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Our Town -- or Is It Theirs?

Immigration reversed the makeup of Williams, Calif., in just 20 years. People find ways to live with a change they know is here to stay.

September 19, 2006|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

WILLIAMS, Calif. — There has been discord enough in the shady streets of this rice-growing city north of San Francisco, where the population has shifted from three-quarters white to nearly three-quarters Latino in just two decades.

Anyone wanting some heated conversation need only mention the time six years ago when the board of education extended the Christmas break to three weeks to give Mexican families more time to go home for the holidays.

The realignment of the calendar maximized classroom time, resulting in lower truancy and improved test scores. But it also set off a cultural debate that continues to this day.

"The Caucasian community didn't want the change," which meant trimming the treasured summer vacation by a week, said Colusa County Supervisor Mark Marshall. "It was very controversial."

Now, if this were a story about Hazleton, Pa., or San Bernardino, places where federal immigration battles ring as loudly through City Hall as they have at recent congressional hearings, it might have culminated in angry denunciations, protests and television cameras capturing them-against-us conflict.

But in Williams, a place that demographer Hans Johnson describes as "the most ethnically transformed city in California," the story is not that simple.

Williams "serves as an almost natural experiment about what these changes mean for all of us," said Johnson, of the Public Policy Institute of California, who estimates that as much as 20% of the city's population could be undocumented.

This city of 5,087 (and rising fast) is the closest thing to a "Petri dish" for observing the effects of immigration in their most concentrated form, said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

The experiment has not always had predictable results. Practical people, for the most part, residents of this agricultural outpost are slowly -- sometimes reluctantly -- coming to terms with the dramatic changes wrought by immigration.

"All of the families like mine and my husband's, who grew up here all their lives, have had problems with the change in culture," said Kara Alvernaz, who works for the local fire district. But the last thing she'd do is give up on the schools -- calendar change or no. "I chose to keep my kids here. They've gotten a good education."

It was Monica Ordaz, a business owner of Mexican descent, who issued her daughter's teacher an ultimatum last year, when bilingual Nicole hit kindergarten: "If my daughter was ever used as a translator, taken away from her time to learn to teach someone else, I'd take her out of the school," she recalled saying.

"I just don't think it's fair for the kids," said Ordaz, who with her husband runs El Campesino, the combination general store, tax service and translation center that largely caters to farmworkers.

As immigration touches nearly every facet of life here, it's been a slow march of two steps forward and one step back, of honest effort meeting harsh reality.

The police and fire departments now have healthy percentages of bilingual members, but elected boards lag far behind in representing the Latino supermajority. An expensive subdivision largely for commuters has been welcomed; expanded housing for farmworkers has not.

At the Church of the Annunciation, Spanish Masses outnumber English 2 to 1. But when a shortage of priests drove Father Francisco Hernandez Gomez to trim one poorly attended English Mass a month, white parishioners revolted. "They thought I was favoring the Hispanics," he recounted, "and that I was kicking out the whites from their own church."

Hernandez Gomez, who has reinstated the English Mass, said the prejudice he sometimes senses in Williams is mostly passive and, perhaps, rooted in feelings of fear and loss.

"Yes, after being the majority just a few years ago, now they are just a few people among a big new community," he said. "The whites could feel they are losing their town, their church, their school, their stores, their language."


Small enough to be featured in a guidebook called "Wide Places in the California Roads," Williams has been a farm town since its early history. Today, it is part of the No. 1 rice-growing county in California.

But rice's dominance is slipping in the region -- and therein lies one key to the city's metamorphosis.

Rice is a relatively low-labor crop, with increasingly slim returns. So farmers have been planting other things. Agriculture Commissioner Harry Krug predicts that, for the first time, almond revenues will surpass rice in Colusa County this year.

"The almond orchards have increased dramatically," said Krug. "Tomatoes came in. We grow a lot of seed crops ... They needed more labor. That's where the influx came from."

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