Thirty miles south of Portland, Woodburn is perhaps most widely known for its rainbow of flowers at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm and shopper’s haven Woodburn Premium Outlets. But if you venture further off Interstate-5, you’ll meet a friendly farming community that is a capital of Latinx culture in Oregon — a city that is 60 percent Latino and 83 percent among public schoolchildren. “It’s a bicultural, bilingual community,” says Anthony Veliz, who in 2000 became the first Latino elected to the Woodburn School Board. “We welcome all groups.”
For visitors, it’s a place rich with culture to discover — year-round but especially during the summer. Each August brings the three-day Fiesta Mexicana, one of the state’s largest celebrations of Latino food, culture, art, music and community.
Festival-goers can browse artisans’ crafts (such as Guadalajaran clay masks and handcrafted dolls), taste authentic food (elote, tacos, burritos, churros, horchata, fresh pineapples and more), enjoy the sounds of the lively mariachi bands and join in children’s activities and a soccer tournament. Downtown Woodburn lights up with color during the annual parade, which includes horses, traditional dance, cars, floats and coronation of a festival queen and court. A small staff and hundreds of community volunteers run the event on a shoestring budget.
“It has been and always will be authentic; it comes from the people” says Veliz, whose grandparents came to Woodburn from south Texas in 1947 as farm workers. In 1964, Woodburn community members launched a citywide festival called Fiesta Time, meant to mark the end of harvest and show gratitude for its farmers and farm workers. Veliz recalls doing Mexican dancing at age five as part of the celebration; now he has three high school- and college-aged children of his own who’ve grown up helping with the parade and other festivities.
Fiesta Time has since grown into Woodburn’s Fiesta Mexicana, and today is considered an Oregon Heritage Tradition, a designation held by only 15 other events in Oregon. Veliz — who has also served as a Woodburn City Council member and is the incoming chair of the Oregon Board of Education — has worked for the past several decades to shape the festival and other city events into a showcase of the city’s thriving Latino culture.
“In this time and climate in the country, it’s even more important for us to reach out and showcase what’s good in our community,” Veliz says, pointing to recent progress with the city’s downtown urban renewal program and the local schools. Specifically, he notes that many young adults in Woodburn are returning home after graduating from some of the top colleges and universities in the United States to become leaders in their community, just as he did. “We’re young,” Veliz says. “We have a lot of energy to do good things.”
When you go
Children 10 and under receive free admission to Fiesta Mexicana; admission is free for all on Friday and until 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Also bring a picnic blanket and check out Woodburn’s free, family-friendly Music in the Park Tuesday night concert series (July 10-Aug. 21), featuring a diverse array of bands, from Celtic rock to island rock, blues to country.