December 29, 2010 | Contra Costa Times | Original Article

Oakley's Latino population on the rise

OAKLEY -- Some are from families that have lived here for generations, and others are relative newcomers. They claim different nationalities and sometimes speak different dialects, but they are all Latinos, and they are a growing presence here.

In the past decade, Latinos have swelled from 25 percent to 34.1 percent of the city's population, according to newly released census data. The majority trace their roots to Mexico, though others hail from South America and the Caribbean.

Oakley now has a higher proportion of Latino residents than any other East Contra Costa city, according to census data.

Attendance at Spanish-language church services is up across East County, according to the Rev. Olman Solis of St. Anthony Catholic Church, who is from Costa Rica. The Spanish Masses at St. Anthony's draw weekend crowds that regularly spill into the hallways -- something unheard of just five years ago, Solis said.

Irma Capas remembers attending St. Anthony's in the 1970s, before the church offered any Spanish-language services. Capas said that when she was growing up in Oakley, Latinos tended to work on farms and keep to themselves.

"Now they're getting out of the fields and starting their own businesses," she said.

Indeed, Latino proprietors run a wide range of businesses in downtown Oakley, including grocery stores, restaurants, specialty salons, craft stores and bakeries. A few are Oakley institutions, but many are.

recent additions, opened during the past several years to meet what owners perceive as a growing Latino customer base.

Many patrons at Oakley's Latino shops speak halting English, and say that they like these stores because they feel welcomed and understood. The percentage of Oakley residents who speak Spanish at home has risen from 14.6 to 23.1 percent over the past decade, according to census data.

Grace Bustos, who has lived in Oakley for 40 years, says the surge of Latino residents and businesses shows the rest of the community that Latinos are here to stay.

But the Rev. Solis is troubled by what he sees as a tendency toward self-segregation here.

"People tend to mix in churches," he said, "but the churches and the schools are the only places they mix."

As for St. Anthony's parishioner Melissa Su'e Su'e, she is just happy to see diversity growing in this former farming town, and is not too worried about whether the recent transplants are mixing with the old-timers.

"They bring more culture and more families," she said. "It's awesome."