People in Santa Rosa have held march after march in the two weeks since a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed Santa Rosa eighth-grader Andy Lopez. One theme that’s emerged during the protests is what many say is a deep gulf between Sonoma County’s Latino residents and the rest of the community.
Professor Francisco Vazquez, a historian at Sonoma State University, says he knows why the Lopez killing has sparked anger among Latino residents. Vasquez has lived in the county for 30 years, some of that in the largely Latino Roseland neighborhood where the boy was shot.
“When you live day in and day out a lot of violations to your own human dignity and there’s really no outlets, then when an incident like this shooting happens, then all hell breaks loose,” he says. “And then people from the outside who don’t take part of this experience are surprised and shocked.” Vazquez says those indignities can be personal, like getting poor customer service at stores when he’s not dressed professionally. But they can also be systemic. Latinos in Sonoma County are half as likely as those in the rest of the state to graduate with necessary courses to go on to a four-year university. And Latinos are three times more likely to be living in poverty compared to other county residents.
Politically, despite making up a quarter of Santa Rosa’s population, there was no Latino representative on the City Council until 2008.
A group of Latino leaders are working to change issues around representation. Los Cien is a local group that is working within the community to help groom future leaders and build unity, says the group’s founder, Herman Hernandez.
One member of Los Cien is Wanda Tapia. She showed me around Roseland, the neighborhood where she raised her kids. It’s where most of Santa Rosa Latinos live, on the city’s west side.
“I know some of the mindset of walking into a store and people looking at you because they think you’re going to steal something,” she says. “I’m not going to steal anything, I have enough money, you know?”
Tapia sits on several community boards, like the Chamber of Commerce, and is the cofounder of Latino Service Providers. She attended one of the marches to protest Andy Lopez’s killing, the first time she was moved to go to a political rally.
Tapia says some changes need to come from institutions: educating law enforcement about the community, addressing inequities in the school system. And some changes are needed to improve basic infrastructure in the Roseland district. She points out the lack of lighting.
“As you can see, there is only one side you can walk on this road,” Tapia says. “There are young people walking through here all the time and we really need to make it a safer place for them.”
George Ortiz has lived in Sonoma County since 1964, when he took a job as a social worker to field laborers. Soon after, Ortiz founded the community group California Human Development. He says the Lopez killing “breached the peace” for Latino residents.
“You know there are very good people and leaders on the white community side, there’s no question,” Ortiz says. “But we’re a very big segment of the population, we speak Spanish, our culture is different, our viewpoints are not quite the same.”
Ortiz says by and large he’s been very happy in Sonoma County. But he says the Lopez shooting is a reminder of the problems Latinos face: “We are not looked upon as people who are bona fide residents and citizen of this community, which I take great exception to.”
Santa Rosa Mayor Scott Bartley says he doesn’t perceive racial tensions in the city. But he says he wants to hear from residents in a series of community forums organized after the Lopez shooting.
“There are probably 100 issues tied into this,” he says. “And we need to hear what those issues are and then we need to decide how does government address them, how does government interact with them.”
He adds: “You want to say, well, it’s not me. Well, it is all of us, as a community.”
At the field where Lopez died, residents have built a giant Day of the Dead altar draped in white. The fragrance of votive candles hangs in the air. Nearby are a small plastic slide and playhouse, set up so kids could play at the site.
Eliseo Avalos watches his 2-year-old daughter play on the slide, and points out there are no parks in his neighborhood.
“There isn’t a park here within walking distance — you have to drive,” he says. “I think the kids can use a park here especially if their parents are working or can’t drive them.”
Avalos is helping keep the candles lit for Andy Lopez. And he’s been heartened by the outpouring of support. He says he hopes something good, whether it’s a playground or greater understanding in the community, comes out of the tragedy.