What it’s like to be Latino in Sonoma County right now

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About once a week, Santa Rosa resident Juan Roman drives to Roseland’s Sebastopol Road to cruise the area in one of his lowrider cars.

From the driver’s seat, the political consultant can hear the sound of Mexican music spilling out of small, family-owned shops and inhale the wafting smell of food prepared at “loncheras,” or food trucks, stationed nearby, he said.

Roman’s interest in the customized vehicles sparked when he was a young child living in Santa Ana. An older neighborhood teenage girl jokingly offered to be his girlfriend if he gave her a ride in his uncle’s lowrider, he said. Since then, he’s built his own collection and has become an active member in the lowrider community in Sonoma County, where he’s lived since he was about 4.

While he has made friendships through the hobby, it’s also provided a means of connecting with his Chicano roots, he said.

“When I cruise down Sebastopol Road, I get the feeling like I’m home,” Roman said. “I feel like lowriding has connected me to our community.”

Roughly 135,000 Latinos live in Sonoma County, making up more than a quarter of the total population, U.S. Census figures show. It’s a broad term that includes people from Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries or cultures, as well as those who trace their heritage to Mexico; it covers both recent undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens whose families have been here for generations.

National politics and changing demographics have put immigration and cultural identity at the forefront of national and regional conversations. As President Donald Trump presses his case for building a wall between the United States and Mexico and the federal government steps up immigration raids, many Latinos both locally and nationally have felt unfairly targeted and frustrated with the political climate. Separations of children from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico have drawn sharp criticism from many Latinos.

Amid sometimes heated national discourse, Sonoma County Latinos are making their presence felt, whether it be in key positions in county or city departments, in elected office, as leaders in the business community or in their growing representation in the region’s schools. They continue to play a large role in the county’s workforce, whether as the backbone of the region’s agriculture or in hospitals, construction sites or the hospitality industry.

Many of the people who were interviewed about what it is like to be Latino in Sonoma County said they felt represented and respected in the community, especially compared to decades ago. Then, Latinos lived in Sonoma County in smaller numbers, had virtually no representation in local politics and economic mobility was more limited given the type of jobs available to them.

“I’ve never felt oppressed,” said Monica Lopez, the co-owner of Aldina Vineyards in Santa Rosa. “I think I have a different outlook on the community because it’s gotten better.”

Others, such as longtime Sonoma County resident and social activist George Ortiz, worry the area’s soaring housing prices are putting Latinos from low-income households under threat of displacement more than in decades past. Many still face barriers to a better quality of life, such as access to good health care, education and high-paying jobs, Ortiz said.

“As much as things have changed, they haven’t,” said Ortiz, 85. “We’re the grunts of this community. We’re not the CPAs or the attorneys.”

Ortiz arrived in Sonoma County in 1964 when he left a construction job in Novato with his father-in-law for a lower-paying job as a social worker for the county. He was newly married and starting a family.

His caseload was large, made up mostly of Latino families whom he described as hardworking, but who often worked in low-income jobs or were not well-educated. Strong family bonds were an integral part of their lives in Sonoma County, sometimes meaning several families lived under one roof, Ortiz said. Interactions between Latinos and their white counterparts usually only happened while at work.

“We were very isolated,” Ortiz said. “There was nobody at all that was in politics, any sort of commission — nothing. We were the workers and they were the bosses.”

More than five decades later, Ortiz, a co-founder of California Human Development Corp., a nonprofit that assists farmworkers, day laborers and their families, recognizes there have been improvements for Latinos living in Sonoma County, especially in the way of organizing and gaining political representation.

But economic mobility is still a big problem, he said. For example, while farmworkers in Sonoma County are seeing higher wages, in part because of a shortage of people willing to do that work, the pay is not enough to sustain a family living in Sonoma County, Ortiz said.

Crowded community clinics scattered throughout the county remain the only affordable health care option for many low-income households. He still hears stories of day laborers who cram into a single bedroom during harvest because they can’t afford other housing.

“For me and my family, I’ve had to work my butt off,” Ortiz said. “Now, who can afford to live here?”

Cost of living challenges

Housing costs and cost of living were among concerns brought up by two Sonoma County Latinos, one who only recently became a legal resident and another who is undocumented.

Hugo Castro, 39, said he hopes starting his own business will help him and his family afford to stay in Santa Rosa, where he first landed 19 years ago after immigrating from Mexico City. He came to the United States motivated by dreams of traveling, finding a good job and building a meaningful life for himself, he said.

Castro first found work in construction and carpeting, though the hours were long, the breaks were short and the pay was low. He lived in a garage with two other people the first year and a half after a friend’s brother agreed to house him.

He enrolled in English classes and found work at custom cabinet businesses in Sonoma County three years after his arrival, a trade he’s continued to work in ever since. He now works as a manager at a custom cabinet finishing shop in Santa Rosa, where he’s responsible for writing reports about the jobs they complete. He helps other employees handle tasks as needed.

