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The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer

Hispanic Americans:

Census Results Counted More Than 35 Million Hispanics Living In The U.S. How Will Their Population Influence Culture In America?

March 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001. All Rights Reserved.

RAY SUAREZ: NewsHour essayist Richard Rodriguez is with us now. He is of Mexican ancestry. With more perspective on Hispanics and their influence in the United States we are also joined by: Clara Rodriguez, a professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. She is of Puerto Rican ancestry. Samuel Betances, a professor of sociology at Northeastern Illinois University; he is also of Puerto Rican origin. And Ilan Stavans, a professor of Spanish at Amherst College and author of Tropical Synagogues: Short Stories by Jewish Latin American writers. He was born in Mexico.

Welcome to you all. Richard, demographers have been talking about this day for 25 or more years, talking about the date when Latinos would become the largest minority group in the country. And the date was 2015 then it became 2010 and then 2005. Here it is. What does it mean?

35 million under the term Hispanic

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Well, let me just say there's something really unseemly about all of this in the sense that the way it's being portrayed by the Census Bureau that we are replacing African Americans as the largest minority group seems to propose that we are opposite African Americans -- we are not African -- when in fact we are. Every race of the world is in Latin America, Africans included. Africans have been part of the history of Latin America. The United States is portraying us as a new third race or third group that are coming in between white and black. I think it does a disservice to African Americans and I think it does a disservice to our knowledge of who we are as Hispanics. We are not a racial group. We are not some new brown people in the United States. We are every race of the world, united under this strange noun called Hispanic.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Samuel Betances, do we mark this moment at all if you hear your colleague's suggestion?

SAMUEL BETANCES: Well, I think the future is ahead of schedule big time with a lot of Latinos and a lot of people who just got here and there are people that have been here for generations. I'm not so sure that we are united as Richard Rodriguez claims. I think we need to work towards that, but if you take a look at the fact that many of us in urban areas find ourselves coming from Catholic cultures, and yet there are not enough Catholic priests for the Irish and the Poles and the Germans and as a result many Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah Witnesses who in some ways are anti-Catholic, so that while people find comfort in faith and community groups, they don't find unity among Latinos who are Catholic because of different theological interpretations. African Americans are a little bit worried sometimes that Latinos, we have our own brand of racism whether we got it from our Mexican heritage or Puerto Rican heritage or otherwise, we sometimes look toward the European ideal as something excellent.

So, you know, when the Europeans came over, the Jews and the Protestants and the Catholics, they had the Conference of Christians and Jews. I don't see a Conference of African Americans and Latinos or Hispanics to work at collaboration. Plus I also see that young men, I mean there are going to be a lot of young men and young men of Latino dissent like young men who are white and black, are the people who commit crimes. If they're not welcome and if they're not educated, because we have the numbers but we won't have the powers unless we get educated, then those people are going to create alternative families that we call gangs. And instead of getting their names on walls with degrees and awards, they'll spray paint them and get them there anyway. So I see a challenge ahead. The future is ahead of schedule. It comes with a Latin beat, and we are challenged. It is an exciting time. We can see it as problematic, or we can see it as opportunities.

RAY SUAREZ: Clara Rodriguez, it sounds like we have a definitional problem here. Do these 35 million people fit comfortably under the umbrella term, Hispanic?

CLARA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I actually think they do -- maybe not under the term Hispanic; maybe under the term Latino, but I actually think that the similarities are quite strong. And I know that in my own experience, when I first began to visit and to know of other Latino communities that were different from the Puerto Rican communities that I knew in New York, what really struck me was that I began with a sense that we were so different, and I quickly realized that we were so similar in so many ways. We all, many Latino communities are bandios, whether they're in New York City or in California.

I saw, in addition to the very basic fact that I could understand and communicate with Latinos even though we spoke Spanish differently, that we had very similar educational experiences; that we had similar experiences and positions, actually, in the labor market -- that even some of the voting issues that we had dealt with had echoes, resonated with the other Latinos that I met. And I also see with the newer immigrant Latino communities, that they remind me quite a bit of the earlier Puerto Rican communities that I grew up in and that I was a part of. So I think, of course, there are differences. I think there are differences in all groups. But I think that there are also very strong similarities.

A multicultural mix of people

RAY SUAREZ: Ilan Stavans, how do you come down on these questions?

ILAN STAVANS: I think we are witnessing and at the same time participants in a crucial moment in American history. We have seen the emergence of a new Latino nation. In the 19th century, Simon Bolivar, one of the major libertadoris of Latin America dreamed of creating a republic of a republics in the Southern Hemisphere. But as many dreams of the 19th century -- many political dreams -- it came to nothing. And ironically 150 years later, we have a new Latino nation north of the border at the very heart -- in the very belly of that country that was perceived for many years as the enemy. Many of us growing up in Mexico or in Colombia or in Argentina never really came across, lived nearby a Puerto Rican or a Cuban. And here we are for the first time becoming a nation made of multiple nations. I think it is a very exciting time. I think we are not bilingual but probably multilingual -- Spanish, English and Spanglish, which I think is the language of this new minority. And I think there is a give and take. We have a lot to offer to this country and we have a lot to learn from this country as well.

