Under the canopy of soaring Douglas fir trees, a cool breeze gives me momentary relief from the sweltering summer heat. I’m in the heart of Woodburn at the city’s oldest green space: Legion Park, which bursts with nearly 16 acres of native Pacific Northwest flora. The lush landscape is home to an archaeological-themed playground (a nod to the numerous successful digs on the park boundaries), a rustic picnic pavilion, and for one weekend in August, tens of thousands of Oregonians and visitors, who come to revel in the sights, sounds and flavors of Mexico.
Since 1964 the Woodburn Fiesta Mexicana has been a glorious celebration that brings together Mexican and Chicanx cultural traditions, complete with performances on the central stage, soccer tournaments, high-flying lucha libre matches, big-name music headliners, dozens of vendors and carnival rides to top it all off. In 2017 the event was officially designated an Oregon Heritage Tradition representing “what it means to be an Oregonian.” And I’ve found that this spirit lives year-round in a city that’s known as Oregon’s own “Little Mexico.”
Oregon has been home for me for the last decade, but as I was raised by Mexican immigrants in California, I’ve spent just as long simultaneously missing facets of the first home I knew. During my time here, I’ve meticulously scoured and found places where I can eat almost any regional dish from the diverse culinary landscape of Mexico, from quesadillas de flor de calabaza and molé to flautas and corundas. But immersing myself in the music, languages, dances and feeling of Mexico here in Oregon requires a bit more due diligence. Cue Woodburn, just 30 miles south of Portland in the Willamette Valley — the state’s first and only “minority-majority” district, with a population that’s nearly 60% Latinx.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Woodburn many times. I’ve eaten several meals in the spring during pit stops before or after a trip to the blooming sunset-colored tulips and daffodils at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm, each subsequent pit stop lasting an hour longer than the previous. I’ve even visited the town during its more dormant winter season, seeking a quiet, cozy overnight getaway, semi-far from Portland and very close to abundant delicacies and snack options from childhood. But Woodburn during summer — and more specifically, during the Fiesta Mexicana — is an entirely new way to experience this typically tranquil town.
Last summer, after a short early-morning drive down from Portland, I struggled to find neighborhood parking, which was the first sign my visit would be different. The Fiesta Mexicana parade is one of many climaxes of this three-day celebration, jump-starting Saturday and keeping the energy levels high enough to carry festivalgoers into another two days jam-packed with entertainment and delightful fare. No matter the city or country, parades are the pinnacle of tradition — Mexican and American — and a time for everyone to gleefully whoop alongside neighbors.
Armed with an icy magoñada in hand, I kicked back in my camping chair and slurped on the spicy treat of frozen mangos and chamoy next to a gaggle of young children sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed, elbows tucked into their laps. We took in the sights: caballeros mounting galloping horses, dancers shaking along to a marching band, Fiesta Court hopefuls waving from their float with musica norteña blasting and — my personal favorite — candy-coated coupe de villes and Buick Regals bouncing up and down on hydraulics, tossing out handfuls of sweets to the kids. When it was all over, I was already looking forward to coming back the following year.
Feasting on Front Street
Where to eat around Woodburn? Try the wide range of restaurants centered on Front Street. Even if you can’t visit during festival time, the small town still oozes Oregon charm and is the perfect setting to slow down, stroll around “Little Mexico” and snack for hours.
Sample a half-dozen tacos so you can try the many tasty meat options like crisp, shredded carnitas or buttery, tender lengua at Luis’s Taqueria, a true Woodburn institution. This piñata-embellished joint serves their meals with handmade tortillas, and ordering the platos earns you heaping mounds of rice and refried beans. Plus, Barack Obama came here during his 2008 presidential campaign, so you’d be remiss not to follow suit.
If you’re in a noshing mood, El Mercadito is a snack shop along Front Street that offers ordinarily hard-to-find street fare like esquites (think elotes, but easier to eat and in a cup), taquitos, tostilocos and fried plantains. On winter weekends, you can warm yourself up with thick pre-Hispanic champurrado, a spiced Mexican hot chocolate made with the addition of corn maize. Browse their display of beaded, indigenous-made necklaces and earrings ($60 to $120) while sipping on aromatic cups of café de olla.
Santana, a few doors down from Louis’s, is the place to go if tortas (grilled Mexican street-food sandwiches) are your thing. While some establishments purchase mini bolillo, or stout French baguettes, for their menus, Santana’s serves their fairly priced sandwiches on enormous, full-size loaves — filling enough to feed two. I ordered the torta cubana, and as I waited for my meal, I gleefully scooped up the complimentary refried beans and salsa with chips. When the torta finally arrived, I struggled to pick it up, as it was overflowing with mountainous layers of scrambled egg, spicy chorizo, sliced ham, grilled hot dogs, avocado, pork cutlets and pickled jalapeños.
The ice cream options are ample along Front Street, but head to Paletería y Nevería El Paisanito for traditional Michoacan-style paletas, available milk- or water-based, and elaborate sweet and spicy drinks. Try Innovation Ice Cream Rolls for “stir-fried” ice cream made on an ice pan cooled by liquid nitrogen and finished with as many toppings as you can scoop. They also offer tejuino, an icy fermented corn-and-lime staple from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Although it’s a 10-minute drive, Oaxaca Bakery #2 boasts huge cases of fresh pan dulce made daily. Stock up on conchas, cookies and their popular raisin-laced pudín bread, which tastes like a deliciously dense, cinnamony sponge version of coffee cake.
Enter Zapateria El Jalicience, a slender shop filled to the brim with imported leather goods, an amazingly wide selection of boots, and Western shirts and belt buckles designed with the stylish cowboy in mind. Stock up on bulk Mexican candy and hard-to-find imports like stone molcajetes (mortar and pestles) and aluminum lime squeezers at Ani’s Party Supply. Scope gorgeous murals by Juanishi Orozco outside of PCUN and CAPACES Leadership Institute, two nonprofits doing vital work to empower their communities via farmworker rights, unionization and leadership development.
On Sundays you can stop by the entirely volunteer-run Woodburn Museum from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., which has been a grassroots effort since 1986 to document Woodburn’s history, heritage and culture via relics. The beloved Woodburn Public Library is also a great pit stop to browse their small collection of books for sale, check out the modest display of archaeological artifacts and see a neat atrium dedicated to Nancy Kirksey, Woodburn’s first woman mayor and Fiesta Mexicana grand marshal. Top off a busy day with some more great food at El Tule Taquería, where you can come for the tlayudas and Oaxacana food but should stay for a drink and, of course, karaoke.