The 266th pope's native language and continent — as well as his affinity for the less fortunate — have struck a chord in the hearts of Spanish-speaking Catholics on the North Coast, forging an instant bond between them and their spiritual leader.

"It's very important," said Cristina Becerra of Santa Rosa, a parishioner at St. Rose Church, speaking in Spanish.

"Because of the language, he is going to speak to us," said Becerra, a native of Mexico. She said she cried when she heard last week that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina had been elected to the papacy.

"It made me so happy," she said, putting her hand on her chest. "I put it on Facebook: 'We have a Latin American pope.'"

Bergoglio, who as pontiff took the name Francis when he was elected Wednesday, after St. Francis of Assisi, is the first Latin American to lead the church. As such, he carries a deep symbolism for worshipers from Latin America, St. Rose Pastor Mario Valencia said Saturday.

"It's like the president, Obama, he represents the first African-American president," Valencia said. "Wow, that is like the maturity of democracy. A Latin American pope represents the maturity of spirituality; everyone is equal before God."

Antonio Tamayo of San Jose put it another way.

"We made history," he said, as he and his family arrived for the 7 p.m. Mass at Windsor's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

For churchgoers of Mexican origin, who are the bulk of Latino Catholics on the North Coast, that Argentina is some 4,000 miles from their native country mattered little.

"We probably think about the same because there's not a lot of difference between the cultures of Mexico and Argentina," said Edgar Camacho, a Guanajuato native at St. Rose Church on Saturday.

Nor did it matter that Francis' ethnic roots are Italian.

"I'm happy even though I knew he was descended from Italy, because he identifies more with our culture," said Veronica Martinez of Windsor, speaking in Spanish.

The election of the first pontiff from the Southern Hemisphere could also have a unifying effect on the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Martinez said.

"I believe it makes a mix of both sides of the world," she said before the Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass.

She was one of several Catholics interviewed for whom the significance of a Latin American pope was twinned with a broader appreciation of what Francis — who has pronounced his allegiance to the poor — brings to their faith and a church that lately has been beset by controversy.

"The way his humbleness and his history is, that I think is what we need," said Tamayo's wife, Alma, who grew up in Santa Rosa. "Someone who can identify with us as Latins and also as humble people who don't have as much as other people."

"A lot of people say the Catholic religion is breaking down a bit, and he will make it all together again, because of who he is," her husband added.

Francis' message will resonate with the many thousands of North Coast Latino immigrants partly because he speaks their language, said Maria Elena Perez, a choir member at Our Lady of Guadalupe, but more so because of what he says.

"I think he'll speak about, 'Have faith, for all those people who are immigrants; you're poor here, you were poor in Mexico, but have faith, it will all work out,'" Perez said.

"I think it matters a lot to them because he will understand their needs," Perez said. "But it doesn't really matter to us; it's more about what's in his heart. His love for the poor. For the rich. The warmth and humility he brings."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.