The history of the world is a history of migration. From the earliest indigenous people to the most recent immigrants, humans have moved from place to place around the world because of love, economic gain, personal discovery, conquest, war, persecution, oppression, famine, depletion of natural resources, and a myriad of other reasons.
When new immigrants arrive in Portland some have barely more than the clothes on their backs. Yet, they bring with them riches that the eye cannot see—treasure troves of cultural knowledge and skills as old as humankind. Immigrants may speak ancient languages, cook foods using ingredients unknown to local grocers, practice beliefs that might seem otherworldly, play musical instruments that sound unfamiliar to western-trained ears, or dance to a different rhythm, but all have the will and desire to become part of their new country and make their homes here.
I recently completed folklife fieldwork in Portland where I met extraordinary folk artists, practitioners of an array of traditional art forms; many of them are immigrants who strive to enhance the cultural life of the region. What follows introduces a few of those artists whose lives and work convey a small taste of the dynamic tapestry of our community.
Andy Wong is an internationally recognized master chef who owns Wong’s King Chinese Restaurant on SE Division. As a young child, standing beside his mother as she prepared the family’s meals, he grew increasingly fascinated with food. He was only 8 years old when he started cooking for his parents and some of his neighbors. During his 28 years in Oregon he has regularly gone back to China to enter cooking competitions—his restaurant has trophy cases full of his awards. Following his mother’s example, Andy has taught his son traditional culinary skills, and the pair now work together at the restaurant.
Portland is home to members of an ethnic group called Karen from parts of Myanmar (Burma). Through the assistance of the Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Karen women weavers formed “Weaving Together—The Karen Women of Portland.” The women meet weekly to talk and weave on the traditional back strap looms that they built. Pictured are the Karen women holding a sign that they wove at the Lutheran center on SE Cesar Chavez.
José Martinez was born in Oaxaca, Mexico where his father and grandfather had both been leatherworkers. José was a young child when he played with strips of scrap leather and started doing small leather tasks with his father. As an adult, he and his wife moved their family to Oregon, where they first sold their leather goods at Portland Saturday Market and other fairs. Today, the entire family works together creating traditional Oaxaca-style sandals and other fashionable items at Orox Leather Company on NW Couch.
As a girl, Basira Sadiqi learned to embroider from her mother and other female members of her family in Afganistan. Wars in her homeland disrupted the lives of tens of thousands, forcing Sadiqi and others to flee to refugee camps in Pakistan. With the assistance of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO), Sadiqi and her four children arrived in Portland in April of 2016. Resettlement in a new country requires new residents to adapt and learn new ways to provide for their families. Basira Sadiqi hopes that she can repurpose the traditional needlework skills she learned as a child to support her own children with the sales of her finely embroidered pieces.
Worknesh Geda is Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group. She grew up in a family that practiced many traditional beliefs, songs, and rituals. Geda knows the ritual songs and movements that bring the rains to parched land as well as others that treat illnesses such as chickenpox, yellow fever, or other diseases. Yet such age-old rites have become obsolete in the context of contemporary American life. When I encouraged her to teach the songs for their own sake to her grandchildren, she related that they don’t speak her native language; she and her grandchildren cannot communicate with each other, a sad reality for so many elderly refugees.