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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, mestizo.''

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 economy.

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, p. 2357.)

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' control.

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 professionals.''

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 homes.

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,'' he said.

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 these groups.''

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 labor market.''

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 families.

"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 English.

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, segregated.''

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 from college.

"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 garment industry.

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.''

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