Valley Public Radio - Live Audio

'Racial Isolation' A Growing Phenomenon

Jan 6, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 2:14 pm

In Watsonville, Calif., 82 percent of residents are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants, according to the Associated Press. It’s an example of what some are calling “racial isolation,” the phenomenon of a minority group living among others of the same race and language.

In Langley Park, Md., Mattawa, Wash., Mendota, Calif. and Sweetwater, Fla., immigrants who are not citizens now make up the majority. According to the U.S. Census, in more than 100 towns and cities in the U.S., immigrants who are not citizens make up 20 percent or more of the population.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Watsonville business owner Amalia Espinoza about how she’s seen the city change over the years. She then turns to Brown University sociology professor John Logan to discuss what happens when a community is isolated.


  • Amalia Espinoza, owner of Bella Salons in Watsonville, Calif.
  • John Logan, sociology professor at Brown University.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit



MAYOR KARINA CERVANTEZ: Hello, you have reached the mayor's office. (Speaking foreign language). Please note that we are...


That's a recording from Karina Cervantez, mayor of Watsonville, Calif., where 82 percent of the residents are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. And in 1 out of 5 homes, no one over 14 speaks English. It's being called linguistic isolation, and we're also starting to read the phrase racial isolation.

Watsonville at 82 percent is pretty extreme, but there's also Mattawa, Washington; Sweetwater, Florida. What happens when the majority of the residents of a town don't speak English, or what if they aren't citizens and can't vote?

Let's start in Watsonville. Amalia Espinoza is owner of Bella Salon and Spa. Her father came to the U.S. from Mexico to be a farm worker in the 1970s. She was born here. So Amalia, your sense of Watsonville being called, as it is, racially isolated?

AMALIA ESPINOZA: I don't feel that word isolated. I feel that we have a lot of second generation, and we have people that - like myself that speak fluent English. And to be isolated, I think it's kind of harsh for the city of Watsonville. I think we have surrounding areas that are - we intermingle with everyone.

YOUNG: So you're not feeling that. What about civic participation? We understand that Watsonville was part of a voting rights case 25 years ago. It changed the city's at-large system of voting to district elections and brought more representation. Do you get the sense that, you know, there's a concern in other towns that have the huge immigrant population that people aren't voting, for instance. Do you get the sense that they are in your town?

ESPINOZA: Yeah, I do believe that people are voting. You know, our city - I mean, I vote myself, and the constituents in my area, I mean, are very active voters. So - including the Latino-Hispanic community. I believe that we do have a voice in the city of Watsonville.

YOUNG: Well, there is 23 percent unemployment, the poverty rate twice that of California's, but public policy experts like Hans Johnson say that's only a problem when there aren't big leaps from the first generation to the second. Now your father, first in the country, as we said, a farm worker. But you own a salon. So...

ESPINOZA: I do own a business, and so does my father. He was a lettuce picker, and then from there he started his own business in landscaping, and he became a U.S. citizen.

YOUNG: Well, so you are definitely in your family seeing economic improvement. Again, that's what people say is the key to huge waves of immigrants moving through towns as Germans moved through Watsonville in the past. But the very first Latino mayor, Oscar Rios, who came out of that change in the election process, he was from El Salvador, he made those remarks on YouTube, where he said California belonged to us, meaning Mexico and Hispanics, and it was taken away, so we're taking it back.

What do you say to people who say, well, wait a second, all the signs in downtown Watsonville are Spanish? It's one thing to prosper, but you're still isolated if the preponderance of people are still only speaking Spanish. How do you get the education? How do you all get the jobs and change that 23 percent unemployment number unless there is more integration?

ESPINOZA: You know, we are a farm community. You know, we have Latino and Hispanic here in the United States that are taking these jobs. Nobody wants to pick strawberries or pick lettuce. So we are going to have a community that is temporary. You know, they're temporary workers that will come here while the work is good and then will head down south for six months out of the year when the agriculture at that time is not lucrative.

So I do notice Watsonville is growing. There has been progress from my dad's generation to myself, but it's a choice. It's a choice that you have to make.

YOUNG: That's Amalia Espinoza, owner of Bella Salon and Spa in Watsonville, California. Amalia, thank you.

ESPINOZA: Thank you very much.

YOUNG: Let's bring in John Logan, sociology professor at Brown University. He's at Rhode Island Public Radio. So professor, in Watsonville, one out of five families doesn't speak English. It's being called racially isolated. Here in Massachusetts, the Boston Globe points to Chelsea, Everett, Malden, towns in which up to a third of the residents aren't necessarily illegal, undocumented, but are not citizens. They're being called civically isolated.

In East Boston, half the residents couldn't vote on a recent casino referendum, they're not citizens. In Mattawa, Washington, the mayor won the last election with just 37 total votes, so few citizens. Suddenly you have civic life eroding.

JOHN LOGAN: Well, this is where I think there actually is an important issue. When minority groups who are disadvantaged in the labor market are highly concentrated in a large community or even in a neighborhood and face both a high level of poverty, problems of participation in public schools and performance in schools, high crime rates very often and - in addition a small percentage of them are actually citizens and have a right to influence the future of their community, then it's a community that is not in a position to pull itself up from its bootstraps, which is what we like to think of as the American way.

YOUNG: What we're understanding is that the phrase racial isolation is put on towns like Watsonville because the residents are isolated by language. They can't go outside the town if they're living in a town that entirely addresses all their needs in Spanish.

LOGAN: Yes, language is certainly one of the resources that makes a big difference for Hispanics. Towns like Watsonville have two kinds of disadvantages, first, a lot of people who don't speak English and are not citizens and possibly not documented; and secondly a labor market that is really not prospering.

You know, when you're dependent on farm worker labor as the primary kind of job, and it's seasonal, you can expect to have low rates of unemployment and people with non-minimum-wage jobs.

YOUNG: Well, does this make this different than other times in history when huge groups of immigrants came through and did labor-intensive jobs that other groups that had pulled themselves up one rung on the ladder didn't want to do? Is there something different going on?

LOGAN: Well, there are some historical parallels. There was a time when most German immigrants in the United States spoke German, and most Russian immigrants in the United States spoke Yiddish, and they went to schools where those languages were primarily used.

The difference is that they came to the country with either literacy or other kinds of working skills, and they were able to develop an ethnic economy that really supported them. And Mexicans in California are moving into a labor market where the opportunities for moving forward are quite limited.

YOUNG: Well, and that brings us back to the citizenry. Again, there's two issues here. One is immigrants who may not speak the language, and the other is whether or not they are citizens. We know this is a huge debate in Congress, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But again, as we heard in the Hispanic population that often comes in and out of the U.S., some are electing not to be citizens.

So how important is it that an immigrant population not only speak the language but civically participate, which gives them power?

LOGAN: Well, I certainly think that for those people who can become citizens, there are a lot of benefits to doing that, and there are a lot of benefits to the community if they become citizens and registered voters and they participate. And so I'm sorry to see that it's progressing slowly.

But we have to keep in mind that the majority of Mexicans, Mexican people, Mexican background in the United States, actually are born in the U.S., and they are citizens by birth. And so citizenship is not, in the long term, the question. The question is whether there are political mechanisms through which these people can participate and have their interests represented, and that's a question of political organization.

YOUNG: John Logan, sociology professor at Brown University. Professor Logan, thank you so much.

LOGAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.