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Hispanics: Beyond the Myths
by Dick Kirschten
August 14, 1999
Copyright © 1999 NATIONAL JOURNAL GROUP INC. All Rights Reserved.
The immigrants keep coming, not only to the Southwest but up
the eastern seaboard to New York and Boston and west to Chicago
and the Midwest, where they meet the long-established Chicanos,
the North Americans of Mexican origin, who have been here even
longer than the gringos.
--Carlos Fuentes, The Buried Mirror, 1992 On the eve of the
21st century, Hispanics--people with that most variegated of ethnicities--are
emerging with fanfare as America's hot new minority. The faces
of Latino singers and movie stars have recently graced the covers
of popular magazines, including Newsweek, Rolling Stone, People,
and George, surrounded by headlines blaring that "Young Hispanics
Are Changing America'' and "Latino Power Brokers Are Making
America Sizzle.'' At Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in
July, seven of the starting players were Hispanics, whose average
salaries exceed $7 million a year. Presidential aspirants are
using Spanish-language sound bites in their stump speeches.
Not only are famous Hispanics getting attention, but so, too,
the infamous. The nation's front pages and television screens
focused relentlessly this summer on the face of illegal immigrant
Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, the object of a six-week FBI manhunt,
a man thought to be the "railroad killer'' responsible for
eight brutal slayings since 1997.
Indeed, Hispanics are becoming a larger and more prominent
part of the American polyglot. Their numbers have been bolstered
by high birth rates and a remarkable shift in immigration patterns
since World War II, with Latinos making up more than 11 percent
of the U.S. population, a proportion that is projected to grow
to one in four by 2050. (The terms "Latino'' and "Hispanic''
seem to have become virtually interchangeable.) They will outnumber
non-Hispanic blacks by 2005, laying claim to the title of America's
largest minority group.
Hispanics, however, are not the monolithic minority sometimes
portrayed in the media. With origins traceable to more than a
score of Spanish-speaking homelands, and complexions that range
in hue from white to brown to black, Hispanics are, as Mexican
diplomat Carlos Fuentes so aptly noted, "above all mixed,
A more accurate portrait of the 31 million Hispanics in the
United States would be equally mixed and, indeed, more complex.
Most Hispanics are neither highly paid entertainers nor members
of an impoverished underclass of illegal aliens.
In reality, the Hispanic community is both more and less successful,
and more and less important, than popular opinion or prejudice
might suggest. It is a vibrant community to be sure, and many--probably
most--members are carving their niche in the nation's middle class,
just as other ethnic immigrants did before them. Others, however,
are struggling to get into the working class. Poverty is a serious
concern for one Latino in four.
Neither are Hispanics a teeming mass of illegal and illiterate
aliens. Today's Hispanics are predominantly native- born (56 percent).
When those who have been naturalized or are Puerto Rico natives
are included, 70 percent are U.S. citizens. A majority of the
remainder reside here legally. Estimates vary, but it appears
that no more than 13 percent to 14 percent of Hispanics in the
United States are here unlawfully.
Spanish is spoken in many Latino households, but fluency in
English is widespread, especially among U.S.-born children exposed
to television programming and the U.S. educational system. And
bilingual education, although controversial, is, in fact, rare.
Two-thirds of Hispanic children who speak only Spanish receive
instruction in U.S. schools where only English is taught.
Though they are voting in larger numbers, the might of the
Latino electorate--quadrennially hyped as "a slumbering giant''--has
proved illusory. Although one in nine Americans is Hispanic, only
about one in every 20 votes is cast by a Hispanic. Nearly a third
of Hispanics cannot vote because they are not citizens, and more
than 40 percent of those who are citizens are below voting age.
Politicians, however, can ill afford to ignore the Latino community,
which in recent years has begun to mature as a political force
and to place higher priority on attaining citizenship. Hispanic
voters are particularly important because they are concentrated
in a half-dozen key electoral states. In California, whose 54
electoral votes are by far the largest plum in presidential contests,
Hispanics make up more than a third of the population and cast
upward of 12 percent of the votes in the 1996 election. In Texas,
where 32 electoral votes are up for grabs in 2000, Latinos accounted
for 17 percent of the 1996 vote.
