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Racial isolation dominates US towns with immigrants

WATSONVILLE, California -- 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 U.S. may change as non-Hispanic whites become a minority in the coming months.

Like most U.S. towns, Watsonville has been formed by waves of immigrants, Croats, Portuguese, Filipinos and Japanese, each arriving with their own language, customs and cuisine. The current surge of Hispanics has brought a Latin American influence.

“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.

Hans Johnson at the Public Policy Institute of California said there are signs of increasing residential segregation, but that that becomes a problem only when places that are highly segregated end up becoming economically depressed for generations of immigrants.

“Here I would say the track record in California has been, so far, that we see pretty strong improvements from the first generation to second generation,” he said.

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Women and children walk along Main Street in Watsonville, California on July 19. In the bricked plaza, strolling musicians wearing glitzy cowboy outfits blast a mariachi song while Spanish-speaking shoppers bustle between farm stands choosing tasty cactus leaves and fresh chiles. (AP)

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