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Young Hispanics Redefining America -- On Their Terms


June 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

CHICAGO -- Jesus Segura circulates among his three worlds -- Puerto Rican, Mexican and American -- without leaving the city where he was born.

To him, the worlds and the neighborhoods that represent them are distinct. But together they create a single identity as inseparable as the blood in his veins.

"They are all a part of me, equally," says the 16-year-old Chicagoan, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father Mexican. "I'm quite proud of my countries. I love every single one of them."

It is a common sentiment among Hispanic boomers -- a new generation whose ranks have grown so quickly that, at 12.3 million, they are now the nation's largest minority group among those 17 and younger, according to the 2000 Census.

They are, by their very numbers, helping reshape America for the 21st century -- but not without maintaining a tight grip on their roots.

One market research survey found 54 percent of these teens identified themselves as Hispanic only or more Hispanic than American. Another 37 percent said they were equally Hispanic and American, according to the 1999 survey, completed by San Diego-based TNS Market Development.

That sense of cultural pride has only been enhanced as Hispanic pop icons, sports stars and political leaders -- from singer/actress Jennifer Lopez and baseball star Alex Rodriguez to California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, former speaker of that state's Assembly -- increasingly gain the spotlight.

"Hopefully, it's not just a phase that will eventually go away," says Vanessa Soto, a recent high school graduate who -- along with Segura and many other Latino youth -- has learned to be an on-air producer at Radio Arte, a small station that broadcasts to Chicago's largely Mexican Pilsen neighborhood.

Many of their elders think this is just the beginning of the "Latinization of America."

"For me, jokingly I would say, it's like Montezuma's Revenge or a little bit like taking back Mexico in a sense," says Felipe Korzenny, a native Mexican who is co-founder of Cheskin, a market research and consulting business based in Redwood Shores, Calif.

And, he says, Hispanic youth are a huge part of that, as many U.S. companies scurry to tap into a market that Korzenny estimates already spends $200 billion a year. Those companies include Pepsi, Radio Shack and MTV-S, a cable network that features rock and pop music "en Espanol."

Still others, who are organizing voter registration drives in high schools, see the new generation's potential for political power.

The nonprofit United States Hispanic Leadership Institute hosts an annual fall conference attended by thousands of teens, with Hispanic business leaders as speakers, a college fair and workshops on political organizing.

"The numbers are there," says Juan Andrade Jr., who heads the institute. "It's just a matter of whether we create good leaders or mediocre leaders."

While they are bound by labels and often language, Hispanic youth are not easy to categorize in other ways.

Some of their ancestors were here well before these states were united. Others have just arrived from such countries as Guatemala, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and -- still most often -- Mexico.

Many are bilingual. Newer arrivals sometimes speak only Spanish. And still others speak only English -- or, like Esperanza Garcia, prefer to speak English because they know it better.

She says that causes some Latino students at her high school in San Jose, Calif., to judge her.

"You could be black or whatever. But if you hang out with a certain group or if you wear Gap or Abercrombie & Fitch, then they say you're whitewashed," says Garcia, who is 17.

At the same time, she says she has to fight stereotypes that some white students have.

"People see Mexican-Americans as people who are in gangs or who get pregnant at an early age," she says.

Many Hispanic teens concede that their generation still does have its problems, among them struggles with education. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Hispanic students nationwide are twice as likely as blacks and three times as likely as whites to drop out of high school.

"They think they can work for $8.50 an hour for the rest of their lives," says Segura, who goes by the nickname Chuy (pronounced "Chewy"). "But I want more than that."

A high school junior in the fall, he has every intention of college and hopes to become a music teacher. Garcia and Soto also have college plans.

When he graduates, though, Segura says he'll take a year off to travel with his rock trio -- a basement band called Norge Glass Company that includes two friends. Segura plays bass and sings.

"I'm the low-income member," Segura quips, referring to the fact that his two band mates -- one white, one of Puerto Rican descent -- live in wealthy Chicago neighborhoods.

It was music, especially a love for the defunct Chicago rock band The Smashing Pumpkins, that brought their worlds together. "Now we're like brothers," says Segura, who hopes all three will go to the same college.

If he graduates college, Segura will be among the first in his extended family to get a degree. But first, he will focus on high school and helping his mother raise his two younger brothers, taking on an extra job this summer to help pay the bills.

"I'm the big brother, father and breadwinner," says Segura, whose parents are divorced. "For me, that is the real world."

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