PORTLAND, Ore. — He is a 47-year-old guy, a construction worker celebrating the end of the workweek at Mayas Taqueria. He is a white man in an overwhelmingly white city, but in 1997, this bustling Mexican restaurant doesn't seem that exotic.
Portland, like America, is changing.
"I've been in Oregon 22 years, and over the last 10, you sense this shift," the hard hat says. "Hispanics who have come to work are becoming more acclimated to the weather and have stayed. The population, you can see, is becoming more diverse."
Portland is still 92% Caucasian. But there are more Latinos today than there were yesterday, and there will be even more tomorrow. Oregon's Latino population is growing four times faster than the general population.
They bring with them a richness of culture, and not a few problems. And not everybody welcomes them.
But that will not prevent the browning of Portland, or of America. Oregon is not a border state, like Texas or California; it is not a traditional magnet for Hispanics, like New York. But its Hispanic population is rising, and in that way, it is typical of so much of the country.
The Census Bureau predicts Hispanics will become the nation's largest minority by 2005, growing from 27 million to 36 million.
From 1995 to 2025, Hispanic growth will account for 44% of the nation's total population growth.
Says Gregory Spencer, chief of the population projections branch at the Census Bureau: "The current growth rate for the Hispanic population is about 3.2% a year. That's almost twice as high as America's total population growth during the peak of the baby boom."
But statistics aren't needed to tell this story. Just look around, at baseball fans dancing the macarena on television, or the number of brands of salsa on the shelves in the grocery store.
"Hispanics are reconquering the United States with their culture, their language, their food and with sheer force of numbers," said Neil Foley, associate director of the Center for Mexican-American Studies at the University of Texas.
"Order 2 is ready. Order No. 2!" a young woman hollers from behind the counter at Mi Ranchito in northeast Portland.
There is no response.
"Dos, dos. Numero dos?" A construction worker saunters up and collects a tray overflowing with tamales and caldo, hot soup.
The restaurant, really a border-style taco shack, is packed with a lunchtime crowd of professionals and laborers.
Owner Jose Luis Munoz likes what he sees: "Some say my business is only for Mexicans, but it's for everybody," he says, speaking in broken English.
Munoz initially came to Portland to work in the fields, picking strawberries, asparagus, other crops. On the side, he and his wife served lunch to their fellow farm workers; eventually, they saved enough to start their own business.
Munoz has opened a second location and added a grocery store. He sells Spanish cassettes, Mexican comic books and pottery and blankets from Tijuana.
"I'm living happy in Portland," he says. "It's a quiet place, not too much problems, not too much noise. There are many opportunities. Oregon is an open state for everybody."
After World War II, Mexicans living both south of the border and in the southwestern United States began migrating north to find work. Most intended one day to return home, but better jobs and an improved quality of life induced them to stay.
By 1980, with an additional influx of Central and Latin Americans, the Spanish-speaking population had become Oregon's largest ethnic minority, and it grew another 70% over the next decade.
Today, Oregon has 150,000 Hispanics among its 3 million residents. More than a third live in the Portland area.
Agricultural work is still a major draw, but there are also those who arrived as students or professionals and decided to stay.
Gale Castillo, for instance, grew up in Oakland and moved here in 1970 to attend college. Now 44, she owns a consulting business, one of nearly 2,000 Hispanic-owned companies in Portland. She serves as vice president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and sits on the Portland Development Commission.
"We're not all farm workers," she said.
Downtown, Asian influences are more evident than those of Latinos. An upscale Spanish restaurant and tapas bar opened a year ago next to a gallery exhibiting Latin American artwork, and the city's first Mexican consular office opened last year.
The annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, founded by an Anglo, has become one of the largest festivals in town, rising in attendance from 200 in 1985 to about 200,000 last year.
But the real evidence of Hispanic growth is outside the city limits, in suburbs such as Gresham, a conservative, middle-class community on Portland's east side, where hundreds of migrant farm workers have settled.
Just off Main Street, a sign welcoming Latinos to a Spanish-language service hangs outside the First Baptist Church, which also offers English classes once a week.