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Cloverdale’s new mayor makes history ... again

Latino Living

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At first glance, the city of Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County and the town of Ceiba on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico may appear to have little in common.

But ask Cloverdale Mayor Marta Cruz, who grew up in Ceiba, and she’ll note many similarities.

Both communities are incredibly close-knit. “Everybody knows everybody,” Cruz said. Their residents hold great pride in where they come from and both celebrate their neighbors’ achievements, she said.

“It has its own life, its own history, and it has its spirit of collaboration and volunteerism,” Cruz, 64, said of Ceiba. “That essence of the community is what I find in Cloverdale.”

Those similarities were among the reasons Cruz felt so welcomed when she moved to Cloverdale in 2016 to join her husband, Mark Rincon Ibarra, who was hired to work as Cloverdale’s public works director and city engineer, Cruz said.

About a year and a half later, after finding virtually no Latino representation in the city’s government despite the Latino community’s large presence in town, she campaigned to sit on the Cloverdale City Council and won more votes than any other candidate come November 2018.

The election fixed Cruz’s place in Cloverdale’s history as the city’s first Latina councilwoman.

In December, the council chose her to be the city’s vice mayor, setting another first for the city. More than 20 people spoke during public comment in support of the appointment after word got out that Cruz might not garner enough support from her peers.

Then, the resignation of former Mayor Jason Turner earlier this month to pursue a professional opportunity led Cruz to make history once again, when she was selected by the council in a unanimous vote to fill Turner’s seat as mayor through the end of the term.

She’s the city’s first Latina to steer the council and one of very few women of color in the county’s history to carry the title.

Sonoma Vice Mayor Madolyn Agrimonti, who is part Mexican, served as that city’s mayor in 2018. The departure of Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey from the city council earlier this month means she will chair the twice-monthly council meetings until a council member is appointed to fill Harvey’s seat.

Windsor councilwoman Esther Lemus, who is Latina, nearly reached that milestone in 2019, though she was passed over to allow then-Mayor Dominic Foppoli a second term, a decision that spurred tense public discussion about the barriers women of color face in leadership positions.

On May 21, Foppoli resigned amid sexual assault and misconduct allegations leveled by several women, including Lemus.

“Yes, I represent change, but it’s positive change to continue to improve our community and to provide vision down the road,” Cruz said. “What is the legacy that we are going to leave our children? What about a legacy of a clean planet, where we are resourceful, where we are hopeful to have access to opportunities?”

Grassroots organizing

Cruz was late into her career when she was bitten by the political bug, though building community to affect change has been a recurring theme in her life.

That was true more than four decades ago, while she was student at Indiana University.

She transferred to the college in 1979 at age 21 while caring for two toddlers in city she didn’t know. That was not long after she divorced a man who had physically abused her, Cruz said.

In between studying, taking care of her young girls and working on campus, Cruz created the university’s first Latino organization, called Universitarios Hispanos.

The group was made up of students from Argentina, Mexico, Cuba and Texas, among other areas. They held cultural events and tried to boost awareness of the diversity that exists in Latin America.

They also partnered with Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a labor union representing migrant workers, to educate the community about the workers’ contributions to the local agricultural economy and the harsh work conditions they often faced, Cruz said.

“I needed to feel there was cultural diversity in my community,” Cruz said of why she organized the group. “We were there, but we were not talking to one another. I said, ‘Why not share this richness, this heritage, that is so much part of this country also?’”

She graduated with degrees in liberal arts and Spanish in 1983, then enrolled in the university’s master’s in literature program. She continued to organize with Latino students on campus while she completed the literature program and was recruited to help organize volunteers for the 1987 Pan American Games.

Undeterred by adversity

The training helped prepare her for work as a recruitment and training manager for the 1990 U.S. Census, Cruz said. That same year, her life came to an abrupt halt. One day, as she was driving, a man ran a red light and crashed into her car.

Latino Living

Read more stories celebrating the local Latino community here.

The injuries immobilized her for 12 months and required she go through intensive physical therapy. Cruz’s older sister helped her care for her two teenage girls as she recovered.

But the incident didn’t stop Cruz from pursuing a doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1991 as soon as she was well enough to move.

As she neared the completion of the program two years later, she was dealt another blow: One of her daughters had bipolar disorder and tried to kill herself. Cruz immediately withdrew from her classes.

“My whole world fell apart,” Cruz remembered. “I said, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

Despite the severity of the situation, she refused to crumble.

Her daughter went to a boarding school in southern Indiana, where she was happy. Cruz found work at the University of Michigan working with school administrators. Then, a university-related trip to Havana, Cuba, in 1993 put her in the path of her future husband, Rincon Ibarra, who she began dating six months after returning home.

She moved to California in 1995 to join him and was hired to teach Spanish at the University of San Francisco. The pair were married a year later in Puerto Rico, where they would eventually move at the start of 1998.

Cruz initially started as an assistant for the engineering firm where her husband worked, but she felt she was not challenged enough. Instead, she and her husband bought a 40-acre coffee plantation and she learned how to grow the bean and plant trees that are native to the area.

She also took up labor organizing with the area’s coffee workers, whose employers at one point were pocketing government-funded employee bonuses, Cruz said.

The couple stayed on the island for seven years before her husband’s job forced them to move to Indiana, then elsewhere in the United States and internationally.

They eventually landed in Santa Barbara in 2011, where Cruz got her first taste of working for campaigns for local politicians, including then-Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who now represents the region in the U.S. House of Representatives.

She liked the idea of promoting candidates she believed in and creating a sense of unity among local residents, Cruz said.

“It was very inspiring to see the result of all that grassroots movement,” Cruz said.

Her own campaign

Cruz followed her husband to Cloverdale in fall of 2016.

After receiving encouragement from her neighbor, then-Cloverdale Mayor Melanie Bagby, and the OK from the city attorney to vie for a seat on the Cloverdale City Council while her husband worked for the city, Cruz ran her own campaign for the first time.

Her message seemed to resonate with voters as she earned 25% of the vote, more than any other candidate.

She gradually expanded her participation in local groups throughout the region, signing on to serve on the board of Zero Waste Sonoma and the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women.

She was also among a small group of elected Latino officials in the state chosen to participate in a fellowship organized by Water Education for Latino Leaders, which educates these leaders about water issues in California, Cruz said.

Those experiences will help her as mayor, when her biggest hurdles will include the state’s worsening drought, homelessness and the toll the coronavirus pandemic has left on the city’s residents and business owners, Cruz said.

Though the challenges may be new to her, the strategy she’ll use to tackle them won’t be, she said.

“I approach the council and my community as a classroom,” Cruz said. “Where I teach and where I learn because it’s a mutual learning experience.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that Cruz attended Indiana University, grew coffee on a 40-acre plantation in Puerto Rico and consulted with the Cloverdale city attorney before deciding to run for the Cloverdale City Council.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   

 

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