18-year-old Irrigon High School student joins city council
Marlina Avila Serratos had no choice but to grow up quickly.
Born in Hermiston and raised in Irrigon, Avila Serratos was 12 years old when her mother was deported to Mexico. Her father, Juvenal Avila De La Paz, worked long days as a farm laborer, which left Avila Serratos in charge of cooking, cleaning and taking care of her 9-year-old sister after school.
Now 18, Avila Serratos said her abbreviated childhood gave her a strong sense of independence and maturity. It has served her well at Irrigon Junior-Senior High School, where she joined the National Honor Society, Key Club and started her own group to help first-generation college students learn about financial aid and resources. Avila Serratos also works two jobs, at Oregon Potato Company in Boardman and Washington State University’s GEAR UP mentorship program.
After Tuesday’s election, her next challenge will be representing her peers on the Irrigon City Council.
“I can’t believe it. It’s like my body’s numb,” said Avila Serratos, reacting to the news between classes at IHS.
Avila Serratos is still a senior at the high school and is planning to become a registered nurse. Winning a seat on the city council came as a surprise, she said, but is something where she feels she can make a positive difference.
“I want (Irrigon) to be a place where people said it grew so fast, and became a place where people could bring their kids,” Avila Serratos said.
Out of four city council seats up for election, four candidates — including Avila Serratos — ran on the ballot, meaning she was essentially unopposed. Incumbent Mayor Sam Heath, councilor Daren Strong and councilor Ken Matlack were also re-elected. Avila Serratos will fill the position vacant since Christine Sorenson died in January.
Councilors are elected to four-year terms. Avila Serratos will be sworn in at her first meeting on Jan. 17.
“To me, it’s going to be scary,” she said with a nervous smile.
Avila Serratos said she openly wondered whether she would be able to withstand the pressure of the job. But her father encouraged her to use her voice as a young Hispanic woman to speak for those in the community who can’t speak for themselves.
According to the 2010 census, nearly a third of Irrigon’s population is Hispanic or Latino. The town currently has 1,826 residents.
Don Eppenbach, who served as Irrigon’s mayor for 18 years during the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s, said he can’t recall another Hispanic councilor having served the city. Barb Huwe, longtime community volunteer and businesswoman, said she was glad to hear Avila Serratos will be joining the council.
“We need the Hispanic culture to get involved here in Irrigon,” Huwe said. “We need to get them out to help our city grow.”
Avila Serratos said she became interested in applying for the position earlier this year, while helping her dad move their mobile home from one property to another. They made numerous trips together to city hall, where she met and became friends with city manager Aaron Palmquist.
It was Palmquist who introduced her to the concept of city government.
“I thought, maybe it’s time for a change,” Avila Serratos said. “I’ve been told, ‘Maybe you were meant to do this.’”
Palmquist said he is looking forward to working with Avila Serratos, and believes she will bring new ideas to the council.
“From my perspective, she’s going to bring some freshness coming from a younger generation,” he said. “She also has connections to the Hispanic community. We look forward to that.”
Avila Serratos isn’t the only young newcomer to city government in Morrow County.
Cody High, 31, was also elected mayor of Heppner on Tuesday, defeating incumbent Skip Matthews.
High, who works as the assistant manager at Heppner’s only bar, Bucknum’s, said he hopes to turn the city into a more suitable place for young people to work and live.
“If we want younger people to stay in our towns, they have to have a personal stake in it,” High told the East Oregonian.
Avila Serratos said Irrigon could appeal to more families if they focus on improving their schools and creating more community events that get young people active and engaged.
The job will not be easy. But Avila Serratos, who still visits her mother and sisters in Mexico, said she has received some sound advice.
“Nothing is impossible. You can do it. Don’t let anything hold you back,” she said.