Hispanic Americans

Americans of Hispanic descent include people of any Mexican, Central and South American, and Caribbean nationality. Hispanics in the United States are a diverse population with great within-group and between-group differences. Many are relatively acculturated to mainstream American values, whereas others are more oriented toward their own traditional culture. Most (60%) of Hispanics in the United States were born in the United States, speak English, and aspire to achieve many of the same goals as others in the United States, such as earning a decent wage, providing a comfortable home to their children, and having their children excel educationally. In general, Hispanic Americans have a strong work ethic, are passionate about life, and are highly committed to their families and children. Their ethnic culture is rich in both tradition and customs, and their growing presence in the United States is reflected by their increasing influence in popular culture and in contemporary political discourse.

The term Hispanic stems from the word Hispania, which originally referred to the Iberian Peninsula that is now Spain. The U.S. government first used the term for the 1980 census count in reference to individuals with Latin American ancestry residing within the United States. Individuals of Spanish descent in the United States also may be included under the term. The ethnic label, Hispanic, however, is not universally accepted by all, and individuals rarely refer to themselves in that manner in their countries of origin. Different groups, and even individuals within the groups, have varying  opinions regarding their preferred term for self-identification. Some individuals, particularly in the West, prefer “Latino/a” and view Latino/a as a more progressive ethnic label. Yet, Latino/a is opposed by some because they believe the term reflects the Roman empire that had conquered Spain, or because the term Latin generally refers to various southwestern European countries. Moreover, both terms (Hispanic and Latino/a) are polemic because neither term conveys the heterogeneity among people of Latin America. Nevertheless, ethnic nomenclature is arbitrary and constantly changes across time and geography.

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During the past 20 years, the Hispanic American population has grown tremendously in the United States. The U.S. Census of 2002 reported that there were 37.4 million Hispanics living in the United States, in comparison with 22.4 million in 1990, and 17 million in 1985. In fact, Hispanics have surpassed African Americans in number and are now the second largest ethnic group in the United States. As of 2002, about 66.9% of Hispanics living in the United States were of Mexican heritage, 8.6% of Puerto Rican decent, and 3.7% Cuban; the remaining 20.8% were mostly from various countries in Latin America. Some areas in the United States, such as Central Florida, for example, recently have experienced a large influx of South Americans, which is altering the Hispanic landscape of Florida. Not reflected in the national figures are the illegal or undocumented migrants who were not adequately counted. Although accurate figures are hard to obtain, it is estimated that about 7 million illegal Mexican immigrants currently live in the United States. Because of their illegal status, they often are taken advantage of and occupy low-paying jobs, working in agricultural settings, factories, and as domestic workers.

Collectively,  the  Hispanic  American  population is exceedingly young. The average age of Hispanics is close to 9 years younger than that of non-Hispanic whites. The median age, however, of the subpopulations of Hispanics ranges from 43.6 years (Cuban Americans) to 24.6 years (Mexican Americans). Hispanics’ relatively strong religious background with an emphasis on large families also contributes to twice as many Hispanic households composed of four or more people (54%), compared with non-Hispanics (28%). About 40% of the Hispanic population was born outside the United States, and about 28% report speaking English “not well” or “not at all,” suggesting that most Hispanics in this country do acculturate and master English in various degrees.

Metropolitan areas are home to the majority of Hispanic Americans,  but  they  reside  in  every  state, including Alaska and Hawaii. Additionally, several states have substantial percentages of their populations made up of Hispanics, such as New Mexico (42%), Texas (32%), California (32%), and Arizona (25%). Certain cities also have high percentages of Hispanic Americans, such as San Antonio (54.5%), Los Angeles (43.5%), Miami (34.1%), Houston (31.6%), New York City (19.9%), Denver (19.5%), and Chicago (17.3%).

The largest Hispanic subgroup—Mexican Americans— primarily populate the southern (34%) and western (55%) regions of the country in addition to many metropolitan areas. Cuban Americans reside primarily in the south (75%), whereas large northeastern cities are the principal residences of Puerto Ricans (58%).

