In this occasional series starting today, The Daily Astorian examines the North Coast's growing Hispanic population and its presence in local communities.

At 18, Mari Valencia left her job at a chocolate factory near Mexico City and came to Astoria to finish her education, improve her job prospects and become more independent.

She left her parents and siblings and moved here to live with her aunt and uncle.

For two years, she's worked on her studies in Astoria. But she speaks very little English, and is finding it hard to learn the language.

"People come to the U.S. if they're having a hard time making a living in Mexico," she said, through an interpreter. "The U.S. offers Mexicans another chance at success, but it isn't easy to succeed here."

Valencia is one of a growing number of Hispanics who have migrated to the North Coast during the past 10 years seeking jobs, opportunities and hope for a better future.

Many Hispanic people living on the North Coast are part of what Los Angeles Times journalist Sam Quinones has called the greatest migration, or diaspora, in world history.

"The movement of Mexicans to the United States amounts to the largest movement of people from one country to another in the last half century," he said.

Quinones, the author of two books celebrating Mexican culture and links with the United States, shared these ideas with the Columbia Forum in Astoria in 2007.

From 2000 to 2007, Hispanics have been the fastest-growing segment of the population in Clatsop County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Hispanic community grew by nearly 40 percent during that period, while the Caucasian population remained static. People identifying themselves generally as Spanish, Spanish-American, Latino or Hispanic have grown from 4.5 percent of the county's populace in 2005 to 6 percent in 2007.

According to the North Coast Hispanic Council, today the county's Hispanic population tops out at 5,860 out of more than 37,400.

In an occasional series beginning today, The Daily Astorian will focus on some of the faces that make up the statistics after conducting interviews with longtime local Hispanic community leaders and newcomers. Future stories will examine the ways in which a growing Hispanic population is changing the face of education, health care and other industries on the North Coast.

Norma Hernandez, director of the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council, said most Hispanic people came to the North Coast for financial reasons. In so doing, they leave family, friends and familiar places behind to come to the United States to find jobs. Many are supporting two homes. They can be found working in the fishing, logging, tourism and agricultural industries.

Seeking a snapshot of the local Hispanic community, in April reporters interviewed people attending a mobile Mexican consulate event at the Warrenton Community Center. Working with several state agencies, the consulate offers a program that takes services to Mexican nationals living in rural Oregon. The consulate issues identification cards and provides Mexican nationals with information on jobs, paying taxes or starting small businesses.

Newcomers

Brothers Philipe and Arturo deJesus consider themselves relative newcomers to the North Coast. The brothers, ages 33 and 37 respectively, attended the April event to receive Mexican passports and file documents indicating that their children are Mexican citizens with the consulate. They live in Warrenton with their wives and children, and also have four older brothers scattered throughout the United States.

The deJesuses found work in the forestry industry - planting trees.

Their biggest problem is the inability to go back and forth to Mexico. They miss family back home. "Especially my mom," Philipe deJesus said in English.

"Going back is easy. Getting back in to the U.S. is not," the interpreter conveyed. "Their mother is fairly old and it would be difficult for her to relocate. Besides, she has roots - friends and family in Puebla."

They expressed with emphatic nods that they are interested in becoming U.S. citizens, or staying as long as the government allows.

The need for money drives many of the foreign nationals who come to the North Coast. In countries like Mexico, the estimated unemployment rate tops out above the 25 percent mark.

Fifteen-year residents

Fidel Hernandez and his wife came to Astoria from Puebla, Mexico, 15 years ago. Speaking through an interpreter, Hernandez said he's stayed in Astoria the entire time because he likes living here. He works on a mink farm, and she is a stay-at-home mom for their two small children. Like many members of the Hispanic community, he plays basketball for fun.

And when asked what keeps him here, the reserved man said, "I have a lot of dreams. But mostly, money."

Looking ahead

Hope for the future was a common theme among the multitude milling about the center in Warrenton. Some said they see the election of President Barack Obama as a sign that the political climate has changed, and there is hope for immigration reform.

Many, like 35-year-old Marco Antonio Contreras Gonzalez, would like to be American citizens. Contreras left his wife and three children in Michoacan, Mexico, three years ago, when one daughter was only a year old.

He hasn't seen them since. He works to support his family and tries to see the possibility of bringing them here, he said through an interpreter. "There are better futures for children," he said.

Cinco de Mayo isn't an official holiday in Mexico, except in the state of Puebla, but for many years it has been a tradition for people of Mexican heritage, especially around the United States, to celebrate their culture on or near the day. It recalls the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, between the heavily outnumbered forces of Mexican General Sequin against the mighty French army, which eventually withdrew its occupying forces some five years later. It's not Mexican Independence Day, however. That's Sept. 16.

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