The San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Latino populations in the country -- and it's growing rapidly, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report released Thursday.
The center, which researches trends among Latinos, found California has the largest Latino population in the country. Most California Latinos live in Los Angeles and throughout the San Joaquin Valley, where their cultural and commercial influence is apparent. Latino leaders hope recognizing the population shift will encourage Latinos to become more engaged in a community that increasingly reflects the face they see in the mirror.
The study also found Latino population growth this decade stems more from reproduction than immigration.
Balvino Irizarry, president of the Modesto-based Hispanic Leadership Council, wasn't surprised.
"They came for jobs local people don't seem to be willing to do. Once you get here, there's no incentive to go back. So you settle and raise your family here," he said. "It's harder and more expensive to immigrate now."
Much of the Latino population growth this decade has been in small and midsized towns and suburbs, a change, according to the report, which is based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates. It's unclear why, said author Richard Fry, a senior research associate at the Pew Hispanic Center.
"We just know they pursue vigorous labor markets," Fry said.
Stanislaus County's Latino population grew by 41 percent from 2000 to 2007. San Joaquin and Sacramento counties also have some of the fastest Latino population growth rates. Most other counties with fast Latino population growth rates mentioned in the report began with comparatively small La-tino populations.
Businesses take notice
"I don't see things slowing down," Irizarry said. "So we need to deal now with the problems in the Latino community because those problems are going to be the whole community's problems."
Valley businesses have been paying attention to the Latino population spike.
Grocery chains such as Save Mart not only devote several shelves to Latin American-made specialty food products, but increasingly integrate the selection in with cheddar cheese and Coca-Cola. Cost Less, which has an extensive selection of Mexican food products, took over two former Richland Market locations in Modesto this year.
Parents who see the changing tide are preparing their children. Riverbank Language Academy fills classes with English learners and Spanish learners. Principal Bill Redford said parents who enroll their children in the charter school are trying to give their kids a competitive edge.
"Our parents are savvy, they see the change coming and want their children to be ahead of the curve," he said.
Education is highest on Irizarry and Christina Vallejo's list of problems to conquer.
Vallejo, president of the nonprofit pro-education group Mujeres Latinas, said she fears if the Latino dropout rate doesn't improve, the valley will sink further into the low-educated quagmire that has pulled down the economy for decades.
Education opens doors
Without stronger education, Latinos will find it difficult to move into leadership positions, Irizarry said.
"The political system is already lagging," he said. "You have a small group making the rules and a big group coming down the pipeline."
In recent years, Latinos have had a bigger impact on area elections, with representation on a number of city councils and school boards. And after a Latino group sued the city to adopt district elections to benefit Latino voters in south and west Modesto, voters in February approved a ballot measure calling for districts. A committee has put together a map for the 2009 council race.
If education becomes a higher priority, Latinos could be an even stronger political bloc, Irizarry added.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2382.