Hispanic economic power is also maturing. The magazine Hispanic
Business, which annually lists the 500 largest Latino- owned companies,
this year hailed the first such company to post annual revenues
in excess of $1 billion: the Miami-based construction firm MasTec
Inc., headed by Jorge Mas Jr., son of a deceased Cuban-exile leader.
But like other immigrant groups before them, Hispanics for
the most part are found on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
In today's booming economy, Hispanic men are participating in
the labor force at a higher rate than either black or white men.
But not all who are working are getting ahead. The median family
income for U.S. Hispanics was $26,628 in 1997 and has been climbing
slowly. It remains well below that of whites ($38,972) and only
slightly higher than that of blacks ($25,050).
Large numbers of Latinos, both native- and foreign-born, belong
to the ranks of America's working poor. More than a third of Hispanic
children are being raised in poverty--defined as $16,700 a year
for a family of four--and disturbingly large numbers of them are
falling by the educational wayside, dropping out of school and--with
increasing frequency--dropping into the criminal justice system.
This more nuanced portrait of Hispanics in America has given
rise to a lively debate as to whether Hispanics should be treated
as a discriminated against minority entitled to civil rights remedies
similar to those afforded blacks, or viewed simply as another
immigrant group en route to assimilating into the U.S. mainstream.
It's a debate that continues today in such states as California
and Texas, where quotalike approaches to affirmative action have
been rejected, but other means are used to bolster Latino enrollment
in state colleges and universities; one such measure is Texas'
program of admitting any student who graduates in the top 10 percent
of his or her high school class.
Political scientist Peter Skerry ruffled feathers with his
1993 book, Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority, which criticized
those who promote the idea that Hispanics are an oppressed minority.
"It is the racial minority perspective that has fundamentally
shaped Mexican-American politics,'' he wrote. Such an approach,
he argued, may be ``emotionally and programmatically gratifying
to its elite practitioners, but it offers little help to newcomers
struggling to make sense of their new lives.''
But other experts warn that if America wants to enjoy continued
prosperity and maintain a qualified work force, remedial governmental
measures are needed to ensure that today's youthful Hispanic population
receives the educational tools-- including command of the English
language--necessary to compete successfully in a technology-driven
Susan F. Martin, executive director of the congressionally
mandated immigration reform commission that completed its work
in 1997, says that the federal government should more aggressively
address the problems of newcomers using new "immigrant integration''
policies that give "particular attention'' to health care
and English skills. The government, she adds, should also provide
aid to communities most affected by immigration. (See sidebar,
Now at Georgetown University, Martin argues that if a larger
proportion of Hispanic immigrants and their children are to prosper
as American citizens in the 21st century, they need special services
now, including a faster process for obtaining citizenship that
would also better educate them about American civic culture.
The elimination of naturalization backlogs is a high priority
of Latino advocacy groups and congressional critics of the Immigration
and Naturalization Service. Most immigrants must reside in the
United States for five years before they can apply for citizenship,
but it takes another 15 to 24 months to process their applications,
according to Rep. Lamar S. Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House
Judiciary Immigration and Claims Subcommittee, which oversees
the INS. Smith notes that the INS has a backlog of 1.8 million
naturalization petitions and 800,000 applications for permanent
residence. And the pressure will very likely not ease any time
soon. About 450,000 Hispanics enter the United States each year,
including legal and illegal immigrants.
A Complex History The story of U.S. Hispanics--some call them
Americanos--dates back to the Spanish crown's sponsorship of Christopher
Columbus' 1492 voyage of discovery. His feat led to the establishment
of a Spanish empire in the Western hemisphere in the early 16th
century. Its foot soldiers were the conquistadors and missionaries
who left their language, their religion, and sometimes their progeny
from Florida to California.
Few of today's Latinos trace their roots directly to Spain.
Some claim bloodlines here long predating this nation's founding,
but most are of more recent vintage and more closely related to
the native peoples of this hemisphere who came under the Spaniards'
Nearly two-thirds of ``Americanos'' are of Mexican ancestry;
11 percent are Puerto Rican; 4 percent Cuban; and the rest are
mostly from Central and South America and other countries of the
Caribbean. Mexicans first headed north in large numbers in the
1920s, in a movement that was cut short by the Depression and
World War II, which virtually halted immigration to America. From
1942-64, 4 million to 5 million supposedly temporary farm workers
were shuttled in from Mexico under the "bracero" or
"strong arms,'' program. Many stayed illegally and joined
the low-wage underground economy. In the 1960s, and again in the
1970s and 1990s, refugees from the Castro revolution in Cuba washed
ashore in large numbers in southern Florida.
