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Houston Chronicle

Hispanics Abound, Hard To Pin Down


February 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Houston Chronicle. All Rights Reserved.

IT'S old news that Hispanics will dominate the demographic future of Houston, Texas and much of the United States.

Here in Houston, Hispanics are the largest ethnic group, according to the 2000 census, surpassing Anglos for the first time.

But those seeking to market to Hispanics have a real problem. First of all, this is a culture that cuts across racial and national boundaries. Hispanics might be black, Caucasian or Asian; from Cuba, Puerto Rico or Argentina. While Mexican-Americans dominate in Houston, the percentage of Hispanics from Central and South America in the city grew from 10 percent to 24 percent from 1990 to 2000.

How Hispanics identify themselves also ranges all over the lot. Orlando Sanchez, who came close to winning the recent Houston mayoral race, told a conference on race a couple of weeks ago in Baton Rouge that he is white. And then there's my son-in-law, born in Mexico, also a Caucasian, who insists he isn't white.

Fortunately, businesses don't have to psychoanalyze Hispanics. They just have to sell to them. And for those in business, the best way to determine the pitch is to look at the target Hispanic audience and determine one fact. Is it a native-born one? Or an immigrant one?

Gap in income levels

Why? Because there is a big difference between income levels of Hispanic immigrants and the native-born. That's on average, of course. Individuals can always confound the averages.

Hispanic Business, a California-based magazine, took a closer look at census information in its December issue and came up with some interesting demographic differences between native-born and immigrant Hispanics.

Up until 1989, incomes for both native-born and immigrant Hispanics were climbing in the United States. They are still rising for the natives. But starting around 1989, immigrant household incomes started dropping - from around $39,000 a year in 1989 to $35,000 in 1999.

That came as the number of foreign-born U.S. Hispanics more than tripled in the last two decades - most coming from Mexico and Central America.

This influx of Hispanic immigrants has less education than the native-born. For example, 55 percent of immigrants had not graduated from high school as opposed to 25 percent of the native-born. And in this country, income and education go hand in hand, particularly during hard times.

More in the middle class

Among the native-born, Hispanics are moving into the middle class. Between 1979 and 1999 the number of Hispanic middle-income households almost doubled, from 1.4 million to 2.5 million.

Income per adult among middle-income Hispanics grew 9 percent over that same period.

One of the chief reasons why so many Hispanic households have entered the middle class is that members of these families tend to pool their incomes. These households have on average 2.26 wage earners, one more than Hispanics in lower-income groups.

And the other reason is - of course - education. Some 20 years ago, only 9 percent of native-born Hispanics had college degrees and 47 percent had high school degrees. By 1999, 13 percent of Hispanics were college grads and 62 percent had high school degrees.

With more education, Hispanics are moving out of service jobs. Among middle-class Hispanics, about half are blue-collar workers, a fourth are midlevel professionals, and another quarter are administrators and professionals.

Those trying to market to the Hispanic middle class must also look beyond Spanish. Stephen Trejo, an associate professors of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, says U.S.-born Hispanics strongly prefer communicating in English.

"Hispanics experience dramatic improvements in English proficiency as we move from first-generation immigrants to their second- generation children. And these language improvements contribute in important ways to earnings progress," Trejo adds.

The magazine Hispanic Business predicts this movement to the middle class by Hispanics will bring $76 billion in new purchasing power in the next decade to add to their present $278 billion.

"Just as the baby-boom generation put its indelible mark on American culture and became the focus of Madison Avenue and corporate marketing, so will the Hispanic generation as it continues to grow and gain economic clout," the magazine predicts.

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