“Little by little, I’ve been growing professionally,” he said. “(Immigrants are) not trying to take anything (from citizens); we just need to work.”

Even with a skilled job, Castro said Santa Rosa’s overcrowded and expensive housing market is making it harder for him to afford to live here with his wife, stepdaughter and two children. Owning his own business, a mobile cabinet repair and custom painting company, would likely help boost his salary so he can provide a better life for his family, he said. He’s already purchased some equipment for the venture, but it will take him about a year before he can secure the proper license to start the business, he said.

For Maribel, a manager at a sandwich shop who is undocumented and arrived in Sonoma County 21 years ago from Yucatán, Mexico, immigrating to the U.S. helped her provide for her five children as a single mother. She doesn’t think that would have been possible if she had stayed in Mexico, given the poor job prospects in the town she was from, she said.

“It gives me a good shot at this life,” Maribel said. “My job and the opportunity to live here.”

Two of her children, one of whom was born in the United States soon after she arrived, also live in Sonoma County. She sent money back to Mexico to help pay for schooling for her other children, including a daughter who is a teacher.

Living in the United States without legal status has come with its own set of challenges, however, such as being limited in the type of work she can apply for and worrying about being deported, a heightened fear since Trump was elected president, Maribel said.

She was unable to travel to see one of her sons after he was fatally shot in 2009 because she had no guaranteed entry back into the U.S. and she needed to continue providing for her children, she said. The Press Democrat is only publishing her first name because of safety concerns related to her immigration status.

She’s held her current job for 19 years, and considers herself lucky to have a boss who has been supportive of her, she said. He hired her despite her not knowing any English and now trusts her to manage the shop, she said. A regular at the store also helped her find a place to live.

“You have access to many job opportunities, things to have fun … but gosh the rents are high,” Maribel said of Sonoma County. “Now, if you have a job, hold on to it because it’s going to be hard to find another.”

Lives shaped by struggles

Other Latinos recounted the experience of being raised by family members who were undocumented, and how their struggles with starting over in a new country could shape the trajectory of their lives.

Petaluma resident Paul Guerrero, 52, said his parents never shared detailed stories about what it was like for them to grow up in the United States without legal residency, though the discrimination they faced strongly affected how they raised their three sons in the Los Angeles County town of Baldwin Park. His parents funneled most of their wages to pay for all three children to attend private school and purposely didn’t teach them how to speak Spanish, Guerrero said. They worried they could develop an accent.

“That was seen as a negative,” Guerrero said of speaking Spanish. “It was always, ‘You’re going to do better than us. You’re going to go to college.’ ”

Despite not knowing Spanish, Guerrero said he grew up in a very Latino household. His dad played in bands that would preform songs in Spanish at weddings. His mother cooked Mexican dishes.

And because of his background, disparaging comments made by President Trump about Latinos prompted him to take greater action in advocating for his community, though he had never considered himself an activist before, Guerrero said.

He expressed frustration that most of the faces in Petaluma government and businesses are predominately white, and said they don’t reflect the diversity of the community as a whole. He also raised concerns over Petaluma’s complaint-based street enforcement system, which allows neighbors to report cars that are parked in one spot for more than 72 hours at a time. He’s personally received several tickets over the past decade, and suspects he has been the victim of bias by people in his neighborhood.

“People say we’re a mostly liberal community, but I think that there’s a lot of resistance to immigrant communities and people of color,” he said.

Roman, the Santa Rosa political consultant, said he also felt unwelcome in Sonoma County at times throughout the years, as well. For example, he says he’s frequently seated at the back of restaurants or not waited on by restaurant staff with the same attention as other patrons. He remembers another time, during his senior year at Piner High School, when the school newspaper published a cartoon that used the image of a man wearing a hat who was swarmed by flies to represent Mexico in a story about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“It was like a reminder of, like, you’re not welcome,” he said.

On a national level, Roman says Latinos are often cast in a poor light whenever someone who is Latino commits a crime, such as in the death of Katie Steinle, who was shot in 2015 at San Francisco’s Pier 14, Roman said. A jury found Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, a felon who had been deported five times prior to the shooting, not guilty of murder and involuntary manslaughter two years later.

National politics have become a game of tag with every election cycle, Roman said.

“Mexicans, Latinos are ‘it’ every four years,” Roman said.

Institutions changing

As Sonoma County’s Latino population continues to grow, their numbers are fundamentally changing public institutions in the area, such as the area’s schools.

Pedro Avila, the vice president of Student Services at Santa Rosa Junior College, said his arrival to the Sonoma County in 2017 came at a crucial time for the area’s population, when Latino enrollment in public K-12 schools reached 45% in the 2016-17 school year compared to 17% in the mid-1990s and 31% in 2005. The college is using those figures to better serve the students who enroll at the school, who are more likely to be the first within their family to attend college.

“They need more help navigating our college system,” Avila said.

Avila said he thinks there’s more unity within the Latino community in Sonoma County compared to what he saw growing up in the Central Valley, where he and his family immigrated to from Mexico when he was 9.

