Martha Mendoza, Associated Press, December 28, 2013
In a grassy downtown plaza, strolling musicians wearing glitzy cowboy outfits blast a mariachi song, while Spanish-speaking shoppers bustle between farm stands, sampling tart cactus leaves, sniffing roasting chilies and buying bundles of warm pork tamales.
The scene is an increasingly typical one in towns across California, where Hispanics are on pace to become the largest ethnic group next year. And Watsonville is but one of dozens of California communities where Hispanics outnumber whites.
The town of 52,000 on the picturesque Central Coast, where good soil and pleasant weather enrich crops of strawberries and lettuce, and a driven and determined low-wage workforce fuels small factories producing everything from high-end shock absorbers to handcrafted glassware.
Spanish is spoken in most homes and businesses in town, and one out of five households is linguistically isolated, meaning no one over 14 speaks English.
Rising immigration hasn’t made Watsonville more diverse; it is a community heading toward racial isolation, a growing phenomenon in a state that offers one possible look at how the nation may change as non-Hispanic whites become a minority in the coming months.
“For me, downtown Watsonville is like being in a small Mexican town,” said Oscar Rios, who was Watsonville’s first Latino mayor. “Everyone speaks Spanish. The restaurants are Mexican. It’s got a very different feel than a traditional American town.”
Rios came into office after a landmark voting rights case 25 years ago deemed Watsonville’s at-large election system discriminatory and mandated district elections to end all-white political leadership. At the time, 50 percent of the residents were Hispanic.
Today, 82 percent are either immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, mostly from Mexico but also elsewhere in Latin America.
“Communities where Latinos live are becoming more and more Latino over time,” said Brown University sociologist John Logan. “And as more Latinos arrive, they’re still living in very separate neighborhoods.”
But predominantly white neighborhoods are also seeing an influx of Latinos, Logan said.
Watsonville, where 40 percent of the residents are foreign born, is in the early phase of the transformation. The community has a 23 percent unemployment rate, and poverty rates twice as high as the rest of California.
At the courthouse on the corner, interpreters are at work in all four courtrooms, helping judges and lawyers communicate with clients dealing with everything from divorce settlements to murder charges. At the public library, laughter, stories and music ring out from Bilingual Toddler Time.
Current Mayor Lowell Hurst, who is not Hispanic, said in his 30 years in Watsonville, the community has changed a lot.
“We have more people that probably lack legal status and that means more people that are really kind of living in the shadows,” he said. “Certainly there’s been white flight from this city as people’s economic status improves and they wish to have better opportunities.
He added: “But do people flee because of race or language? I don’t know.”