By Gosia Wozniacka, Elliot Spagat and Amy Taxin
MADERA (AP) — Hilario Santiago Vasquez came to California during a surge of 1980s immigration to follow the crops from the Central Valley to Oregon to Florida. Along the way, he picked grapes, blueberries and oranges.
“I slept under the bridge, covering myself with a newspaper, because there was no housing to rent for farmworkers,” he said.
Santiago Vasquez, one of millions who helped Hispanics become California’s largest racial or ethnic group, no longer chases harvests.
Like many other Mexican farmworkers, he found permanent work. He now lives in Madera, a town north of Fresno where 80 percent of the 61,000 residents are Latino and the downtown is packed with Mexican restaurants and stores that sell cowboy boots and tortillas.
His story illustrates a reality for California Hispanics: With the immigrant boom ending long ago, they are older and more settled than elsewhere. As a result, they have relatively high rates of home ownership, rising incomes and are better educated.
“We’re running 15 to 20 years ahead of the nation,” said Dowell Myers, a demography and urban planning professor at the University of Southern California. “California has a large population of second-generation children who are now coming of age. The rest of the country doesn’t have that.”
As California joins New Mexico next year as the only other state where Latinos make up the largest racial or ethnic group, other regions of the country are seeing stronger growth. New Latino arrivals are reshaping the Midwest and South, just as they did California a generation ago.
Santiago Vasquez, 47, fled after Mexico’s economy collapsed in 1982, at the same time Central Americans abandoned their homes as civil wars spread. He came to California in 1985 to work in the fields, following other migrants who were pushed north by poverty from villages in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
They poured into Los Angeles’ Koreatown, San Francisco’s Mission District and other urban enclaves, joining Hispanics who came to California in previous generations — some tracing their roots back to when the state was part of Mexico. The new arrivals told friends and family back home that jobs were waiting.
Rosa Lopez, 45, was one of them. She knew she wasn’t cut out for hard labor on her family’s Oaxacan ranch when she followed her cousin to San Diego 25 years ago. “Once I arrived here, I never thought about going back,” said Lopez, who eventually got a green card through her husband and became an American citizen.
As defense jobs dwindled in the aftermath of the Cold War, however, and the 1990s recession hit harder than other states, new arrivals from Mexico and Central American increasingly shunned California for states where job prospects were better and housing was cheaper.
The number of people living in Iowa illegally tripled from 2000 to 2010, nearly doubled in Ohio and surged 55 percent in North Carolina, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“Once there’s an immigrant beachhead, other people move in … In the South, first people broke the ice and others followed,” said Manuel Pastor, director of USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
In California, the previous generation of Hispanic immigrants transformed communities such as Madera. Latino farmworkers settled near downtown, as whites moved to suburban subdivisions.
Santiago Vasquez brought his wife and three daughters from Mexico in 2002, and rented an apartment downtown. He ended his annual tradition of picking blueberries in Oregon a few summers later and found a year-round job with a company that grows almonds and pistachios.
A lack of temporary housing in other states discouraged farmworkers like Santiago from chasing the harvests, said Philip Martin, professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis. Some farmworkers settled in states such as Oregon and Washington, meaning fewer migrants were needed.
Santiago Vasquez earns about $11,000 a year, a reminder that Latinos lag other groups on the income ladder. Latinos had a median household income of $44,401 in 2011 — well below the statewide median of $58,328. Many work in low-skilled jobs.
Lopez makes about $32,000 a year cleaning offices seven days a week in San Diego. Despite her financial struggles, she recently bought a three-bedroom condominium. Sixty percent of California Latinos who have been in the U.S. at least 30 years are homeowners, six points above the state average, according to USC’s Myers.
“I wasn’t thinking of buying, but then I can’t be throwing my money into the trash,” she said.
Lopez didn’t finish high school in Mexico. Her children attend San Diego State University and community college. California’s high school dropout rate among Hispanics is 16.2 percent in 2012 — compared to 13.2 percent overall — but the education gap is closing.
Marjorie Garcia, 36, worked three jobs to put herself through Cal State Northridge and now practices entertainment law in Los Angeles. It is a far cry from her childhood in a rough neighborhood of Los Angeles’ Panorama City area, where her family rented a two-bedroom apartment.
Her father came to California from Mexico when he was 18 and her mother came from Guatemala when she was 15, and both stayed illegally. He worked as a Thai restaurant busboy and wait staff supervisor at the Los Angeles Country Club. She cleaned houses.
“I feel like I did what I was supposed to do,” said Garcia, whose parents had only an elementary school education. “You’re supposed to go to school and get educated.”
Omar Martinez, the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up bilingual and bicultural in suburban Los Angeles, is an American success story. As a teenager, he listened more to Milli Vanilli than the Mexican music of his parents but came to appreciate his family’s culture as he grew older.
Martinez still has family in Zacatecas state, and heads the Federation for Zacatecans in Southern California — a group that raises money for public works projects in the Mexican state. The organization was started by migrants to California years ago, and Martinez is the first American-born president of the group.
Now 42, he employs 50 people at Miravalle Foods in El Monte, which posted more than $7 million in revenues last year selling tamarind, curry, chiles and other Mexican cooking staples to supermarkets in California, Colorado and Utah. He is also raising four children to speak English and Spanish — and two of them are also learning Chinese.
“The other day they congratulated (my daughter) because she knows the numbers 1 to 100 in Chinese,” he said in his office overlooking a pungent warehouse as workers slapped stickers on boxes. “We think that’s going to be the future, right?”