What does it mean to be Latino in Sonoma County?
Robert Montes remembers when he was the “only Mexican kid” in Cloverdale, back when Latinos were a much smaller share of Sonoma County’s population.
The 44-year-old, first-generation Mexican-American said the term “Mexican,” for many in Sonoma County, still elicits an image of someone who recently crossed the border and works in the fields. When Montes tells people he’s “Mexican,” some respond by saying he’s not like every other Mexican.
“It’s like, ‘why not?’?” he said, noting that he speaks Spanish and eats Mexican food “like all my raza,” using the Spanish word for people. “What makes me any different?”
But Montes, who is director of payroll and human resources at Redwood Empire Sawmills, where his father was millwright before he retired, is different. He’s part of a swelling Latino population that has grown beyond stereotypes and narrow definitions. Increasingly, the term has begun to encompass people from diverse Latin American countries, as well as from various socio-economic and educational backgrounds.
North Coast Latinos like Montes are breaking stereotypes, expanding what it means to be Latino or Mexican-American in Sonoma County.
“There are so many labels nowadays, I’m even confused,” he said.
As the Latino population becomes more diverse both ethnically and economically, a litany of questions arises: What does mean to be Latino? Is it the same as Hispanic? Why is a Brazilian immigrant considered a Latino but not Hispanic? Why do some recent arrivals from Latin America at first reject the term but later embrace it?
The answers lie within a story of migration, of heritage and assimilation, one that is having a profound impact on the broader North Coast community, from education to business and economics.
“We’re not that simple as a group. We’re complicated and diverse,” said Rachel Valenzuela, director of student services for the Mark West Union School District. “The Latino experience can’t easily be summed up, and it’s evolving.”
Latinos of all races now comprise 25 percent of the population in Sonoma County, or almost 123,000 people in a county of nearly 488,000 residents. In Santa Rosa, with a population of 169,000, Latinos number nearly 50,000 residents, or 29 percent of the city’s population.
Local schools, where Latinos make up 44 percent of the population, offer a window on Sonoma County’s future. In Santa Rosa City School District, half of the students are Latino while whites make up only 35 percent of the student body.
People of Mexican descent are by far the largest segment of Sonoma County’s Latino population, accounting for 85 percent of the Latino cohort. But in the past few decades, the Latino diaspora has become increasingly non-Mexican.
While their numbers are small compared to the local Mexican and Mexican-American populations, the number of Latino immigrants from places such as Peru, the Dominican Republic and Honduras grew at a faster clip than the “Mexican” group.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the number of Latinos of Mexican descent grew only 15.5 percent in Sonoma County over a five-year period ending in 2013. The figure, which includes immigrants from Mexico and people of Mexican heritage born in the United States, amounts to an increase of about 14,000 residents.
In contrast, residents of Dominican descent increased 301 percent, from only 48 people in 2009 to 193 in 2013. Latinos of Honduran descent grew by 122 percent, from 182 to 405 residents during that time period.
The number of county residents of Salvadoran heritage nearly doubled from 2,445 to 4,732. And the number of Peruvian Latinos grew from 471 to 768.
The growing diversity of Sonoma County’s Latino population defies traditional stereotypes. Even among the county’s very large Mexican and Mexican-American population, cultural diversity abounds, creating hybrid experiences that echo America’s immigrant past.
A first-generation Mexican-American, Montes said his parents are from “the old country.” His mother is from the state of Guanajuato, and his father is from the state of Zacatecas. Montes was born in Healdsburg and grew up in Cloverdale.
He said he has been called “Americanized” because he doesn’t fit conventional stereotypes, such as speaking English with a Mexican accent, lacking education or working as a farmworker or laborer. And though he worked in the fields as a youth, his trajectory into the middle class did not include abandoning his heritage, but rather creating his own blend of it.
In fact, Montes said he’s trying to preserve it even after marrying someone outside his culture. His wife, Susan, grew up in Bellshill, a town just east of Glasgow, Scotland. He met her at a dance club in Petaluma through mutual friends.