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Mercury News

Tracking Latino Progress

Study shows generations move up economically as fast as European counterparts

By Edwin Garcia

May 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Mercury News. All rights reserved. 

Latinos climb the economic and educational ladder across generations as quickly as European immigrants, according to a groundbreaking assimilation study released today.

The findings by the Rand Corp., a non-profit think tank, contradict popular perceptions and many previous studies that show a wider assimilation gap between immigrants from Latin America and Europe.

An inherent problem with those studies is that they only provide a snapshot of progress between generations and don't examine the same group, ones with familial ties, over time, said James P. Smith, a senior economist at Rand and author of the new study.

``It certainly runs against the grain,'' said Smith, whose study is being published in this month's American Economic Review, a leading economics journal. ``Most of the research that has been done actually accepts the alternative view as a fact.''

For Fremont attorney Steven Jesse Corral, the gains over three generations in his family are stark: He is now an Alameda County deputy district attorney; his father worked in a steel mill before becoming a military officer; and his grandfather, who grew up in Mexico, toiled on the railroad.

``It's a natural part of the culture, that your parents always want something better for their children,'' Corral said. ``I don't know what my daughter is going to be, a judge? Run for Congress?''

Using census figures and other research data dating back to 1830, Smith studied the educational attainment and wages of Latino men and their children, paying particular attention to the largest segment of the Latino population -- Mexicans.

According to the study, Latino immigrants born 1915 to 1919 had less than an eighth-grade education. Yet their sons nearly graduated from high school, and their grandchildren went on to college. Those gains track with those made by European immigrants during that time, although Latinos still had a lower educational level.

Latino immigrants born during that same time period earned about 71 percent as much as native-born white men over their lifetimes. The sons of the Latino immigrants earned about 82 percent as much, and the grandchildren earned nearly 85 percent of the U.S.-born whites.

``Each new Latino generation not only had higher incomes than their forefathers, but their economic status converged toward the white men with whom they competed,'' Smith wrote in his report.

Smith suggests that continued success among Latinos hinges on the quality of education provided by school systems.

Scholars familiar with the report said the findings should help dispel a widely held perception that Latino immigrants have not enjoyed the same gains of European immigrants between generations.

``I welcome the fact that we are getting a more nuanced and subtle and complex view of the Hispanic community,'' said Harry Pachón, president of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont.

The study, he said, confirms an earlier report his non-profit think tank conducted in 2001, which showed significant growth of a Latino middle class.

``This is a very dynamic and diverse community,'' Pachón said. ``Although it has low-income immigrants, it also has a growing middle class and a surprisingly significant section of families who make over $100,000 a year.''

Olivia Martinez, who teaches about immigration trends at Cañada College in Redwood City, said the Italian, Irish and other European immigrants who came to the United States in the 1930s and '40s used to hear the same complaints that Latinos now hear: They're taking too long to assimilate.

The proximity to Mexico and the prevalence of those who are bilingual contribute to the perception that Latino immigrants assimilate more slowly than their European counterparts, Martinez said.

``Unlike other generations of immigrants, Latinos have a constant infusion of language and culture coming across the border all the time,'' Martinez said.

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