September 3, 2011 | Kitsap Sun | Original Article

Hispanic population booming in North Kitsap, Census says

— Santiago Hernandez seems much older than 21.

He works long days at the new Jalisco Restaurant and Hispanic Market he owns with his uncle. His eyelids are heavy, but he just shrugs.

“It’s work, but I can do it.”

Hernandez, who’s lived in Poulsbo about two years, dreams of building a successful business, making a pile of money and returning to Jalisco, Mexico, where he grew up and where a girlfriend now waits for him.

Down a few doors at this modest string of businesses at Highway 305 and Hostmark Street is Roberto Soltero, 52, owner of Los Cabos Grill and owner of many Puget Sound restaurants over the past 30 years. Soltero, a 15-year Kitsap resident, is a respected entrepreneur and helper to many in the Poulsbo Hispanic community, fastest growing of any Hispanic enclave in Kitsap County. He came from the state of Jalisco, too.

“I’m pretty open to helping people because people helped me,” Soltero said.

The two men stand on opposite ends of an arc that spans from central Mexico to Poulsbo, from poverty to the sometimes-elusive promise of prosperity.

The fastest growing group in Kitsap

By far, the Hispanic and Latino population grew the fastest of any race group in Kitsap County between 2000 and 2010, according to 2010 U.S. Census released this summer.

While it likely is an undercount, the Census estimated that 15,686 Hispanics lived in Kitsap County in 2010, a 63 percent increase over the decade. Hispanics in 2010 made up 6 percent of the total population. That growth rate is close to the state’s (71 percent), but far higher than the national rate of 43 percent.

Hispanics are spread evenly across the county, with Bremerton having the biggest concentration of 3,612 people. But it is in greater Poulsbo and the north end of the Kitsap Peninsula where the ranks of Hispanics are growing fastest.

The number of Hispanics in the census tract that includes east Poulsbo increased 172 percent over 10 years, with 515 Hispanics living there in 2010. That tract had the fastest Hispanic growth rate of any in Kitsap County.

The Hispanic population grew 146 percent over 10 years between Lofall and Indianola, 126 percent north of Bangor, 118 person between Hansville and Little Boston, and 102 in Kingston and the north tip of the Kitsap Peninsula, with each of the tracts adding between 200 and 300 new Hispanic residents.

Growth rates for that population in Bremerton, Silverdale and Port Orchard don’t come close to North Kitsap’s.

By far, new arrivals have come from Mexico, followed by a distant Puerto Rico and Central America.

While its past may be rooted in immigration from Scandinavia and the Native American population, North Kitsap has caught up with the rest of the county in adding Hispanics. Including Bangor and Bainbridge, 3,880 Hispanics lived in North Kitsap, a quarter of the county’s total Hispanic population.

The demographics also hint at continued growth.

Data from the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction shows a big jump in Hispanic students in the a.inline_topic:hover { background-color: rgb(234, 234, 234); } North Kitsap School District. Hispanic enrollment increased from 6.7 percent of the total student population in the 2009-2010 school year to 10.6 percent in the 2010-2011 year, when 710 Hispanics were in the classrooms.

Other school districts’ Hispanic populations rose sharply over the past two years, too. South Kitsap’s went from 4.8 percent to 9.8 percent. The Hispanic population in Central Kitsap schools more than doubled, from 5 percent to 11 percent. The rise was even more dramatic in Bremerton, where the Hispanic student population went from 7 percent to 15.3 percent.

When asked to explain the sudden rise, North Kitsap Superintendent Rick Jones said, “Why do people move? They move for jobs. They move for affordable housing. They move for quality schools.”

“I would like to be in Jalisco, in my own house, my kids, my wife, to spend as much time as possible with them.” — Santiago Hernandez

“The idea was to make a lot of money and go back.” — Roberto Soltero, who came to the United States at age 15. He added that going back never happens, “especially when you start having kids.”

‘They move for jobs’

Since coming to Poulsbo 15 years ago, Soltero’s helped at least 40 Mexicans come to North Kitsap in search of work and a new life. Most are male between ages 18 and 30.

They come from the Jalisco area, from villages like San Gaspar and Chapala near Guadalajara, but also from Cuautla, near Mexico City. Many have established families in North Kitsap here for generations. Not all have kin here; villagers follow villagers.

Soltero allows some to stay with him in his Poulsbo home. He helps them find housing and work.

Ninety percent become laborers in small construction, excavation, concrete and landscaping, he said. Many in landscaping become part of a daily morning caravan down Highway 305 to Bainbridge, where they groom wealthy people’s yards. Their wives often clean houses.

The Rev. David Mayovsky of St. Olaf Catholic Church of Poulsbo calls some of his Hispanic worshippers “the ranch people,” bringing with them a work ethic honed on Mexico’s ranchos.

“They are hardworking people. They can be rather demanding,” Mayovsky said.

The other 10 percent, according to Soltero, have become business owners, now heading those same types of businesses, and restaurants. Many have sought advice from Soltero over the years.

