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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

She Became A Citizen Five Years Ago. Now She's A State Lawmaker

This year's state legislature will be among the most diverse in Oregon history. Among the new crop of lawmakers is Teresa Alonso Leon, who immigrated from Mexico as a child and became a U.S. citizen just five years ago.

Alonso Leon has a few memories of her early childhood in the Mexican state of Michoacan. When she was five, her parents decided the family would be better off in the United States. They moved to Woodburn, Oregon -- a Willamette Valley town that was drawing scores of migrant farm workers.

Alonso Leon said her parents worked long hours in the fields for low wages. Their house lacked indoor plumbing. She learned English and soon became the family's interpreter: a role that came with a tremendous amount of responsibility.

"My parents couldn't make it to the doctor because that would mean they would lose a day's wages.…at minimum wage that meant a lot to our family,” Alonso Leon said. “So I would step up, so as a 12, 13-year-old I would take my siblings to the doctor.”

That role as an advocate for people struggling to get by may have foreshadowed her political career decades later. She was appointed to Woodburn City Council four years ago. In November, she won election to the Oregon House, replacing a fellow Democrat who retired.

‘A dream that became a reality'

Something else happened along the way.

In the 1980s when she was still a child, Alonso Leon's family took advantage of a Reagan-era law that allowed people living in the country illegally to apply for permanent residence status. Then, in 2012, Alonso Leon became a United States citizen.

"It's one of those kind of dreams,” she said. “It's a dream that became a reality. And before I became a citizen I don't know that I was aspiring to be a politician. But when you become a citizen, it's life-changing, right?"

Latinos in the Woodburn area are encouraged by Alonso Leon's election to the state House.

"Her campaign provided a lot of energy and a lot of hope for our community that with a strategy, with rolling up our sleeves and going to work and developing a good electoral campaign, that we could win,” said Ramon Ramirez, president of PCUN, the Oregon Farmworkers Union.

While Alonso Leon won't be the first Hispanic lawmaker in Oregon, she's the first to represent the heavily-Latino Woodburn area. The local school district is more than 81 percent Hispanic. Ramirez said the legislative district was designed following the 2000 census with an eye toward helping a Latino get elected.

"In our book, it was going to take about 10 years to do that,” he said. “It took a little bit longer."

A voice for working families

Downtown Woodburn is lined with taquerias and storefronts advertising bus tickets to Mexico. The front counter at Santana Mexican Food features a campaign sign for Teresa Alonso Leon.

Felix Santana said he can remember when the candidate stopped by to drop it off. Santana said he supports Alonso Leon because she comes from the background of a working family like many people in the area.

Alonso Leon said she worked in the fields as a kid, but went to college and eventually landed a job coordinating Oregon's GED programs. She said education funding will be one of her priorities in Salem.

Despite her recent success, she said she knows what it's like to grow up in a family where resources were scarce.

"Those type of struggles I don't think are represented at the state level,” Alonso Leon said. “Those voices aren't really heard."

And she said the voices of working families in her district aren't just Latino. She said she even learned a bit of Russian for her campaign.

Alonso Leon said at the end of the day, most people are concerned about the same things: jobs, education and public safety.