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California Sees New Latino Revolution Take Hold As Population Booms

by Leonel Sanchez

January 7, 2001
Copyright © 2001 San Diego Union-Tribune Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved.

Latino population researcher David Hayes-Bautista says he's watching another Latin cultural revolution unfold.

The last one, in the early '90s, came when the food industry announced that salsa was outselling ketchup.

This one deals with people -- the young, fast-growing, largely bilingual, bicultural population that Hayes-Bautista says is "defining American culture in a Latino way."

Six years after California's Proposition 187 alienated Latinos with what they saw as its anti-immigrant, anti-Latino message, Hispanics are altering the cultural, economic and political landscape here and in other states.

Immigration and high birthrates will make Latinos the nation's largest minority in a few years and triple their numbers to nearly 100 million by 2050. One in four Americans will be of Latin American descent.

California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who in 1998 became the first Latino elected to statewide office in more than 120 years, says Latinos must use their growing influence to join with other Americans and build a better nation.

"We must all go hand in hand like the World War II generation. They had a tremendous opportunity to build America and hand it to the next generation," Bustamante said.

"We need to have the same vision. The Latino community can either be a major part of that or allow themselves to miss a tremendous opportunity."

The full impact of the nation's Hispanic boom hasn't been felt, because Latinos are at different stages of assimilating and integrating into the economy and society. But as 2001 begins, Latinos can point to several milestones.

 Nationwide, a record 5.5 million Latinos voted on Election Day after being courted by Democrats and Republicans, including high-profile appearances by Al Gore and President-elect Bush at the National Council of La Raza's annual gathering in San Diego. Latinos make up about 7 percent of the national electorate, 15 percent of the California electorate.

California's legislature voted to make César Chávez's birthday a state holiday, making Chávez the first Latino in the United States to be given that honor.

 After decades of railing against illegal immigration, the AFL-CIO decided to support amnesty for the nation's mostly Latino undocumented work force.

 CBS carried the lavishly produced debut of the Latin Grammy Awards, a major breakthrough for Latinos who have long complained about being shut out of prime-time American television.

 Advertisers appealed to Latinos as never before, with Latino purchasing power expected to hit $450 billion in 2001.

The Latino demographic is being felt most strongly in California, home to a third of the nation's 32 million Hispanics. By 2040, one out of two Californians will be Latino, according to census projections.

But the Latino presence also has spread to the middle of the nation and the South. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, the number of Latinos in Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina and Nebraska, though low, rose by more than 100 percent in the 1990s.

Most of America is getting to know this diverse population, said Lisa Navarette of the National Council of La Raza.

"We're at a point where people are still trying to understand our culture. What's similar? What do we bring that is new?"

Celebrated, scapegoated

Latinos in America feel the pull of two worlds. Most want to fit into the mainstream, but they also want to hold onto their Hispanic heritage.

During the nation's economic boom, they are doing both.

"Hispanics are recognizing their size and spending power. They're seeing more powerful and successful Hispanics in politics, entertainment and sports," said Olivia Llamas of Connecticut-based Yankelovich Partners.

"They're less inclined to feel they have to shed their traditions when they see that they are being celebrated," she said.

A recent Yankelovich poll of 1,200 Latinos showed that most prefer to use Spanish for every situation, including home, work and media consumption.

This discovery ran contrary to the common assumption that over time Latinos move closer to using English in their everyday lives.

According to some experts, Latinos aren't avoiding the melting pot as much as they are finding themselves at different stages of assimilating.

More than 40 percent of Latinos in the United States were born outside its borders, according to census figures. Of those born in the United States, many are the children of immigrants, and their families maintain close ties to their native countries.

Census figures show that the longer immigrants live in the United States, the more likely they are to speak English and become citizens and homeowners and even marry outside their group.

Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., said the assimilation process Latinos are going through "has been paved before by other immigrants."

"When you look at immigrants, you have to look at them over time and generations," Rodriguez said.

But a recent study by the California Policy Research Center said more must be done to mainstream immigrants and their children so they will prosper and not be targeted for blame during economic downturns.

The study focused on California, home to a third of the nation's immigrants and the site of contentious debates over immigration during the recession of the early 1990s. The most controversial action was Proposition 187, which sought to bar illegal immigrants from most state public services. It was approved by voters but rejected in court.

Mexicans, who represent 43 percent of the state's 8.1 million immigrants, would have been most affected by Proposition 187.

According to the study, immigrants are often poorly educated and find themselves trapped in low-wage jobs with limited benefits. Many operate small businesses but have difficulty obtaining capital and don't understand the state's business regulations.

The study's authors say California should establish an office of immigrant affairs. They also urged policy-makers to refrain "from scapegoating immigrants in recessionary periods."

"The state's ability to integrate immigrants and their children will shape the California of 2025 and beyond," said University of California Davis professor Philip Martin, one of the study's authors.

"Immigrants today are the taxpayers and citizens of tomorrow."

'American experience'

Researcher Hayes-Bautista, who called himself a Chicano when he was growing up in East Los Angeles, watched the beginning of the Latin population explosion in the 1970s, when he worked at an Oakland clinic visited by newly arrived Latinos. Many had children or were about to have children. "Their fertility rate was high."

He remembers telling skeptical colleagues: "The baby boom is over for the Anglo population. Look at the Latino population."

The latest census proves he was right. While immigration from Latin America continues, it is no longer driving Latino population growth in California. Instead, it's natural growth.

Immigration fueled the state's Latino population increase from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, said Hayes-Bautista, who directs the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California Los Angeles.

Since then, "The growth has been more due to births than to immigration," he said.

California's Latino population during the 1990s rose from 7.7 million to 10.4 million. More than 2 million Latinos were born in California from 1990 to 1998, he said, citing state birth records. In 1998, Hispanics accounted for nearly half of the state's births, he added.

As Hayes-Bautista sees it, the Latino population growth that is altering California's identity has been largely an American experience.

"Latinos who are here had kids, and that's what's driving things. It's why that group has become so important. Look who's buying houses, cribs, toys, kids' clothing. It's being driven by Latino families," said Hayes-Bautista, author of the soon-to-be-released book, "La Nueva California: Latino population 1940-2040."

He doesn't believe Latinos will be scapegoated again, largely because so many Latinos have registered to vote.

"Proposition 187 put the fear of God into residents and highly motivated them to vote," he said. "They were angry."

Now, their growing power has prompted some to push for a greater say in California affairs.

When Cruz Bustamante was introduced at the signing of the César Chávez holiday at a Los Angeles park, someone in the crowd yelled that Bustamante was going to be the next governor of California.

Bustamante smiled as cheers erupted.

The Central Valley native said he hasn't been in his job long enough to give running for governor serious thought.

For now, he says he wants to run for lieutenant governor one more time. And that he has been humbled by his American experience.

"Speaking as a kid who grew up in a town of 800 people, a kid with a dusty background in Fresno County, I am living a part of that American dream."

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