The doors opened more widely for Hispanics (and Asians) in
1965, when Congress revoked restrictive and discriminatory "country
of origin'' quotas and anchored U.S. immigration policy on the
principle of fostering the reunification of families. Migration
from south of the border increased further after the enactment
of 1986 legislation granting amnesty to nearly 3 million unlawful
immigrants, who later became eligible to send home for their wives
and children. Civil warfare in Central America during the 1980s
created even more refugees.
Reaching Middle Class Although this country's Hispanics did
not arrive on trans- Atlantic ships, as their European counterparts
did earlier this century, they do resemble the Ellis Island immigrants
in their slow but steady generational advancement up the economic
and political ladder.
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., represents a downtown
Los Angeles district adjacent to the one that her New Mexico-born
father, Rep. Edward R. Roybal, served for 30 years before retiring
in 1992. In an interview, she stressed the need to paint a balanced
and more complex picture of a Latino community that has both serious
needs and laudable accomplishments.
"There are lousy schools in the Latino community, and
people need better jobs,'' she said. "But we have to make
sure that the public isn't under the impression that every Latino
is a poor immigrant or--unfortunately, because of negative publicity--
that we are all criminals or drug addicts.''
Roybal-Allard noted that "the Hispanic community is very
proud that we have more Medal of Honor recipients than any other
ethnic group, that we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other
Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow with the Pepperdine University
School of Public Policy in California, has traced the economic
progress of Hispanics in five Southern California counties that,
according to the 1990 census, were home to more than a fifth of
the nation's Latino population. Their progress was conspicuous.
His 1996 survey, 'The Emerging Latino Middle Class,'' found
that a third of the area's households headed by foreign- born
Hispanics, and slightly more than half of those headed by U.S.-born
Hispanics, had incomes in excess of $35,000 or owned their own
In a recent interview, Rodriguez argued that Washington's "dysfunction-oriented''
approach to minorities has created a perverse political system
that "channels the spoils to the loser.'' If minorities prove
they are victims, they get special help. Such an approach, he
maintained, makes little sense at a time when Hispanics are making
significant political gains in key states. (California's Lt. Gov.
Cruz M. Bustamante and state Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa,
for example, are both Latinos.) "It becomes incongruous to
use the victimization approach when you're the lieutenant governor,''
Rodriguez likens today's Latinos to earlier generations of
Irish and Italian immigrants, whose economic progress was "multigenerational,
evolving over time from upper-blue-collar to sort of lower-pink-collar.''
He predicted that the basic Spanish identity will not go away,
but politically, Latinos will be co- opted by the mainstream.
"When Al Smith first became Governor of New York,'' he said,
"that's when people first started identifying the Irish as
Irish-Americans. And that is already happening with Hispanics.''
As the author of a recent report, "From Newcomers to New
Americans,'' published by the Washington-based National Immigration
Forum, Rodriguez hopes to debunk the stereotype that portrays
Hispanics as unwilling to culturally assimilate and adopt English
as their language. "We have to take the debate away from
the left-wing multiculturalists and the ethnic nationalists, as
well as from the right-wing nativists,'' he said. To do that,
"it makes common sense to focus on the upward mobility of
Rodriguez's research on Southern California shows that, as
Latinos move into the middle class, they achieve increasing fluency
in English while retaining "some linguistic and cultural
continuity'' in the home. Significantly, the majority of upwardly
mobile Latinos choose to reside in racially integrated middle-
income communities where they often constitute a minority, the
report states. Nearly a third, he found, marry non-Hispanics.
A third-generation Mexican-American, Rodriguez acknowledges
that Hispanics have differed from other immigrant groups in their
reluctance, even after living here for decades, to formally sever
ties with their homelands by becoming U.S. citizens. ``There was
a nostalgia for home, an idea that one day they would return to
Mexico to retire,'' he said. But that tendency has changed markedly
since former California Gov. Pete Wilson backed a ballot initiative
in 1994 to deny public education and other benefits to illegal
immigrants, and Congress, two years later, voted to strip legal
immigrants of their eligibility for key benefits. The nostalgia
for home has diminished, and Hispanics are seeking to naturalize
in record numbers.
