Community activism is a passion for Ontario’s Latino leader

Gustavo Morales grew up in Ontario, received a degree in psychology and decided to get involved in the future of his community. (Submitted photo).

ONTARIO – Growing up in Ontario, Gustavo Morales thought he would land a career in medicine. Instead, he became a trailblazer to empower diverse members of the community.

After receiving his Bachelor of Science in psychology with a neuroscience emphasis from Pacific University, Morales was accepted and enrolled in medical school at the age of 20.

Two years in, he took a leave of absence to pursue his master’s in business administration with the desire to set up his own practice. Morales moved back to his home in Ontario and enrolled at Boise State University.

Medical school is still on hold. Morales now is executive director of Euvalcree, an Ontario-based organization formed five years ago to confront local discrimination.

A friend, Maria Romero, learned he was back and invited him to the community meetings she and other friends had been hosting to discuss disparities in the city’s leadership and civic engagement.

Curious about the group’s mission, Morales attended a meeting where they discussed common misperceptions toward the Latino community. That interested Morales, who has endured slights over the years.

“I experience it frequently,” said Morales. “People have made assumptions about me based on my image, youth and my background. They don’t treat me kindly until they know about me and my value, and that’s sad.”

Morales described riding a train in Portland, where a passenger approached him and yelled.

“He told me to get out of the train and to go back to the country where I was from,” said Morales. “I was just sitting there, and for about 30 seconds he was yelling at me.”

That’s why he understood Romero and her group’s frustrations with the community’s attitudes toward Latinos.

“I just had a strong affinity for the group’s work and their mission,” said Morales. “It’s something that really drew me in.”

The group formed as Treasure Valley Community Resource Center and subsequently became Euvalcree.

“It started five years ago from community members that came together,” said Morales. “They were angry at the public leaders and community members who were blaming Latinos for making Ontario have the highest crime rates, lowest health outcomes, lowest education rates.”

Morales said a group of citizens were tired of hearing such comments and assumptions about the Latino community from their leaders, community members and colleagues from the workplace.

“Those who came together were part of the staff or part of the organizations where those things were being said,” Morales said.

Morales said he attended meetings regularly and grew passionate about activism.

“My involvement grew and grew,” he said.

In 2015, Morales volunteered to serve as Euvalcree’s executive director.

Latinos make up about a third of Malheur County population and represent about 40 percent in Ontario.

He said the group wanted to galvanize the region’s Latino population, high in number but underrepresented in city, county and school leadership roles.

“Our biases about others and the world are informed by our education and social circles,” Morales said. “The group started to realize what we were missing and that’s ensuring passion, empowerment and hope for something better.”

He said there’s a common misconception that Latinos have little interest in civic affairs and involvement in the community. But in reality, he said Latinos do care and some want to be involved but don’t have the time.

Morales pointed out that many Latinos work in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, which often demand long hours. In addition, family is a priority for Latinos – so much so that if a parent has free time in the evenings or weekends, that time goes to family. Morales said Euvalcree inspires people facing time constraints by offering events where they can relax and enjoy themselves and, at the same time, mingle with other people in the community.

“One of our strategies is to hold community events to share a safe space,” he said. “We get people by being happy. They have a great time and that provides an opportunity to network.”

Rodeos, community potlucks, family dances and street gatherings have all been catalysts for forging relationships among community members, Morales said.

“The rodeos, for example, have been a large facilitator in engaging our communities,” Morales said. “We’ve seen community members that are non-Latino working with Latinos. At rodeos, both groups are engaging together.”

And although Euvalcree began from feelings of frustration, Morales said it has grown in a more positive direction.

Morales stressed that the organization wants to encourage those in underrepresented groups to become community leaders.

One of Euvalcree’s biggest achievements was the formation of the seven-member Diversity Advisory Committee by the city of Ontario in 2017.

Morales said the goal of the diversity committee is to advocate for underrepresented community members. Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said the diversity committee acts as a two-way communication for the Ontario City Council.

“City council will get them to look at issues involving underrepresented community members,” said Brown. “And the committee can identify issues and bring attention to the city council.”

Euvalcree continues to work closely with Ontario’s city leaders and forge partnerships with community organizations.

Next, Euvalcree is working with the city on affordable housing to low income families in the city. Last week, the city council unanimously supported Euvalcree’s project, which will also work in partnership with Agile Homes and Malheur Federal Credit Union.

Morales said the plan is to build 10 homes for families of low income.

“The medium income in Ontario is $32,000 a year. Given that income, most families would never be able to buy a home,” said Morales. “And we know that stable housing is number one indicator of health, education and social outcomes.”

The project is still under development, said Morales.

On top of his work with Euvalcree, Morales also holds appointments at the state level. He was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to serve on the Oregon Advocacy Commission on Hispanic Affairs, serves on the Cultural Development Board for the Oregon Cultural Trust and is a member for the state’s Environmental Justice Task Force.

Despite having to juggle so many roles, Morales said he has no plans to step aside from his role at Euvalcree.