Revelations this week that a viral, racist letter wasn’t what it seemed have members of Hermiston’s Latino community concerned about the repercussions.
On Monday, July 6, Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said former Umatilla County commissioner candidate Jonathan Lopez had admitted that he had penned the anonymous letter, which went viral on social media after Lopez claimed he had found it in his mailbox.
The letter stated in part that Lopez and other “Mexicans” were “not welcome here” and that “America is for the God fearing, pro gun, pro life humans who refuse to be controlled by the government.” It included several racist, misogynistic and homophobic slurs.
“From the onset, this alleged incident has been thoroughly investigated,” Edmiston wrote in an email. “Our investigation has shown that Mr. Lopez wrote the letter himself and made false statements to the police and on social media. The end result is a verbal and written admission by Mr. Lopez that the letter was fabricated.”
He said the case would be forwarded to the Umatilla County District Attorney’s office for review for initiating a false report, a Class A misdemeanor in Oregon.
Jazmin Yajaira Avalos, Anesat Leon-Guerrero and Heldáy de la Cruz, who described themselves as “members of Hermiston’s Latinx community,” penned a response to the revelations after the East Oregonian broke the news on July 6. In their response, they said they were “appalled” at Lopez’s actions.
“We want to make it clear that a lot of our local and hometown voices have never stood with Lopez’s politics and stances on issues within our community,” they wrote. “In fact, a number of organizers and leaders began asking questions about Lopez’s credibility and intentions as red flags began to arise during his candidacy. The trust he was attempting to build was questionable from the beginning, and the news about this letter confirms what some of us believed to be true: Lopez was never fit to represent the Latinx community.”
They called on him to issue an apology and step down from any leadership positions. Lopez has been serving as a member of Hermiston’s Hispanic Advisory Committee.
When contacted July 6, Lopez initially stated the issue was a big misunderstanding. He said he just meant to speak with Edmiston about racism in Umatilla County and use the letter as an example of the type of racism people experience, but often don’t speak out about publicly.
“I never meant to file a report, it just kind of spiraled out,” he said.
He also said he “never meant to mislead” the public.
When questioned further about his statements on Facebook that he had received the letter anonymously, and the fact he told a Hermiston Herald reporter on June 24 that he had found the letter in his mailbox when he got home, he confirmed he had told a police officer the same story.
After the story about Lopez’s confession was posted online, a few people who shared the East Oregonian’s article on Facebook used it to cast doubt on previous statements by area residents participating in the Black Lives Matter movement that racism is a problem in Umatilla County.
When asked whether he was concerned about the incident causing people to not believe other stories of racism in the future, Lopez responded that “many people in many places are always going to have their opinion.”
He said during his campaign for county commissioner he had experienced racist comments, including people accusing him of being an undocumented immigrant, and he had heard from other people who were afraid to speak up about racism they had experienced. He said thinking about those things was what had inspired him to write the letter to show what people in the area were experiencing.
The incident comes during a broader national discussion about racism, brought to light as people around the country protest systemic racism in law enforcement and other institutions. Hermiston is one of several Eastern Oregon communities that saw Black Lives Matter protests in June.
In their response to the letter, Yajaira Avalos, Leon-Guerrero and de la Cruz talked about the diversity of Umatilla County’s communities of color, including Black and indigenous residents and immigrants from a long list of countries. They talked about the struggles those communities have faced and the integral ways they have contributed to the county.
“This is an opportunity for us to turn to the people and organizations doing the years of dedicated work, and empower our Latinx youth to continue this work that helps create a sense of belonging,” they wrote. “Through authentic community engagement and empathy, we are all involved in the process of envisioning a future that inspires continued collaboration, community, and economic development for all.”
Before the letter incident, Lopez ran for a seat on the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners during the May 2020 primary and placed fourth.
Edmiston said his department was also forwarding information to the district attorney’s office about possibly fraudulent statements in Lopez’s entry in the May 2020 voter’s guide about his background and education. Some of those claims were repeated in a Hermiston Herald article leading up to the election.
Edmiston alleged that HPD has learned that Lopez never served in the U.S. Coast Guard as stated, which would be a violation of the 2013 Stolen Valor Act.
“This investigation is particularly frustrating as we are in the midst of multiple major investigations while battling a resource shortage due to the current pandemic,” Edmiston said. “The time spent on this fictitious claim means time lost on other matters, not to mention it needlessly adds to the incredible tension that exists in our nation today. As a lifelong resident of this diverse community, I’m disgusted someone would try to carelessly advance their personal ambitions at the risk of others.”