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Gemma Bolanos said she used to feel like the lone "Mexican" living in a sea of white people in the city of Sonoma.

But then the Sonoma Valley High School junior began to notice a change.

"I feel like I blend in," she said. "Everything is coming together."

New census data shows that the number of Latinos living in Sonoma has more than doubled in the past decade. That in turn has fueled a near-doubling of the city's overall minority population — from 10.8 percent of residents in 2000, to 20.8 percent in 2010.

Sonoma is no longer the county's least diverse city. That title now belongs to Sebastopol, which has a minority population of 10 percent, according to the census.

Sonoma's changing demographics have presented opportunities and challenges for the city's 10,648 residents, the overwhelming majority of whom — 80 percent — are white.

Like almost every American city, Sonoma has struggled at times with its ethnic diversity.

In 1992, a black Sonoma businessman bought a full-page ad in the Sonoma Index-Tribune to protest what he viewed as racial stereotyping after he was repeatedly stopped by Sonoma police officers.

That led former Mayor Larry Murphy to create the Sonoma Cultural Awareness Committee, which met periodically until disbanding in 1994.

The relationship between minority residents and the city's police department, which now is run by the county Sheriff's Office, has improved since then, said Kara Reyes, director of family services for the non-profit La Luz Center.

But she said there's still room for improvement, including a need for more police officers who speak Spanish.

"It has been very difficult for both sides when they (police) don't have any Spanish-speakers," Reyes said.

Sonoma added 1,231 minorities during the past decade, including 1,009 Latinos, 143 Asians, 17 Native Americans and 17 African Americans.

Those numbers do not include Boyes Hot Springs or Agua Caliente, which are outside city limits.

Reyes, who is white, said she and her husband, who is Latino, recently moved from Boyes Hot Springs to the city of Sonoma. She said her husband is the only person of color on the block.

Nevertheless, Reyes said more efforts are being made at inclusion in Sonoma, citing as an example La Luz receiving an invitation from the organizers of the popular Tuesday night Farmer's Market, held at the downtown plaza, to help out on opening night.

"I've never seen the farmer's market reach out to the Latino community," Reyes said. "It's 95 percent white when you walk around the plaza."

She said Sonoma's diversity is mainly seen within the workforce that supports the city's tourism industry: the people who cook or serve the food, clean hotel rooms or work at wineries.

Father Adam Kotas, who leads Spanish-speaking services St. Francis Solano Church in Sonoma, said a number of his parishioners have reported living in apartments or homes with other families in an effort to make ends meet.

"They work in a car wash or restaurant making eight dollars an hour, and the rents around here are horrendous," Kotas said.

Kotas, who has been a priest for eight months, said St. Francis is struggling to keep up with the demand for services, and is considering adding another Mass for Spanish-speakers.

"We are swamped," he said.

Sonoma councilman Steve Barbose said the city has made strides in raising cultural awareness and celebrating diversity, citing as examples the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration and Katmandu Festival, which is a nod to the city's Nepalese population.

He said the city also has pledged $1.5 million and donated land for an affordable housing project that Berkeley developers hope to build on Sonoma Highway.

Barbose acknowledged that the city's relatively high cost of housing is a barrier to many people being able to afford living there.

Sonoma experienced a nearly 50 percent increase in the median price of an existing home sold in the city from 1999 to 2007, when the housing bubble burst. The median price for a home sold in 2009 was $400,000, down from about $700,000 in 2007, according to a Sonoma County Economic Development Board report.

In Sonoma there is a split between the more affluent east side of town and the west, Barbose said.

"I don't think there's a difference between east and west in terms of what's better, but who lives where," he said.

But longtime city councilman Ken Brown called notions of a divide "b.s."

"That might have been true 40 years ago, but now, if you live in Sonoma, your kids are going to Sassarini or Prestwood (elementary schools), unless you send them to the charter school or St. Francis," he said.

Sonoma's demographic changes have, however, led to new concentrations of non-white students at some of the city's schools. That's true at at Sassarini, where 75 percent of the student body is Latino.

A decade ago, it was 30 percent.

Principal Leticia Cruz said 68 percent of those students cannot read or speak English when they enroll at the school.

Cruz said she does not believe the school's demographic changes amount to parents of white children enrolling their kids elsewhere, in what is commonly referred to as "white flight." Rather, she said the community has embraced the changes.

"Parents come to me and say, &‘We are lucky to be here at Sassarini and provide all of our children an experience to learn different cultures and languages,'" she said.

Bolanos, who did not speak English when she moved to Sonoma from Mexico five years ago, can testify to the benefits of language programs.

She's president of the Keystone Club, a community service organization run by the Sonoma Valley Boys & Girls Club, and has aspirations of going to college and working in the field of criminal justice.

Despite her success, the drop-out rate for Latino students at Sonoma Valley High is about 11.7 percent, compared to about 4 percent for white students, according to California Department of Educatuion.

"That's why the community has made a real push to turn that around, and I think the club has played a pivotal role," said Dave Pier, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club.

Pier said the club for the first time last year served more Latino youth than whites. "These are kids who don't necessarily hang out together at the high school, but they come here around a common purpose," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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