RAY SUAREZ: But does that term, that way of counting, put together people who see themselves as a part, people who have different migration histories, different social standing, different educational level, different colors, along with different regions of the country?

ILAN STAVANS: I think it certainly does. We come from different backgrounds. We really exemplify this idea of e pluribus Unum -- the unity and the diversity or vice versa. There is a lot that we have to learn in order to live together, Latin Americans have also had to learn to be democratic, to live with one another. Puerto Ricans and Cubans have not always lived in peace. Mexican Americans and Central Americans have also had their tensions. We're white, we're black, we're upper class, we're middle class, we're lower class. There is a new nation that is beginning to shape itself. I think the media, radio, particularly, television, music, is creating this sense of unity in a way that is perhaps shaping the street and the classroom and the family room; is announcing that in order to be a unity, we have to explore our diversity, be honest with ourselves, be honest with the rest of the country and by doing so, we will understand that in the multiplicity, there is also power.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Richard Rodriguez, if a sociologist were sitting down with a blank page to start work on a book about this era we have been talking about, if you concentrated on the high levels of intermarriage among these people, you might be led in one direction; if you concentrated on the high levels of residential segregation, you might be led to a very different conclusion. Which is going to set the tone for the coming era?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think both are going to be coincidence in the sense that California, for example, has one of the highest rates of miscegenation in the United States. But we also have the highest number of gated communities. In other words, we are closing in together and we're drawing apart at the same time. This is happening at a time in which United States clearly is becoming -- not simply Hispanics are becoming aware of each other but the United States is becoming aware of the Americas. The Latinization of the United States is proceeding as in a country that has been traditionally East-West is become increasingly in its thinking North-South, it's becoming aware of Canada and Mexico immediately and hemispherically becoming aware of America within the Americas.

The other question one has to ask though, too, is what the relationship is of the so-called Hispanic to these other large groups of Americans now, the Asian, the black, the white. I mean, 19th century America convinced Sicilian grandmothers and Germans and polish Jews that they were white in America. And in the same way America, bureaucratic America is trying to convince all of us that we are Hispanic. At the time that it is doing this, we are convincing America, the United States, that it is part of the Americas because suddenly there are 34, 35, 36 million of us who move back and forth at a North-South line. We are changing you, the United States, even while you give us this name, this absurdity and you call us Hispanic.

South to North migration

RAY SUAREZ: Samuel Betances, so it is a two-way traffic. You agree with that?

SAMUEL BETANCES: It is a two-way traffic. My wife and I have a home in Puerto Rico. We live in Chicago. That's part of it. The other part of it is that there are some people that come that cannot exercise that option. and the interesting and fascinating thing about this Latino explosion in the demographics is that we now find Latinos in North Carolina, in South Carolina, in Mississippi, in Arkansas, and people from Central America in significant numbers. And I think if it frightens people, two things that would I caution. Number one, just keep in mind, please, that the United States of America and I say this in a very respectful manner, was founded by illegal aliens. I mean, the English did not give their passports to the indigenous American Indians. So that all of us in one-way or another have come from different places and now there is this tremendous challenge. In terms of language, bilingual education is not something that is likely to make America bilingual, but properly implemented can make instruction understood.

As long as we're able to work along those lines, people will be able to become powerful, productive patriotic Americans like the Mexican Americans and the Latinos during World War II and the Korean conflict which came back with more Congressional Medals of Honor than any category of American citizens. I believe that if we bring these people, unleash their potential, respect them and realize that what we have got here are citizens of the Americas, adding value to our collective journey, we can succeed and people like me, hey, I'm an American. I love this country. But I do have this option once in awhile, a couple of times a year, because I am educated and as a professional, I can afford it, go back and forth. So there will be some back and forth but above all else, all of us have to move forward and America will be greater if we embrace this talent and embrace the Latinos, welcome them in so that they can expand the mosaic that makes us all proud to be Americans.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Rodriguez, so many of you during this conversation have been talking about differences and samenesses, things that make this group American, very American and part of the American story, things that still make them a people apart. Which is it?



CLARA RODRIGUEZ: I think it's both. I think... but I think in being both, what Latinos are beginning to say to America, to the United States, is that it is possible to be both. In the same way that Professor Betances can have a home in Puerto Rico where he speaks I'm sure Spanish, he also can consider himself an American. So I think that that's the message. There are similarities; there are differences. It is interesting. People of think about bilingual -- being bilingual as if that were something that meant, one, you had a problem and two, you only spoke one language. But the meaning of the word is to speak two languages. And I think that that's an ideal to which all Americans might want to subscribe, given that we are increasingly living in a global world. So I think it's both, and I think it's good that it's both.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I'm going to have to end it there. Thank you guests all.

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