It Happens Here: Gentrification in Watsonville, CA

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Photo by Jordan on Unsplash

Gentrification is the contemporary form of colonialism. It drives the impoverished out of their homes through skyrocketing housing prices. It is a new form of racism, another legacy of capitalism’s Social-Darwinian philosophy.

My hometown of Watsonville has been feeling its effects. The increasing number of cops downtown is new to me. I had lived here my entire life without seeing so many police officers patrolling the area. This may, however, be something that had been lost on me for a very long time. I had also failed to notice our county’s segregation. It was clear as night and day. One can walk the streets in either city and feel the difference in atmosphere. Yet, as a child, I noticed nothing.

I volunteer downtown at a non-profit as a screenwriting instructor, teaching the local youth about storytelling. Whenever I don’t have to teach, I spend time downtown anyway, going to the library to focus on my writing or preparing lesson plans. But sometimes I use that time alone to read. Reading relaxes me, especially when sitting alone in a quiet study room.

I can’t relax with all the new cops around. I fear for my safety when searching for parking. They are parked near the non-profit I volunteer at. They drive behind me when I’m going home. I only feel safe when they make a turn before I reach my neighborhood, a cul-de-sac cut off from the rest of the city, my home at its end.

***

Latinxs have been coming to Watsonville since WWII, first through the government’s Bracero Program and later through their own means. They are the largest demographic in the city with white people trailing behind them. It’s quite the opposite in Santa Cruz where white people make up most of the population. This is what’s known as a bi-modal distribution. White people there. POC here.

Santa Cruz is also one of the most expensive cities in the country. The city has been experiencing an influx of techies from Silicon Valley. It’s caused the housing prices to go up at a staggering rate, becoming twice as that of Watsonville. It’s pushed plenty of people out as employees from Silicon Valley start taking over, willing to commute through highway 17 just to enjoy their new conquered homes with the nice weather and the beach right next door.

Gentrification is not exclusive to Santa Cruz county. The effects are more evident in cities like San Francisco where businesses are propping up like rabbits, driving the smaller POC-owned businesses out of business. They are always the first to go.

What’s complicated about Watsonville is that the city is in on the gentrification. Councilmembers see how Santa Cruz profits from tourism and wishes to do the same thing. Then white people come along and see the culture POC have been building for ages. They like the culture. They want to become part of the culture. The housing prices go up and drive the culture out, replaced by new apartments and yoga centers. The city wants to endorse them for tourism. So, they cater to their wishes. They found no trouble when white-owned businesses come and ask city council for better security downtown.

That’s when the cops show up, and it’s no surprise who they will arrest. Though the crime rate in Watsonville is less than that of Santa Cruz, Watsonville is the one with the bad reputation. The local news hardly features anything positive on us, preferring to capture the crimes committed rather than the recently established Watsonville Film Festival. All it takes is one act- vandalism, a car crash, a homicide-to establish our reputation and convince everyone, including Watsonville’s own city council, that more police is necessary. Watsonville is ripe for gentrification. The conditions couldn’t be more convenient.

***

Revolunas is a local activist group in Watsonville. They are a “WoC collective committed to the healing of womxn, youth, and QTPOC through spirituality, creative expression, community building, & education.”

I was fortunate enough to meet with them and learn more about how gentrification is affecting my community. According to them: a lot. They confirm my fears. We talk about city council siding with businesses over their citizens, how the rise in housing prices has forced friends and families to move to places like Los Baños, Castroville, Prunedale, etc. I recall how many houses I’ve seen with the “For Sale” signs near my neighborhood, that tragic little symbol telling us we’ve lost yet another neighbor.

“Gentrification is a horrible thing,” they tell me. “It’s part of a history that has been happening since the Europeans came over here. It’s another form of racism. People still want to ignore the fact that racism exists. People are suffering. They must work multiple jobs. There’re multiple families in households because they can’t afford to live here. People are leaving because they are getting gentrified and fed up. Watsonville is Watsonville because of the Mexican community and because of POC; they are the ones who created this culture.”

But the fight’s not over, according to them: “If you can fight, just fight any way you can. Even if it’s just clicking and sharing an article or having a conversation. Sometimes you just have to have those conversations.”

I type this in the library. I thank them greatly for everything they do for the community, their insistence on fighting. It forces me to reflect on my actions. How can I combat these changes? How can I bring awareness to this issue?

I will have to leave soon. I teach screenwriting today. I promised the youth I’d teach them how to tell their stories.

Originally published at https://www.watermelaninmag.com.

Fiction Editor for Watermelanin Mag. Contributor for Reclamation Magazine. Twitter: @ChSoriPalma. christophersorianowrites.wordpress.com

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