Struggling for a Foothold Yet while many Hispanics are achieving
middle-class status , a sizable portion is not. In her recently
published book, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Urban
City, sociologist Katherine S. Newman of Harvard University's
John F. Kennedy School of Government notes that "the largest
group of poor people in the United States are not those on welfare.
They are the working poor, whose earnings are so meager that despite
their best efforts, they cannot afford decent housing, diets,
health care, or child care.''
Hispanics are more likely than any other group to be members
of the working poor. Newman's study focuses on New York City,
where Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are among the poorest of the
poor. The Puerto Ricans, who have the advantage of U.S. citizenship
and greater English proficiency, tend to have higher earnings,
she reports, while the Dominicans ``tend to make up for this disadvantage
by increasing the number of people per household who are in the
Yet even when both parents in a Hispanic family are working,
their income often falls short of their needs. "One of the
really troubling things,'' says Sonia Perez, a deputy vice president
of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group,
is that Latino families headed by intact married couples are more
likely to live in poverty than similar African-American or white
"There is something wrong here,'' Perez argued in a recent
interview. "You have a mother and a father and someone who
is working full time. This is what everybody is supposed to be
doing. These are the values we are trying to promote. They are
exemplified by this community, but it's not working for them.''
Census statistics support Perez. Hispanic households are almost
as likely as white households to be headed by married couples--55
percent, compared with 56 percent for the latter. Only 32 percent
of non-Hispanic black households are headed by married couples.
Yet more than a fourth of Latino families (27.1 percent) are poor,
and slightly more than a third of America's total Hispanic population
lives in poverty.
Education Is Key Perez and other experts view education as
critical to overcoming Latino poverty, particularly for large
numbers of children who are growing up in Spanish-speaking homes
and whose fluency in English is limited or nonexistent. The Urban
Institute, a Washington think tank, notes that the number of school-age
children whose parents are immigrants has more than tripled since
1970 and now totals nearly 12 million. Of that number, close to
7 million are Hispanics.
The highly polarized debate over bilingual education has not
helped. It has masked the fact that such programs are offered
to fewer than a third of immigrant children, and that many language-limited
youngsters receive no special help at all. Researchers estimate
that more than 3 million public school students, three-fourths
of whom are Hispanics, have limited ability to speak and understand
The debate over bilingual education has also hidden the need
for continuing help with English for Hispanics in the upper grades
of elementary school and in middle and high schools.
In an interview, Michael Fix, a senior analyst at the Urban
Institute, said ``some kind of language instruction'' is available
to three of four elementary students who need it, but fewer than
half of students in higher grades whose English is limited receive
such assistance. Hispanic students, he added, are far more likely
than whites or blacks to attend schools where a third or more
of the enrollment consists of English-deficient students. Such
schools, he declared, ``are not just ethnically, but linguistically,
Studies show that "limited English proficiency'' students
have better attendance rates than other students, but nonetheless
perform worse on tests, including those administered in Spanish,
and are less likely to graduate from high school. One of every
five students with limited English proficiency drops out of school--double
the rate for English speakers.
Like other school dropouts, Latino youngsters frequently become
involved with gangs and run afoul of the law. Although Hispanics
make up only about 11.5 percent of the U.S. population, they account
for a larger--and steadily rising--share of the nation's state
and federal prison populations. Justice Department estimates indicate
that 13.3 percent of all prisoners in 1990 were Hispanic, a figure
that rose to 15.8 percent by 1996. A recent National Academy of
Sciences report that focused on immigrants found that "noncitizens
are more likely to be in prison for drug offenses, especially
possession of drugs,'' than for violent offenses or property crimes.
From the perspective of La Raza's Perez, America can ill afford
to ignore the problems associated with low educational achievement
by large numbers of Hispanics. As of 1997, only 54.7 percent of
U.S. Latinos had graduated from high school and only 7.4 percent
"These are the workers for the new millennium, and we
need to make sure that we prepare them for the kinds of jobs that
will have high demand,'' she said. ``We don't live in the kind
of society any more in which people without a diploma can get
a factory job and raise a family.''
The Critical Few America's Hispanics are many things--both
rising middle class and working poor. But one thing they are not
is a monolithic vote.
