What does it mean to be Latino in Sonoma County?

The answer lies within a story of migration, of heritage and assimilation, one that is having a profound impact on the North Coast as the Latino population becomes more diverse both ethnically and economically.|

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.

Defying stereotypes

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.

His sons are Liam Patricio and Rowen Anacleto, whose second names are taken from his grandfathers. Liam goes to Cali Calmecac Language Academy, a bilingual school in Windsor.

“I want my kids to grow up and learn the language and learn the culture as well,” he said. “I’m preparing them right now. There’s always going to be a need for bilingual people, so let’s start preparing them right now.”

The evolution of the local Latino community echoes historic changes that have transformed Latino communities in Southern California and the Central Valley. First generations beget second and third generations, and newcomers are increasingly more diverse, more urban and, in some cases, more educated than previous.

For some Latinos, the culture and language of their parents dissipates with each generation. Others, like Montes’ family, make concerted efforts to hold on to traditions, even when they marry outside their culture. Though there are commonalities, the way Latinos view themselves and their cultural identity can vary widely, depending on who you ask.

Francisco Vazquez, a Sonoma State University professor and director of the school’s Hutchins Institute for Public Policy Studies and Community Action, said that the Latino identity is forged both externally and internally.

He said that from the outside, some Anglo-Americans have historically associated the label with dark skin, broken English spoken with a Spanish accent, poverty and a lack of education. From the inside, he said, those of Latin American heritage have used the term Latino to reaffirm their identity in a larger community.

“It’s formed from the outside by the way people look at you,” Vazquez said. “I don’t go around thinking of myself Latino or Mexican. I think about it when people call it to my attention. ... You have the identity that’s been imposed from the outside that robs you of your dignity. The other, from the inside, asserts your dignity.”

Resisting labels

Recent arrivals from Latin America often resist the labels “Latino” or “Hispanic,” identifying instead with their nationality. But many start to refer to themselves as Latino after living in the United States for a period of time. The term acts as a shield, Vazquez said, a unifying force among mostly Spanish-speaking people with diverse backgrounds who share a common experience with stereotypes, discrimination and racism.

Latino is often preferred by those of Latin American descent in the United States. Some Latinos have a strong aversion to the term Hispanic, which describes people from Spanish-speaking countries and has a stronger association with colonial-era Spain.

To make matters more complicated, some Latin American countries do not speak Spanish. People from Haiti, the first Latin American country to gain independence, speak French and Haitian Creole. In Brazil, the official language is Portuguese.

Aside from his academic duties, Vazquez is an active member of Los Cien, a group of Sonoma County Latino leaders that meets periodically to discuss issues affecting local Latino communities, such as education, electoral representation, small business opportunities and conflicts between law enforcement and the Latino community.

Like other Latinos eager to highlight the community’s history in Sonoma County, Vazquez points out that the region was Spanish and later Mexican territory before it became part of the United States.

Of course, the area’s first settlers were Native Americans, Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, whose cultures date back thousands of years.

Under Spanish and Mexican rule, Sonoma County and the rest of Northern California didn’t experience as big an influx of Spanish and Mexican settlers as did Southern California. Most Latinos of Mexican descent came to Northern California during the 20th century, especially after World War II and the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican guest workers into the United States on short-term labor contracts.

When George Ortiz first came to Sonoma County in 1964, he “didn’t even know there were Mexicans here,” he said. Ortiz, a longtime Sonoma County Latino activist who founded the organization that would later become the California Human Development Corp., was living in Novato with his in-laws, working in construction.

Ortiz, a college-educated Mexican-American who served in the U.S. Army in Germany in 1957 and 1958, first starting working as a social worker doing outreach to farmworkers in Sonoma County. Ortiz soon became a bridge between county social services and the growing Latino Spanish-speaking community.

Working with farmworkers and other impoverished Latinos, Ortiz began conducting citizenship and English classes. With the help of Rafael Morales and Catholic priest Jerry Cox, Ortiz helped found Latinos Unidos of Sonoma County, a nonprofit group that granted college scholarships, advocated for poor working families and served other needs in the immigrant community.