Cesar Cabezas, a warehouse and shipping manager at Sonoma County’s Williams Selyem Winery, said he found friendships with Mexican American children who lived in the same Rohnert Park neighborhood he moved to soon after arriving from Peru at age 12. Despite coming from different regions of Latin America, they bonded over similarities in their cultures, Cabezas said.

“I started learning English and kind of being part of the Latino culture, and learning about Mexican culture,” Cabezas, 40, said. “I felt welcome.”

Cabezas was exposed to a more diverse crowd of local Latinos, including Salvadorians and Panamanians, when he entered Rancho Cotate High School, he said.

Avila said he sees the communal closeness Cabezas experienced now, embodied in institutions such as the leadership organization Los Cien and through the large number of scholarships awarded to local college-bound Latino students from private donors every year. That type of philanthropy was not something he’d seen while growing up.

“I don’t notice that they have a chip on their shoulder,” Avila said of Sonoma County youth. “I feel like a lot of them feel like they can succeed because there’s a lot of support in the community.”

Feeling supported

Livier De La Torre, 19, said she has seen that support throughout her education, beginning at McDowell Elementary School in Petaluma, where her family lived after moving from Mexico when she was 4. She was paired with bilingual teachers, who helped her pick up English quickly, and her mother was able to make friendships with her classmates’ parents who also spoke Spanish.

The family moved from their largely Latino neighborhood to a predominately white, middle-class area in Rohnert Park when she was in sixth grade, De La Torre said. The move affected her mother, who found it harder to make new friends who spoke Spanish, De La Torre said.

“For me, it was a culture shock, like, ‘Wow, there’s places where there’s not a lot of people like me,’ ” she said.

As she made her way into Rancho Cotate High School, De La Torre continued to feel support from her teachers, however, including one who encouraged her to start a fashion club on campus. At Santa Rosa Junior College, where she is studying business administration and is in her third semester, she found a sense of community when she joined student government as the vice president of marketing for the school’s Petaluma campus. She hopes the role will help her reach students who may not know about services and support available to them at the school.

“(Student leadership) acknowledge things can be better and ... every day we try to think about how communities can be welcomed here,” De La Torre said. “We don’t want anybody to feel excluded.”

Desire for representation

Almost everyone interviewed for this article said they would like to see Latinos play a more active role in their community, whether it be in politics, at local schools, in business or through organizing. The Latino community has seen some strides in that respect, including Tuesday’s swearing-in of Ray Navarro as the Santa Rosa Police Department’s first Latino chief of police. In December, newcomer Omar Medina unseated longtime Santa Rosa School Board member Frank Pugh, marking the first time two Latinos have served on the board at once.

That representation is expected to increase, with shifts to district elections in some of the county’s cities and school districts. Santa Rosa city leaders approved district elections in 2018, a move intended to boost representation of minority communities in the city, where only one Latino has held a seat in City Hall despite Latinos making up 30% of the city’s population.

For Monica Lopez, the co-owner of Aldina Vineyards, she said she’s never felt oppressed in Sonoma County, though she does think there’s still a boys’ club culture present the local winemaking industry. In one instance about a year ago, for example, Lopez, 36, remembered how someone who was considering selling Aldina Vineyards wines at a local restaurant continuously chose to speak to her brother, who runs the business with Lopez, during a wine tasting, she said.

“He was just not into anything I was saying,” Lopez said of the restaurateur.

Joining the county’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has helped her connect her with other business leaders and like-minded people in the area, she said. She started the wine label after feeling unfulfilled with careers in advertising and media planning in New York and Los Angeles, she added.

“From my perspective, I’d been working for the man for all these years. I thought, ‘Who’s making all the money?’ ” Lopez said. “I think there’s a lot of smart women in this community, I just think they need to show up and not be behind the scenes.”

Opportunity to give back

Carmen Flores, 46, of Sebastopol said participating in local community groups has provided her an opportunity to make friendships and give back to Sonoma County, where she’s lived since moving from Mexico City two decades ago. Her father, who was already living here, offered to buy her a plane ticket so she could join him and her sister, and she agreed. At that time, most jobs in Mexico City were paying their workers low wages, about 30 pesos a day, or just more than $3, she said.

“I thought I could work here and learn more English,” Flores said. “But I remember it was hard.”

Flores, who moved to Sebastopol from Santa Rosa about two years ago, currently volunteers at the Sebastopol Regional Library, but her resume of community involvement began seven years ago, when she started attending the parent club Padres Unidos at Roseland Elementary. The club allowed her to foster friendships with Latino parents in Santa Rosa and also got her involved with other organizations in the community, including LandPaths, a nonprofit that connects and educates Sonoma County residents about farming and nature, and the Roseland Community Building Initiative, a coalition of residents who work together to spearhead changes in their neighborhood.

Overall, Flores said she’d like to see relationship building among Sonoma County Latinos increase, especially as issues around drugs, gangs and fears over family separations continue to impact the community.

“It’s important to have that unity,” Flores said. “It will help us moving forward.”

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