For years, Antonio Dias has focused mostly on his work.
Since coming to the U.S. from Mexico in 1986, he’s worked in local strawberry fields, farmed his own vegetables near Dallas and worked as a school custodian.
But this year, Dias decided he wanted to pursue U.S. citizenship as a way of learning more about his adopted country. A referral from a friend put him in class at the Mid-Valley Literacy Center in Salem, which helps a few dozen Salem-area residents each year study for the citizenship exam.
“It’s like they opened my eyes to see. When I get my citizenship I can vote, I can help, I can be somebody running for office,” he said.
Dias has become a volunteer translator and interpreter for classmates who are preparing to take the citizenship test in Spanish. It’s a role he said helps him share the rights Americans have with his fellow prospective citizens.
His work as a translator has improved the center’s services to Spanish-speaking students, executive director Vivian Ang said. She usually translates herself.
“I can do it in Spanish but I’d like to have someone who’s a native Spanish speaker,” she said. “Antonio is the kind of person who cares about other people and he’s very giving of his time and his talents.”
Dias earned a MAPS Community Award earlier this month from the Salem-based credit union’s community foundation. He was one of 17 Marion and Polk county residents honored with a $1,000 award to be given to a local nonprofit, which he donated back to the literacy center.
It’s not the first time he’s elected to help financially. In April, he attended a fundraiser for the literacy center and won a 50-50 raffle. Ang said he elected to give the prize money, over $550, back to the center, something that surprised her.
“He has been such a help to us,” she said.
Dias first came to the area from Oaxaca, Mexico, because he heard workers could make good money in the U.S. He made only $75 in his first month and considered returning home, but his friends convinced him to stay and try picking strawberries.
“We worked very hard,” he said, earning $100 a day for 12 hours of work.
He’s moved around the region, living in Salem, Dallas, Monmouth, Woodburn and now Independence with his wife. He said her family has pushed him to learn more and encouraged him to pursue citizenship.
He’s spent his life focused mostly on work, and said citizenship classes were eye-opening.
“Working is good but sometimes if you don’t know where you live … you don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Dias said it’s important for people to understand they can participate in government here, and tries to show his classmates that as he’s interpreting.
“We can vote for somebody who can do good in our town,” he said. “We the people, we choose who can be in charge, so it’s up to us, right?
Dias is scheduled to take his citizenship exam Oct. 10. Ang said he wants to continue volunteering to help others earn citizenship after he completes the process.
“I am very excited to go and take the test,” Dias said.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.