“Those guys making good money here, especially the ones that own their own business,” he said.

Language is an obstacle.

Some of the lucky ones take English as a second language straight off, hooking up with the Kitsap Immigrant Assistance Center and the Kitsap Adult Center for Education.

Some have gotten training to start a small business from the Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help.

But others must go to work right away to survive, entering the vicious cycle of long hours that offer no break to learn English.

“Do you think they have time to go learn English?” asked Martitha May, director of the immigrant center.

Immigration status is another obstacle.

No one seems to know what portion of Kitsap’s Hispanics have legal status. The Census does not ask for citizenship status in its survey or differentiate based on immigration status in reporting on ethnic groups. Soltero got his citizenship years ago when he married an American. Hernandez said he is in the United States legally as well.

“I don’t really care how many are documented and how many are undocumented,” said Ray Garrido treasurer of the immigrant center. Center policy is not to ask. Garrido calls for reform.

In 2010, 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. That number is about a fifth the size of the total number of Hispanics the census estimated lived in the United States in 2010, 50.5 million.

“We are a very close family.” — Roberto Soltero, second of 17 children in his family who came from Mexico to the United States. Most work in restaurants around Puget Sound.

“I live with a brother and two cousins.” — Santiago Hernandez, describing his living arrangement on Rude Road. Uncles and aunts have lived in Poulsbo for 20 years.

‘Beautiful, strong sense of family’

St. Olaf church is the spiritual center of the Hispanic community.

Recognizing the history and growth of the Hispanic population in North Kitsap, the Archdiocese of Seattle some years back identified St. Olaf as a regional hub to serve them. Today, it is the only Catholic Church for miles that conducts weekly services in Spanish. Sometimes as many as 250 come on Saturdays from as far away as Bremerton.

What appeared to be four generations of women from the same family worshipped side by side on Aug. 27. The oldest, possibly in her 70s, followed the service while the middle-aged one reached over and helped the youngest woman rock her baby. Two boys quietly looked on in the hushed sanctuary.

“They’re very devout, very joyful,” Mayovsky said.

There are about 80 parishioners here this evening. Later, the family makes its way outside to a large, new SUV. An older man who has been waiting there helps them in.

“They have a beautiful and strong sense of celebrating the family,” Mayovsky said.

Hispanics in Kitsap live in larger families, with an average of 3.37 members, compared with 2.97 members for the general population.

They’re more likely to be in traditional families headed by a married man and woman — 40 percent versus 30 percent. And Hispanic families are more likely to have three or more generations living in the same household — 4.35 percent to 3.07 percent.

Kitsap’s Hispanic population is young, with a median age of 23, compared with 39 for the general population. The biggest Hispanic age group is under 5 years. For the general population, it’s the early 50s.

“The town reminded me of my town.” — Roberto Soltero, on seeing Poulsbo for the first time on a weekend visit. He said the people were friendly.

“I did like the water and the woods. It’s beautiful. It’s not too hot, but it’s really cold in the winter.” — Santiago Hernandez on Poulsbo

Chasing the dream in Poulsbo

Soltero grew up in the restaurant business in Chapala, but by 15 he had left to follow his older brother to the United States.

“I wanted to try something different. And everybody’s talking about United States,” he said.

Soltero landed in Hollywood, then went to Salem, Ore., then to the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, where he bussed tables for his older brother, who was managing a Mexican restaurant.

After that was a period in which Soltero either worked at or owned a string of Mexican restaurants, from Everett to south Seattle.

After opening Los Cabos, Saltero expanded in Poulsbo, also opening the Bayside Broiler and Tequilas Grill & Sports Bar.

Over the years, all 16 of Saltero’s siblings ended up immigrating to Kitsap and Puget Sound, most going into the restaurant business.

Besides running his Poulsbo restaurants, he also was helping them run theirs.

But after feeling ill his doctor told him to slow down. Saltero sold the Bayside Broiler and cut back on brotherly help.

After all these years, it still isn’t easy. Saltero continues to work 14-hour days, seven days a week at Los Cabos. Last year, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in separate dealings connected with the sale of the Bayside Broiler. Some taxes are behind.

“The restaurant business, it’s tough,” he said.

Santiago began picking corn in Jalisco at age 8, watching his father and the other men of his village head north to work in the fields, then return.

As a teenager, his family moved to Los Banos near Merced, Calif., and Hernandez spent summers in Poulsbo, helping his uncle paint houses.

Two years ago after he graduated, Hernandez relocated to Poulsbo, hoping to make money and return to Jalisco.

Recently, Hernandez and his uncle decided they’d try to make money with Jalisco Restaurant and Hispanic Market.

Hernandez is hoping customers will be drawn to his authentic fare and a meat case full of items he said Hispanics had to go to Tacoma to buy — homemade chorizo, al pastor, arrachera.

“People had to go to Tacoma to get meat. It’s really important to me to have everything here,” he said.

Hernandez is totally fresh to the dream.

“It’s just a matter of time of getting prepared for what you want to do. You see me here working seven days a week, but it’s possible.”