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In Calif. town, immigration brings more racial isolation

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — 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 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.

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The town of 52,000 is 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 1 out of 5 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 a possible indication of 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.’’ About 82 percent of the residents are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

“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, he said.

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. Watsonville now has a 23 percent unemployment rate, and poverty rates twice as high as the rest of California.

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