About once a week, Santa Rosa resident Juan Roman drives to Roseland's Sebastopol Road to cruise the area in one of his lowrider cars.
From the driver's seat, the political consultant can hear the sound of Mexican music spilling out of small, family-owned shops and inhale the wafting smell of food prepared at “loncheras,” or food trucks, stationed nearby, he said.
Roman's interest in the customized vehicles sparked when he was a young child living in Santa Ana. An older neighborhood teenage girl jokingly offered to be his girlfriend if he gave her a ride in his uncle's lowrider, he said. Since then, he's built his own collection and has become an active member in the lowrider community in Sonoma County, where he's lived since he was about 4.
While he has made friendships through the hobby, it's also provided a means of connecting with his Chicano roots, he said.
“When I cruise down Sebastopol Road, I get the feeling like I'm home,” Roman said. “I feel like lowriding has connected me to our community.”
Roughly 135,000 Latinos live in Sonoma County, making up more than a quarter of the total population, U.S. Census figures show. It's a broad term that includes people from Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries or cultures, as well as those who trace their heritage to Mexico; it covers both recent undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens whose families have been here for generations.
National politics and changing demographics have put immigration and cultural identity at the forefront of national and regional conversations. As President Donald Trump presses his case for building a wall between the United States and Mexico and the federal government steps up immigration raids, many Latinos both locally and nationally have felt unfairly targeted and frustrated with the political climate. Separations of children from their parents at the U.S. border with Mexico have drawn sharp criticism from many Latinos.
Amid sometimes heated national discourse, Sonoma County Latinos are making their presence felt, whether it be in key positions in county or city departments, in elected office, as leaders in the business community or in their growing representation in the region's schools. They continue to play a large role in the county's workforce, whether as the backbone of the region's agriculture or in hospitals, construction sites or the hospitality industry.
Many of the people who were interviewed about what it is like to be Latino in Sonoma County said they felt represented and respected in the community, especially compared to decades ago. Then, Latinos lived in Sonoma County in smaller numbers, had virtually no representation in local politics and economic mobility was more limited given the type of jobs available to them.
“I've never felt oppressed,” said Monica Lopez, the co-owner of Aldina Vineyards in Santa Rosa. “I think I have a different outlook on the community because it's gotten better.”
Others, such as longtime Sonoma County resident and social activist George Ortiz, worry the area's soaring housing prices are putting Latinos from low-income households under threat of displacement more than in decades past. Many still face barriers to a better quality of life, such as access to good health care, education and high-paying jobs, Ortiz said.
“As much as things have changed, they haven't,” said Ortiz, 85. “We're the grunts of this community. We're not the CPAs or the attorneys.”