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Sonoma County farmworker advocate receives prestigious award from Mexican Consulate

A Sonoma County social activist who helped establish a nonprofit that assists farmworkers, day laborers and their families throughout Northern California received Thursday one of the highest recognitions from the Mexican government.

George Ortiz accepted the Ohtli Award in front of more than 600 people gathered at Sonoma State University for the fifth annual State of the Latino Community forum, hosted by the leadership group Los Cien. The San Francisco-based Mexican Consul General Gemi José González López hand-delivered the accolade, bestowed to Latino leaders who make significant contributions to Mexican communities outside of the country.

“It’s beyond words for me to express my gratitude and the honor I feel in receiving this award. It’s something that I didn’t expect,” said Ortiz, who co-founded California Human Development Corp. in 1967 and is a son of Mexican immigrants.

The Santa Rosa-headquartered nonprofit offers job training for farmworkers, day laborers and other low-income families, as well as provides them with immigration and citizenship services. It also oversees more than ?500 affordable housing units for seasonal farmworkers.

The nonprofit previously named after Ortiz, 84, one of its farmworker housing complexes - Ortiz Plaza Family Apartments, located just north of Santa Rosa.

Ortiz’s commendation was just one of the highlights of the Thursday’s forum, a yearly get-together where elected officials, business and education leaders, and those in the nonprofit sector discuss issues affecting Sonoma County’s Latino community.

Los Cien, which was launched in 2009 when a small group met in a backroom of a Mary’s Pizza Shack, has grown to 1,500 members. Advancing education, civic engagement and youth leadership among Sonoma County’s Latino community are at the core of the group’s values, said Herman Hernandez, Los Cien board president and founding member.

“Part of it was our political leaders were making decisions about the Latino community without consulting the Latino community,” Hernandez said.

The lack of affordable housing in the region was among the main topics during Thursday’s forum.

One of the keynote speakers, Micah Weinberg, president of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, said the county’s housing outlook was especially grim when looking at the high number of housing cost-burdened families in Sonoma County.

He said 41 percent of all households paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing, the highest among all Bay Area counties, including San Francisco.

Marin has the ?second-highest rate, with 40 percent of its households spending a large portion of their income on housing.

The high number of jobs created in the Bay Area in the last decade far outpaces the rate at which housing is being built, exacerbating the housing problem, Weinberg said.

When paired with high rental and real estate costs, more workers are opting to commute to work from as far away as Solano and Sacramento counties.

“They are mega-?commuters coming and working minimum wage or just above minimum wage jobs every day,” Weinberg said. “That’s not economically sustainable for them, and that’s not economically sustainable for the region.”

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

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