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Shifting Portrait of U.S. Hispanics
By D'Vera Cohn
May 10, 2001
The rising number of Mexican Americans accounted for more than half of the past decade's growth in Hispanics, according to census figures that detail the changing makeup of the Latino population, soon to be the country's largest minority.
But the data released today also create a mystery: For the first time, a huge number of Hispanics, more than 6 million, declined to identify the country where they or their ancestors were born.
Some experts say this could reflect confusion over the census form. But many also say there may be a more profound implication: growing assimilation by many Hispanics who no longer identify with a home country and see themselves primarily as U.S. residents.
In any case, the result is that Hispanics with no identified national origin are the nation's second-largest group of Latinos, after people of Mexican origin.
In the Washington area, the dominant group is different. Salvadorans, only 2 percent of the Hispanic population nationally, are believed to be the largest group of Hispanics here, although those census figures have not been released. The region's Hispanic population rose by nearly 90 percent over the 1990s.
In Maryland and Virginia, according to the figures, the Mexican American population more than doubled; in the District, it rose by 66 percent. But the total number of people of Mexican origin in the two states and the District -- nearly 119,000 -- is one-fifth of the region's Hispanic population.
Nationally, the Hispanic population is 35.3 million; it grew nearly 58 percent over the 1990s, catching up to black non-Hispanics and signaling rapid social and political change in this country. Nearly 17 million Hispanics described themselves as white, followed by nearly 15 million who checked "some other race." The census figures include legal and illegal immigrants.
People of Mexican origin grew by 7.1 million over the decade, accounting for most of the increase of 12.9 million in the nation's Hispanic population, according to a national head count a year ago. Nearly 21 million people told the census they were of Mexican origin, and they make up more than 58 percent of U.S. Hispanics.
Demographers are eager to learn more about Hispanics who did not identify a country of origin,including income, education and whether they are U.S.-born -- information that is not yet available. Meanwhile, they are trading theories.
"If you go back early in this century, when Italians came here, they weren't Italians; they were Calabrians and Sicilians and this and that and the other," said Jorge del Pinal, a Census Bureau official. "As they assimilated, they said they were Italian. There could be a little bit more of this going on in the Hispanic population."
In addition, although past surveys have found that Hispanic subgroups do not see themselves as having much in common, "perhaps there is an emerging pan-Hispanic identify," said Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Passel.
It could be, he said, that the rise of Univision, Telemundo and other national Spanish-language media is onepart of a rising Hispanic self-identity that transcends borders.
Passel and University of Texas political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza said any fading of home-country identity would be most true for Hispanics born in the United States. Two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics were born here.
"If you ask a person whose family has been here for a while . . . they really don't have a Latin American nationality," de la Garza said.
Passel also suggested that with increasing intermarriage among Latinos from different countries, parents may describe their children as Hispanic rather than, for example, as a mix of Salvadoran and Mexican.
When the census began asking about Hispanic origin in 1970, the term was challenged as "a combination of disparate groups without much in common," Passel recalled. The new data, he said, suggest that Hispanics may now be more inclined to view themselves as united under a common identity.
However, demographers also agree that some people may have been confused by the census question, which changed since 1990.
In 1990 and 2000, the questionnaire offered Hispanics the option to designate themselves as "Mexican," "Puerto Rican," "Cuban" or "other," along with a space to fill in more detail for the "other" category. In 1990, the form offered several examples of how to fill in the space, such as "Salvadoran" or "Spaniard." The 2000 form did not.
"It could be a glitch in the data," de la Garza said. Or, he added, "it could reflect something real in the data that is a sociological phenomenon. What it clearly tells us is that the political significance of national identification is very easily overstated."
The large number of Hispanics without an identified country of origin makes it difficult to pinpoint what subgroups are growing or shrinking as a share of the overall Latino population. Demographers say it is likely that Puerto Ricans and Cubans are becoming a smaller fraction because they are not seeing many new migrants.
But del Pinal and others believe that based on other surveys, Mexicans, Central Americans and South Americans are gaining dominance.
The census found that the Hispanic population is relatively young, with a median age of 25.9 years, compared with 35.3 years for the population overall.
More than three-quarters of Hispanics live in the South and West. Mexican Americans are even more likely to be congregated in those regions. Three million live in Los Angeles County alone.