Florida's Cubans have found a comfortable home in the Republican
Party; Puerto Ricans in the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest
have found solace in the social safety net programs of the Democratic
Party. While the growing electoral strength of Mexican-Americans
in California has recently enhanced the prospects of Democrats
in the Golden State, Mexican-Americans in Texas have elevated
the presidential prospects of their Spanish-speaking Republican
Governor, George W. Bush.
Indeed, the fact that Hispanics have voted in mixed patterns
makes them highly sought after by both parties, and explains why
Latinos are so much in play for the 2000 elections.
Republicans next year would love to equal or better the high-water
mark set in 1984 when President Reagan received 40 percent of
the nationwide Hispanic vote in his re-election sweep. Democrats,
on the other hand, crave a repeat of 1996--when GOP contender
Bob Dole won only 21 percent of the Latino vote.
But in seeking Hispanic votes, the approaches of the two parties
could not be more different. Bush has chosen Linda Chavez as his
leading adviser on immigration issues. She is a controversial
and outspoken opponent of affirmative action who was Reagan's
appointee to chair the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. A key
adviser to Vice President Al Gore will be Maria Echaveste, currently
a deputy White House chief of staff, who made a name for herself
at the Labor Department cracking down on sweatshop abuses by the
Chavez traces her Latina ancestry through her father's side
of the family back to Spain and the 1600s. Her mother was English-Irish.
Echaveste, by contrast, is the daughter of Mexican farmworkers
who migrated first to Texas, then to California, and now, in retirement,
have returned to their native Mexico.
In separate interviews, the two advisers argued that the traditional
approaches of their respective political parties will have resonance
with Hispanic voters.
Chavez pointed out that the Hispanics who "are most likely
to vote'' are hard-working entrepreneurs 'who are moving into
that lower-middle-class niche'' despite shortcomings in formal
education. For the most part, she said, they operate small businesses,
such as restaurants, gardening services, or mom-and- pop groceries.
Republicans should be able to appeal to such voters by addressing
their concerns about crime and safety and by condemning government
regulation. "These are people who have problems with red
tape, problems with government mandates for everything from health
care to mandatory parental leave,'' Chavez said.
Echaveste, by contrast, said Democrats will appeal to Hispanics
as consumers of government services that will be in jeopardy if
the GOP gains control of the White House. "One of the reasons
that Hispanics are caught in low-wage jobs is that they need better
command of the language so they can move up,'' she said. "But
the Republican Party has not been a friend of the Department of
Education or of programs designed to get resources into poor neighborhoods.''
If Gore is the Democratic candidate, Echaveste predicted, Hispanic
voters will reward him for the Clinton Administration's recent
efforts to restore welfare benefits for legal immigrants and for
efforts to block the deportation of Central Americans seeking
political asylum here.
Chavez and Echaveste are probably both correct. The political
fault lines that divide Hispanic voters are largely economic and
precisely the same as those that divide the rest of the electorate.
If that's the case, rising prosperity among Latinos could, over
time, boost the GOP's share of their vote.
Political scientist Harry P. Pachon, who heads the California-based
Tomcs Rivera Policy Institute, says ``the roots of partisan attachment
are not deep'' among Hispanics, who have mostly voted Democratic
but are comparatively new to the electoral process. When his institute
polled Latinos in three states last year, 55 percent said that
``neither party'' does a better job than the other.
Roybal-Allard, who chairs the all-Democratic Congressional
Hispanic Caucus (three Latino Republicans in the House decline
to join), notes that Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican,
``does very well with Hispanic voters because he reached out to
the community and supported important educational projects'' before
running for public office.
"Traditionally, Latinos are more conservative,'' Roybal-
Allard explained, adding that Democrats will have to overcome
``the unfortunate perception that they are anti-business'' if
they expect to compete for middle-class Hispanic votes.
That competition could be crucial. Although Hispanic voter
registration and turnout rates still lag behind those of other
groups, they have increased dramatically in recent elections.
In the 1996 presidential election, 11.2 million Hispanics were
eligible to vote, but only 6.6 million were registered and only
4.3 million actually voted, according to the National Association
of Latino Elected Officials. Next year, according to projections
by Pachon, the nationwide Hispanic vote may reach 5.5 million.
"It doesn't take many to be called `the critical few,'
'' Republican political consultant V. Lance Tarrance Jr. recently
observed. He noted that with support for both parties evenly balanced
nationwide, it is possible "for the Hispanic vote to become
the balance of power for the next decade.''