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Special coverage: Latino life in Sonoma County


La Prensa Sonoma: Visit our Spanish-speaking site at laprensasonoma.com

It can be a marathon to get everyone out the door in the mornings at Beatriz Camargo’s house — a seven-bedroom home in Cotati she shares with her husband, three kids, parents, two brothers, a sister and a golden retriever named Luna.

In a house with three generations under the same roof even the most mundane tasks, like getting ready for work, can be a challenge. But this family has their routine down.

Camargo is among the first to rise. She makes lunch for the kids while her husband and children get dressed and chomp down their breakfast. Her father typically is awake by then, getting ready for work at a local fish distributor. His wife then gets up to ready their 31-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who’s physically and developmentally disabled, for school. A bus picks her up each morning to take her to a Santa Rosa day program for people with special needs.

Mornings can be chaotic, said Camargo, coordinator of Santa Rosa Junior College’s High School Equivalency Program, which helps agricultural workers and their families earn their GED. However, it’s become easier over the years.

“We always respect everyone’s space,” said Camargo, 35, who has lived with extended family since she was a child. While it helps to share the bills, she said living in a multigenerational household is more about culture and unity.

“It’s that commitment (to family),” she said.

Multiple generations living under one roof is not a new phenomenon among Latino families, but it is on the rise in the United States.

The number of Americans living in households with at least two adult generations have doubled since 1980, said Richard Fry, a senior economist with the Washington-based Pew Research Center. The increase is, in part, due to the growing number of Latinos in the country.

Latinos are far more likely than whites to live in multigenerational households, Fry said. Almost one in four Latinos in the United States — or 24 percent — lived in multigenerational households in 2012, according to the latest data analyzed by Pew. By comparison, only 14 percent of non-Hispanic whites — or one in seven — lived in these kinds of households.

The trend reflects, in part, efforts by Latinos to preserve traditions from their descending countries.

“In Mexico and Central America, multigenerational living is pretty common,” he said.

It’s an arrangement Noemi Acosta has been familiar with since she was a child living in a small town in northern Michoacán, Mexico. She lived in the same house with her grandparents. Her great-grandparents lived a few doors down. She watched as her aunts and uncles cared for their ailing grandparents, which made a big impression on her.

Acosta, now married and with two children, ages 1 and 5, moved in with her parents and 20-year-old brother this past summer in Santa Rosa after living in Oxnard for three years. She said it was a struggle to be away from her close-knit family all that time.

“It was difficult for me not to have my parents’ support,” said Acosta, 29.

Her mother helps her with child care, giving Acosta the opportunity to study and work. Acosta, who recently obtained her high-school equivalency diploma, is taking English-language courses at SRJC and tutors students in the college’s HEP program.

“If she didn’t help me, I don’t think I would have gone to school,” Acosta said.

Pursuit of an education is one of the primary reasons Acosta and her husband decided to move in with her family, but her children also benefit from the living arrangement. They get to learn more about their culture and traditions by spending time with their grandparents and uncle, who speak to them in Spanish.

“They feel more loved,” Acosta said, referring to her kids. “It’s not just mom and dad. They’re surrounded by people who love them and make them feel more special.”

Meanwhile, Acosta said she and her husband help her parents with the rent, food and other bills, a huge help in a county with skyrocketing rents.

That financial support doesn’t come without its challenges, though.

The family must share the single bathroom in the house. Acosta has learned to shower at night and do her hair in her bedroom in the mornings to avoid battles over the restroom. Others have made similar sacrifices, she said.

“It surprises me that we’re not screaming ‘get out,’ ” Acosta said jokingly in Spanish. “We live in tight spaces and deal with some inconveniences, but we get a great satisfaction living (together).”

For Gisell Ambriz, the benefits of living with her family also outweigh the challenges. The 29-year-old moved into her parents’ home in Rohnert Park nine years ago just after the birth of her son. She and her husband were living in a small unit and thought it would be best to share the housing costs with her family.

Although she no longer has much privacy and feels obliged to ask her parents for permission to go out with friends, she and her son are surrounded constantly by love and support, which she heavily leaned on after her husband was deported to Mexico three years ago.

Ambriz, who is studying sociology at Sonoma State University, said her mother helps care for her son while she’s in class.

“I don’t know what I would do without my mom, especially since my husband is not here,” she said.

In 2014, there were more than 4 million households nationwide similar to the one Ambriz lives in, with at least three generations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 720,000 of those households were in California.

Multigenerational households provide more financial stability for families, said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group for multigenerational families. She said it eases the burden as more family members contribute to housing costs, allowing some to save money, for example, to buy their own house down the road.

Latinos who live in multigenerational households tend to have higher adjusted median incomes and are less likely to live in poverty, according to the Pew Research Center. It previously conducted a study that found Latinos who lived with multiple generations had median incomes of $46,000, roughly $7,000 higher than those under other living arrangements.

The number of people living in multigenerational households spiked nationwide during the economic downturn. It grew by more than 2 million people annually from 2007 to 2010, reaching 54.2 million in 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.

The numbers have continued to swell despite the economic upswing, rising to 56.8 million in 2012, Pew reported.

“They came together by need, and they stayed together by choice,” Butts said.

The numbers are expected to continue to grow as Latino and immigrant populations increase nationwide. Growth also is fueled by aging baby boomers, Butts said, with more families choosing to live together to care for aging relatives.

“Many don’t want to stick their parents into nursing homes,” she said. “We’re seeing more households expand because of care.”

Camargo, who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 9, plans to care for her mom and dad, who are in their 60s and 70s, respectively, at home when they get older.

“In our culture, it’s a given,” she said. “You don’t need to have that conversation.”

She said she’ll also care for her sister, Elizabeth. Knowing that brings comfort to her mom, Camargo said.

“We owe that commitment to my mom. When we needed her, she was always there for us,” Camargo said.

Camargo and her husband first moved in with her parents 15 years ago. They were newlyweds expecting their first child and turned to her mom and dad for support and guidance, Camargo said.

They planned to stay for a few weeks until the baby’s arrival, but they ended up living together for years.

Her mother and aunt, who at that time had just arrived from Mexico and moved in with the family, cared for her daughter while Camargo attended Santa Rosa Junior College.

“It was a great help,” said Camargo, who went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Sonoma State University. “I owe my mom a lot. If it wasn’t for her — and my aunt — I probably would have left school.”

That’s what families do, said her mother, Rosa Mendoza, an exuberant woman who enjoys throwing family parties at her home.

“We help one another,” said Mendoza, 60.

When Mendoza and her family first arrived in the United States in 1990, they had no relatives in the area or anywhere to live, she said. They ended up in a homeless shelter for several months, a particularly difficult experience for Mendoza and her daughter, Elizabeth, who then was 5 or 6 years old.

The shelter booted everyone out in the mornings, Mendoza said. No one was allowed to return until late in the day, so she and her daughter had to go sit in a park alone for hours while her husband was at work and the other children were at school.

She doesn’t want her children or any relative to live through that experience, which still haunts Mendoza. She has had many relatives live with her until they could get back on their own feet in this country. Her mother, who is in her early 80s and splits her time between the United States and Mexico, has her own bedroom in the house.

Her sister, Maria Teresa McClure, 58, lived with her for several years before getting married and moving out 14 years ago. Although McClure now lives with her husband, she is only a few minutes away from her sister, whom she visits frequently.

“That’s something our parents taught us, to be united,” McClure said.

Mendoza doesn’t mind the noise and chaos that comes with running a large household. She can’t wait for the kids to return home after school each day and hear them laugh and run through the home.

“I need them,” she said. “I’m just waiting to see when they return home.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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