This was the start of modern Latino civil society in Sonoma County, he said.

When Ortiz first came to Sonoma County, he viewed himself as “Mexican or Mexican-American.” But after Cox paid Ortiz’s travel and attendance fees to attend a Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) convention in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, Ortiz said he discovered himself. “I came back full of gas, man,” he said.

“Actually, what I really call myself is an American of Mexican descent,” Ortiz said.

Embracing experience

Celssy Valencia, 17, of Santa Rosa said she felt somewhat “embarrassed” to be labeled Latina or Mexican when she was young because of negative stereotypes. The Roseland University Prep senior said she has worked hard to overcome these stereotypes and find pride in her experience.

Latinos in the United States, she said, are a diverse group that, aside from language, share one thing in common.

“I can only speak for one group. Not all of us have the same challenges or backgrounds, but we do carry the same stereotypes,” she said.

Over the summer, Valencia traveled to Paraguay as a youth ambassador with Amigos de las Américas, an international nonprofit that builds leadership skills through immersion in cross-cultural experiences. She quickly learned the provincial nature of the term Latino, which Paraguayans resisted.

“Over there, they immediately corrected me and said ‘no we don’t use the term Latino, we’re Paraguayan,’” she said, adding that the term she most identifies with is “Chicana” because she feels like she’s creating her own identity.

“It’s like you’re Mexican with a twist,” she said. “You didn’t emigrate yourself, this is your home too, you are American too.”

In some cases, Latinos find their Latino identity through a different Latin American culture.

Herman Hernandez, Guerneville community leader and chairman of Los Cien, the Latino leadership group, grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District and never gave much thought to his identity. His father, who was from El Salvador, and his mother, from Germany, met in 1938 at Golden Gate College, learning how to speak English.

The two got married the following year and moved to El Salvador in 1940 because of the war. By the time they came back to the States after the war, Hernandez’s German mother was fluent in Spanish.

“My mother was the one that spoke the Spanish in the house ... my father would speak English,” he said, adding that he grew up on Salvadoran mainstays like pupusas and yucca and German favorites like sauerkraut and sausage.

He didn’t identify as Latino until after he met his wife, who is from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, in Mexico and brought her to Guerneville. He went on to develop strong ties with his wife’s Mexican culture, reinforced with each trip the couple and their children took to Mexico.

“It was raising my children and living it as a family culture,” he said. “A lot of me really grew up in the trips and in the living and being in the culture in Mexico.”

Hernandez said reinforcing a positive identity for Sonoma County Latinos is part of what Los Cien is about.

“It’s creating awareness in our community of the Latino community,” he said. “Today, I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of the culture and the tradition and what it means as a community.”

A part of something larger

Rachel Valenzuela, the Mark West Union School District educator, grew up in southwest Santa Rosa’s Moorland neighborhood. Valenzuela, whose maiden name is Lemus, grew up in a well-known Mexican-American clan that prizes education and community involvement. Their identity was forged through inclusion.

“For us, it meant we were of Mexican descent but born in the United States,” she said. “It also meant that we were aware of our cultures and embraced both cultures, and that we continued to work toward bettering our lives and the lives of those just like us, the Latino community at large.”

Valenzuela graduated from the UC Berkeley and worked as a bilingual teacher and then a school psychologist in Southern California. She returned to Sonoma County in 1996.

That’s when she noticed how the local Latino community had changed.

“It was at that point that I realized I couldn’t assume that all the Latinos in Sonoma County were Mexican,” she said.

Her own identity didn’t change, she just realized that she had become a part of something larger. She noticed that the term Latino was more widely used and started using it herself.

Still, she said, there is no one thing that truly encompasses all Latinos.

“There are commonalities among the Spanish-speaking Latinos, but there also are some differences, so it’s difficult to find an all-encompassing term,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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