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Houston Chronicle

Hispanics Making U.S. Take Notice: As Their Population Swells, Latinos Help Reshape America


September 5, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Houston Chronicle. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - Hispanic influence is felt in the halls of Congress and in heartland towns. It expresses itself in music, on dinner plates and on the playing fields of the nation.

When Mexican President Vicente Fox tours Washington and a slice of Ohio this week, he may feel quite at home, thanks to the growing Hispanic influence in the United States.

Fox will find touches of Tijuana in Toledo, one of the country's most out-of-the-way big cities and one with a Spanish name if hardly a smidgen of Spanish history.

The Mexican president's state visit, the first of President Bush's administration, begins today at the White House after Fox's arrival Tuesday night. It will include an unusual joint U.S.-Mexican Cabinet meeting and an address by Fox to Congress before the two leaders go to Toledo.

Bush is not the first president from Texas, where entanglements, hostilities and hands-across-the-border camaraderie with Mexico are older than time.

But he is the first to make radio addresses in Spanish. And in Congress, some members far from the border have seen their districts swell with Latinos and have discovered a sudden need to learn the language and ways.

Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, proficient in Spanish from his days in the Peace Corps, has found his fluency increasingly useful in home state of Connecticut, where Hispanics have become the largest minority.

His advice is to go beyond language. "Get familiar with the culture and the music and the literature," he said. "People want you to connect with them."

When he speaks with Dominicans about the local foods he ate in the Dominican Republic, he finds a spark. "They go nuts - the fact that I know about goat soup," he said.

From soccer to salsa - both the sauce and the dance - the Hispanic influence is shaping the marketplace and mores of countless neighborhoods that have seen an influx of Latinos, Mexicans by far the most numerous among them.

In the latest turn of a seesaw battle going back through the 1990s, Mexican sauce is outselling ketchup on U.S. grocery shelves, marketers say.

"I think you're seeing the beginning of a major cultural influencing group, which is Hispanic-driven, Hispanic-led," said Tony Dieste, who has a Latino ad agency in Dallas.

Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the population, the census found, a 60 percent increase in a decade.

The presence is felt in many ways - bank machines that offer service in two languages, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in rural Arkansas, the staging for a second year of the Latin Grammys.

People with no Hispanic heritage are taking a slice of lime in their beer.

Hispanics are seen as an awakening political force, leaning Democratic but swayable and hotly pursued by both parties - yet largely disinclined to vote. Issues important to them are getting a hard look in Washington by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Bush's proposal to grant legal status to some illegal immigrants, while in a formative stage and running into opposition, is a leap for his Republican Party.

"A proposal like this five or six years ago would have been a complete nonstarter," said Lisa Navarrete, an advocate of Hispanic issues. "That's not the case any more."

Finally, she says, has come "an acknowledgment that this is a community that's growing, it's here to stay and that it's a big part of America's future."

Nine percent of Bush's picks for the senior Washington bureaucracy so far have been Hispanic, putting him a little ahead of former President Clinton on that score, according to presidential appointment counters.

Yet Bush's sensitivity on Hispanic matters has been expressed largely in symbolic ways, such as the weekly Spanish radio addresses that he began in early May on the occasion of the Cinco de Mayo Mexican holiday. Democrats respond in Spanish, too.

However, Hispanics seeking information from the government on the Internet find little in their language. The Interior Department asks Americans to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, but its own celebration of Hispanic treasures is in English.

The White House introduced a redesigned Web site Friday that includes a section in Spanish.

With decision-making highly concentrated in the Bush administration, Hispanic access is not yet where it could be, said Navarrete, of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group of Hispanic organizations. "We do feel there is increased visibility for the Hispanic community and somewhat increased clout."

One reason for the limitations is that many Hispanics have little in common with each other beyond a shared language and religion. People from Cuba, fiercely anti-communist and tending toward social and political conservatism, do not march in lock step with people from Puerto Rico, for example.

Some 5,000 Hispanics serve in public office across the country, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Most are at the local level; in Congress, there are no Hispanics in the Senate and 21 in the 435-member House, the group says.

On the Internet: White House in Spanish: espanol/

National Council of La Raza:

Latino officials' group:

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