City Councilor Roland Herrera with a photo of him and late, older brother Ramon, a Latinx and gay rights activist.
In some ways, being Ramon Herrera’s younger brother was a gift beyond measure.
“One year we were at the Clackamas County Fair and he and my dad came home with a set of encyclopedias,” said City Councilor Roland Herrera. “My stepmom was so mad, but we read them. It seemed like we were always reading.”
In other ways, the brotherhood left him with large shoes to fill.
“I was one year behind him in school and he was brilliant. On the first day of school, my teachers would call roll and run across my name. They would ask if they had another genius on their hands, then they got to know me,” Herrera said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Ramon’s influence on Herrera continues to this day, it fuels most of what he does as a councilor and his everyday life because Ramon is no longer with us. He died in 1994, as a result of complications from AIDS after living a full life as a mostly “out,” and very politically engaged, gay man.
“Ramon was a leader and an organizer, even as a student. I want the city charter changed because we need to make this city safe for people like him,” Herrera said.
A collection of memorabilia from the Herrera family’s earlier fights. A pin Roland wore when OCA was collecting signatures to change the Keizer city charter. A photo of Ramon Herrera and a framed flyer from a Portland rally to oppose a statewide measure marginalizing LGBTQ+ residents of Oregon.
In 1993, Keizer voters approved a change to the city charter that marginalized members of the LGBTQ+ community and denied them any special status, it’s known as Section 44. While the changes sought in Section 44 were later ruled unenforceable by the Oregon Legislature, the language has remained in the charter. Studies have shown that even when”no special rights” clauses are ruled unenforceable, the language itself does lingering harm. In one example, in states with such laws on the books, LGBTQ+ students were more likely (51.1%) to be harassed by their peers than in states without such laws (39.4%).
As Herrera reflects on growing up, it’s difficult to untangle whether his father, Alfredo, or Ramon was the larger influence. But only because Alfredo’s attitude paved the way for the man Ramon was able to become.
“My dad always said, ‘Grow your garden in your own way, and let your neighbor grow in their way,’” Herrera said.
Alfredo was a World War II veteran with two Purple Hearts and multiple battle stars to his name, but he was also a musician, an educator, a radio broadcaster and an advocate for Latinx rights. Because of Alfredo, Ramon never exactly hid his sexuality around his family, even though there were situations where the family had to be more protective.
Following his father’s lead, Ramon was intensely interested in politics at an early age. While Roland could name the football stars of the era, Ramon could name all of John F. Kennedy’s cabinet members. Because of Ramon, Herrera can still rattle off several of Kennedy’s appointees from memory.
Ramon started a school newspaper at Woodburn High School that advocated for students’ rights – including the rights of girls at the school to wear pants – and later became the first Latinx student body president at University of Oregon. Herrera said the family is fairly certain he was the first Latinx student to hold such a lofty position at a college west of the Mississippi.
Ramon’s student advocacy led him to become an advocate for gay rights as an adult. When the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) organized to put statewide legislation on the ballot that would have denied LGBTQ+ residents special status, Ramon helped organize the opposition.
“Every time the OCA held a press conference, we would show up to make our presence known. The largest one was a rally in Pioneer Square up in Portland, it was the first time we ever outnumbered them,” Herrera said. He framed a flyer from the rally he found among Ramon’s things after he passed. “We were fighting giants, but we were going to fight.”
When the OCA failed to get a statewide measure passed, the group began targeting local governments with ballot measures to change city and county charters. During the course of two years, the OCA targeted seven Oregon counties and 21 individual cities. Only two cities rejected the propositions, Corvallis and Gresham. The exclusionary changes found favor with Keizer voters, 55% percent approved and Section 44 was added to the charter.
At the time, Roland was a city employee and one of only a few that proudly wore buttons denouncing the petitions the OCA circulated to put the issue on the ballot.
“I loved Keizer and I still love Keizer, but that broke my heart,” Herrera said.
While losing the battle in his adopted hometown was a setback, the fight went on.
“One of the things I’m most grateful for is that Ramon got to see the Oregon Legislature overturn what the OCA was trying to do. Gov. (Barbara) Roberts invited him to the signing ceremony for the bill the Legislature passed,” Herrera said. “Even when he got really sick, he was still always fighting for others.”
Ramon died on July 21, 1994.
To this day, Herrera tries to abide by one of his brothers guiding principles: plan your work, then work your plan.
When he was elected to the Keizer City Council, Herrera began quietly pushing for a charter revision effort. Not too long after, Keizertimes brought the issue back to the forefront when it compared the Keizer’s stances on inclusivity to those of Salem. After hearing from constituents in the wake of the article, the council established a task force to consider removing Section 44 and cleaning up other sections.
In three weeks, Keizer voters get to decide whether the language stays or goes. A “yes” vote on Measure 24-453 will remove the anti-LGBTQ+ language from the charter, a “no” vote will keep it as is. The only other significant changes to the charter are in organization of the overall document and use of less gendered language throughout.
Herrera is hopeful that voters will approve the measure, but he’s also aware that some interpret his passion as anger. While Herrera has moments of heated debate with fellow councilors, his current attitude might better be labeled frustration when it comes to issues of equity and inclusion in Keizer. On the whole, it is hard to interpret the Keizer city council’s actions on issues of race and equity as anything other than foot-dragging. Despite being approached by numerous residents to adopt an inclusivity resolution more than two years ago, Mayor Cathy Clark tried to reframe a more recent conversation as “Keizer leading the way.”
The frustration Herrera feels has its roots in the need to continue fighting battles that he and his family have fought, on several fronts, for decades.
“Changing the charter is personal for me. It’s a matter of continuing the legacy of my father and brother. It’s a Herrera thing, standing up for other people. The language of the charter mistreats many residents of the city and we can do better than that,” Herrera said.