‘I wouldn’t raise kids here’: Residents grapple with racism in Healdsburg
Healdsburg is the essence of Wine Country, a town that draws travelers from around the globe to feast at its farm-to-table restaurants, shop at its tony boutiques and visit some of California’s most renowned wineries.
But in recent weeks a hidden side of the town revealed itself, one that doesn’t appear in the tourist brochures, during a fiery debate over racism that led to the resignation of its mayor, Leah Gold, on Tuesday and thrust it into headlines far beyond the Russian River.
Gold angered some residents when she declined the request of a City Council member to schedule a discussion on the use of force by Healdsburg police officers in the line of duty. “To me, it’s a solution looking for a problem,” Gold said. “I don’t see that that’s a place I particularly want to put our time and energy.”
“We don’t have this issue in our town,” Vice Mayor Evelyn Mitchell added.
Mitchell quickly backed away from her comments. Gold hesitated. And while the then-mayor insisted she was referring specifically to police abuses, critics interpreted her words more broadly. To them, Gold’s reaction was one more example of white blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence of systemic bias and racism in America.
Over the past week, The Press Democrat spoke to people of color in Healdsburg, a town of nearly 12,000 residents that is about 30% Latino - the third-highest concentration of Latinos among the county’s nine cities, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. Their message, and the message of others who discussed the issue but declined to be interviewed on the record, was unified: Racism exists here, in forms both subtle and blatant.
None argued that Healdsburg is more bigoted than other small towns in Wine Country. In fact, that’s part of their exasperation. These experiences are happening virtually everywhere in America, all the time, symptoms of the dual realities of life faced by people of color and white people in 2020.
Everyday slights:?‘People ask me if I live here’
Not all racism involves the burning of crosses and desecration of synagogues. Communities of color in America have long noted the weighty burden of petty remarks, subtle jabs and suspicious looks - all of the things that can make someone feel like a second-class citizen.
Tomas Morales, 41, and the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Healdsburg, owns a house there now and works for the county in the Department of Transportation & Public Works. Kiley Clark is a Black woman who lives in Healdsburg and works on a farm in Sebastopol. Skylaer Palacios, 25, was Miss Sonoma County in 2014; she identifies as Black, Latina and Native American (Arawak), and is currently sheltering with her parents in Healdsburg.
Morales: “Growing up with my family, their English wasn’t great. I was raised in Dry Creek Valley. My dad was a vineyard foreman for an Italian family. It started from there, honestly. Every time we went into town, from the local barbershop to the grocery store, people made comments because my parents didn’t speak English well.”
Palacios: “My family has had the police called on us a few times for frivolous reasons. On one occasion someone had reported my license plate, saying my car was speeding through the high school parking lot. I did drive through the lot that night, but I know I was not speeding. There are several speed bumps and I was with my father, who is adamant about safe driving. It was then that I realized simply existing was offensive to some members of our community.”
Clark: “People ask me if I live here all the time. Especially when I walk around Fitch Mountain, near where I live. People I pass will ask me, ‘Where do you live?’ I give them my address but they don’t give me their address in return. I even had one experience where a woman walked into my house and asked me, am I sure I live here? I was like, ‘Who are you?’?”
Palacios: “My brother graduated from Healdsburg High School in 2009. As my mother and I were discussing where to sit on the bleachers before the ceremony began, a woman who was seated said, ‘speak English.’ My mother gave her a mean mug and I may have laughed since we were speaking English. I can only imagine that she just saw our skin color and needed to find something to say to try and diminish us.”
Signs of oppression: ‘There were a lot of swastikas’
Even in Sonoma County, a place that San Francisco political consultant David Latterman described as “a perfectly respectable liberal county” in a 2012 Press Democrat interview, darker-skinned people can’t escape constant reminders of the pockets of hate that flourish among them. Cristal Perez, 20, is a Sonoma State criminology and criminal justice major who grew up in Healdsburg.