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The Boston Globe

Does A Latino Community Exist?

By Luis M. Falcon

March 25, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Boston Globe. All Rights Reserved.

Since the Census Bureau's announcement that Latinos have surpassed African-Americans in number, commentators have talked of the potential for Latinos to increase the political muscle of their community. But besides the obvious demographic feat of reaching this population milestone at least six years ahead of analysts' predictions, there is little else to celebrate.

Latinos are fragmented and will continue to be in ways that have little to do with national politics or numbers, but a great deal to do with history, migration timing, immigration laws, and the characteristics of the various immigrant Latino groups. Many of these factors tend to exacerbate subgroup differences, emphasize national origin or descent, and ultimately undermine the possibilities of a coherent national Latino agenda.

The geographic distribution of Latinos responds to distinct political and economic events, limiting the number of areas in the country where different Latino groups actually share the same geographic space in significant numbers. In many areas, smaller Latino groups struggle for political recognition in the shadow of a larger Latino group.

Thus, Florida is Cuban despite a large number of Puerto Ricans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans; New York is Puerto Rican despite large numbers of Dominicans, Guatemalans, and a rising Mexican presence; Los Angeles is Mexican-American, despite having some of the largest Salvadoran and Guatemalan communities in the country.

Latinos are highly concentrated in urban centers; nearly half live in central city areas. This ties the lives of most Latinos to the social and economic standing of urban areas and all their associated ills.

At the same time, Latinos are scattered across the United States in a way that is different from prior immigrants, and that tends to dilute their political potential. They have moved to urban centers away from their original settlement. Take, for example, the movement of Dominicans away from New York City to places like Boston and Lawrence.

There is also movement to small urban areas, away from the pressures of central city living, propelled by the search for employment and better living standards. The Latino population of Dalton, Ga., for example, which grew to 40 percent of the city's population by 2000, was largely spurred by the demand for labor in the carpet industries. The majority of these Latinos came to Georgia not from their original countries but from urban areas in California and Texas.

Latino immigrants' connections to their countries of origin tend to undermine efforts in effective coalition-building. We find debates within the Dominican and Colombian communities about dual citizenship and the right to vote in the national elections in the countries they left behind. Sending money to relatives in their home countries not only accounts for a large part of those countries' economies, but functions as a bridge between home country and communities in exile.

For Puerto Ricans, the issue of the political definition of the island of Puerto Rico resonates on the mainland, the most recent debate being the Navy bombing exercises on the island of Vieques. These transnational connections, facilitated by easy communication with family and friends back home, tend to emphasize a national, rather than a collective Latino identity.

Finally, there are at least eight Latino groups in the United States whose numbers reach at least a half a million. Each group has its own historical baggage, differences in political status (documented versus undocumented), and, among some, radically different economic profiles - all factors that underscore distinctions rather than commonalities.

Is there such a thing as a Latino community? From the perspective of the majority population, maybe so. But in a society that historically has been divided along racial lines, Latinos have yet to find a social space that recognizes them for who they are.

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