Just 1 in 10 Inland Empire Latinos has a bachelor’s degree or higher – San Bernardino Sun

Yareli Olazabal is 23 years old. The bilingual daughter of Mexican immigrants, she moved to the Inland Empire when she was about 5 and grew up in Fontana.

In those respects, Olazabal fits the average profile of Inland Empire Latinos as described in a new study. But there’s an exception.

She’s on track to graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences from UC Riverside.

Just 11% of Inland Latinos had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2020 and Inland Latinos were four times as likely as White residents to lack a high school diploma, according to “¡Aquí estamos! (Here we are!),” a study commissioned by Inland Empire Community Foundation’s newly formed Cultivating Inland Empire Latino Opportunity (CIELO) Fund.

The study also found that 41% of Inland Latinos lived in poverty in 2020, with Latino children twice as likely to be impoverished as White children and older Latino residents more likely to live in poverty than White seniors. And Latinos lag behind other ethnic groups in income, health insurance and civic engagement, the study reported.

“The findings, I think when anybody reads (the study), are a little shocking, a little stark,” said Diane Rodriguez, chancellor of the San Bernardino Community College District and a member of the CIELO Fund’s Leadership & Grantmaking Committee.

“The amount of need for resources to help uplift the Latino population in the Inland Empire, it’s so significant and there’s a lot to be done.”

As the Inland Latino community grows, “so should investments in the organizations and initiatives aiming to close disparity gaps,” CIELO Fund Founding Chair Jesse Melgar said via email.

Compiled by UCR’s Center for Social Innovation, the study found that Latinos, with 2.37 million people, now make up 51.5% of the Inland population.

“Latino growth rates (in the region) are significantly higher than the Southern California average,” the study states.

Riverside, Moreno Valley, Corona, Fontana, San Bernardino and Ontario had the highest Latino populations in the Inland Empire, while the cities with the highest percentage of Latinos as part of their populations as a whole were Coachella, Jurupa Valley, Perris, Rialto, Colton and Ontario.

Most Inland Latinos are of Mexican descent, with the Mexican-American share of the Latino population higher in the Inland Empire — 86.4% — than Los Angeles County — 75.2%. Inland Latinos are much more likely to be native born than foreign born while more than three in four Latino immigrants to Riverside and San Bernardino counties have lived in the United States for 20 years or more.

The study also found that Inland Latinos are younger than Inland White residents. Children accounted for 30% of the Latino population compared to 14.5% in the White population, although the average Latino age has risen in the past 10 years.

Three in four Inland Latinos speak English very well or are English-only speakers, according to the study, which added that the percentage of Inland Latinos with limited English proficiency is lower than that in L.A. County or statewide.

The study focused on several areas in which Latinos lag behind other Inland residents. Inland Latinos’ per capita income — $22,700 — is about half that of White residents — $44,250.

Sixty percent of Latino households owned an Inland Empire home in 2020, a higher rate than in L.A. County or statewide. That said, the homeownership rate lags behind White residents and Inland Latinos are more likely than White people to be renters.

Twelve percent of Inland Latinos lacked health insurance in 2020 compared to just 5% of Inland White residents. That’s an improvement from 2010, when 29% of Latinos lacked insurance.

Another gap exists in voting and representation. Just 56% of Latinos were registered to vote in the Inland Empire in 2020 compared to 74% for White residents, Latino voter turnout in 2020 was lower than White voter participation and the number of Inland Latino elected officials is small compared to the percentage of Latinos in the Inland population.

Latinas were slightly more likely to attain a higher education degree than Latinos.

Olazabal, whose older sister graduated from Cal State San Bernardino, said her immigrant parents, who grew up in rural areas, “maybe (got) some elementary school-level education” but no opportunity for more advanced schooling.

“I think a lot of us are in the same boat … a lot of our parents are first-generation … where they’ve never received any sort of formal education,” she said.

“So if you don’t have anyone to fall back on or look to for guidance, it’s really difficult to navigate the (college) system yourself, especially when your parents or family might not even have any idea or concept of how things work in this country.”

While a support system exists, “it is very difficult when you don’t have anyone to kind of readily give you the answers,” Olazabal added. “A lot of Latinos from the Inland Empire, sometimes we don’t have those resources super readily available. So it does, I think, take more of an effort to search and seek out the answers we’re looking for.”

Rodriguez believes more education is key to bringing economic prosperity for Inland Latinos.

“I think many believe that they can’t afford to go to school … when the fact is that it can be affordable,” she said, adding that eight out of 10 students in her district pay nothing in costs and fees.

“I think that if more families and more students knew that … we could start closing that educational gap and start lifting folks out of poverty,” the chancellor added.

To help more Inland Latinos get college degrees, ensure “that a student’s basic needs are being met, that they have stable housing (and) a stable supply of food,” said Olazabal, who hopes to work in the public or nonprofit sector to fight what she calls the “environmental injustice” of warehouse-related pollution in the Inland Empire.

It’s also important to have not only mentors, but mentors who can relate what students are going through, Olazabal said.

“I think when it comes from someone that has already been there and done that, you just have another level of guidance.”

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