that are taking place, it is important and reassuring for the community to fully understand both sides of the situation.

Centro also holds leadership events where the community can interact with members of some of the largest institutions and influential leaders in Washington County, including Pacific University and the COO of Tuality Health Care. “The leaders come to Centro because we facilitated that event. It is really powerful to me that we’re still a gathering space, and that we can do advocacy through that,” Juan Carlos told me.

They are often joined at such events by the Muslim Educational Trust (MET). Centro has worked with MET in the past, and was recently reintroduced by Mike Skuja from the Tualatin River Keepers. “Mike was honestly the super star behind all of this. He really cares about the environment; we all do as Oregonians, and I think he, alongside a lot of other Oregonians, recognized there is not a lot of diversity in the environmental sector, and he wanted to change that,” said Juan Carlos. Mike received a Nature and Neighborhoods grant from Metro and approached Centro and MET about working together to educate their communities about the environment and encourage diverse leadership in the environmental sectors. “It is [Centro’s] mission to promote leadership that can help different sectors around the state be more equitable and representative of the communities that they serve, so when he approached us with that opportunity, it just made sense.”

Despite the conflicts many communities are continually facing, organizations like Centro Cultural are creating opportunities for diverse communities to come together and learn together. Juan Carlos said it best: “It has fostered an environment for people to come together and for there to be solidarity: amongst the Latino community, amongst the Muslim community, and amongst white allies especially, [who] want to show that, you know, we’re here, we support you, and we agree with this.”