Changing face of Oak Harbor

"If a person randomly knocks on doors in Oak Harbor neighborhoods, chances are that one out of four people who answer will not have a white face. The preliminary year 2000 census data is out and it shows the city has become a more ethnically diverse place in the past 10 years, even outpacing the nation in moving toward diversity.While in 1990 about 85 percent of city residents were white, today only 75 percent of the community considers itself white. The largest minority population are people of Asian descent, who make up more than 10 percent of Oak Harbor's population.Nationwide, the 2000 census shows that a little more than 75 percent of the population is white, which is down from 80 percent 10 years ago. But the largest minority groups in the U.S. are African-American and Hispanic. Each group accounts for more than 12 percent of the population.At the same time, Island County as a whole is still mostly white. More than 87 percent of its residents are white and the majority of nonwhites live in Oak Harbor.Coupeville's population is 90 percent white, the census shows. The largest minority group in the town of 1,723 are people of two or more races. Fifty-four people, or 3 percent, fall into that category.So why has Oak Harbor become so ethnically diverse? Several longtime city residents say the answer is simple: the Navy.Aida Martin, treasurer for the city's 30-year-old Filipino-American Association, said the Navy personnel reflects the diversity of the nation. People who join the Navy come from all different socioeconomic groups from all over the nation.Martin says the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is particularly popular base for Navy personnel of Filipino descent.The Asian minority has always been the largest, she said.According to 2000 census data, 10.4 percent of Oak Harbor's population is made up of people with Asian or Pacific Islander descent. That's nearly three times the national average of 3.7 percent.City Councilman Danny Paggao, for example, was born in the Philippines. He said he was able to enlist in the U.S. Navy in 1965 since the Philippines were once a U.S. commonwealth. He now works for the Navy as a civilian.Paggao says Filipino-Americans and other Asian groups are drawn to Oak Harbor because of word of mouth. Many of them find out about the city through the Navy, but then return because of the natural beauty, the active Filipino presence and Navy facilities.Paggao says the strong Asian presence has had a pretty major effect on the city, from the diversity of Oak Harbor restaurants and businesses to city politics.Judith Zapanta-Borras, current president of the Fil-Am group, said people in Asian countries who grew up near U.S. military bases become accustomed to the military atmosphere. So they feel comfortable in Oak Harbor later in life, she said.And Oak Harbor seems comfortable about them. She says racism hasn't been a concern for her or any Asian-American she knows. So-called interracial marriages are not uncommon in Oak Harbor. In fact, the city has a comparatively large population of people who consider themselves as belonging to two or more races. The latest census figures show about 5.6 percent of the city's residents are in this category while 2.4 percent is the national average.Zapanta-Borras says the Navy also brings foreign immigration into the city indirectly. Military personnel with family members in foreign places can petition to bring them into the country.Zapanta-Borras was in the Philippines when her sister married a Navy man. The man petitioned to bring his wife's mother to Whidbey, then later Zapanta-Borras.We came here looking for a better way of life, she said. You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611. "

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