Challenges For Hispanic Americans

The Hispanic population in the United States, along with their Latin American and Caribbean counterparts, has experienced a series of conquest, oppression, and struggle for freedom, which has led to pervasive social oppression. Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors destroyed much of the indigenous cultures and religions while subjugating, killing, and enslaving the people (it bears noting that intertribal warfare and slavery were common among indigenous Americans before the arrival of Europeans to the New World). The European immigrants quickly claimed ownership of territories in the New World, thereby holding the power and being able to oppress the indigenous people. Ironically, the ancestors of Hispanics have been, and continue to be, the oppressors as well as the oppressed. Because of the continued socioeconomic and political oppression in many Latin American countries, many people from all over Latin America hope for a better life in the United States.

Upon arrival in the United States, some Hispanics are disheartened to find that they still encounter societal oppression. Facing a society with a different set of values is difficult for many ethnic minority groups, including Hispanics. As an attempt to inoculate themselves from real or perceived discrimination, some Hispanics resist acculturating and strive to hold onto their language and cultural traditions. Most, however, acculturate in various degrees and gradually relinquish old ways in favor of mainstream culture. A modest amount of research suggests that having a bicultural orientation is most optimal for Hispanics because biculturalism seems to provide individuals with opportunities to selectively conserve preferred aspects of their native culture while incorporating practices and values of the host culture.

Although the various Hispanic groups may face similar challenges here in the United States, competition among Hispanic subgroups is not uncommon. This is believed, in part, to relate to the history of conflicts between and within their countries of origin. Intra-Hispanic relationships, for example, are affected by racism and classism. Throughout Latin America, those with darker skin or having indigenous or African ancestry are considered to have lower social status than those with lighter skin. Also, Latin America is plagued by deeply entrenched  notions  of  classism. Those  of  the  lower social classes experience discrimination in practically all spheres within their respective communities. Many Hispanics transport their prejudices with them from their countries of origin and sometimes discriminate against each other in the United States, especially when they fear that individuals from other groups may obtain more of the scarce jobs and resources. To non-Hispanics, these prejudices often are inconspicuous because the groups may share communities together and appear outwardly to coexist amicably.

Hispanic Diversity And Similarities

Even though there is great diversity among Hispanics as a function of their country of origin, cultural ancestry, and social class, there also are some similarities across many individuals belonging to this broad ethnic group. For example, the primary language of most people from Latin America is Spanish, although, even on this characteristic, there is wide variation. For example, the most common language spoken in South America is Portuguese because Brazil is the most populous country on that continent. The primary language of citizens of Belize, including among those of African ancestry living in Costa Rica, is English. Moreover, numerous dialects of both indigenous people and descendants of Africa are spoken throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America. Roman Catholicism is the most common religion. Personalismo, placing a high value on individuals’ dignity and self-worth and preferring close, intimate friendships, is theorized to be another common value for many Hispanic people. The emphasis placed on family unity, connectedness, and loyalty arguably is the most common value among Hispanics. The family is valued above the individual, and cooperation generally is valued above competition among family members. Many Hispanics feel that they can always count on their families to provide them with various forms of support throughout their lives; they in turn feel responsible to reciprocate in this regard to their childhood, extended, and procreational family members.

Hispanic families vary and are in a state of flux because of a confluence of factors. The traditional Hispanic family commonly is hierarchical in nature, with the elderly, parents, and males having special authority. Children typically are socialized to be bien educados, which refers to behaving well and complying  with  adults’ requests. After  children  reach adolescence, many are expected to contribute to the family finances, especially among those from the working classes. The parents, in turn, often assist their  children  financially,  morally,  and  with  child care of their grandchildren throughout their children’s lives. Sex roles tend to be rigidly defined in some Hispanic families. Consistent with traditional Hispanic culture, men are expected to be strong, dominant, and the family provider, whereas women are expected to be nurturing, submissive, and selfsacrificing. The father is considered to be the head of the family.

Although some Hispanics may exhibit similar physical characteristics, they also may vary tremendously, resembling blacks, Native Americans, Asians, or Europeans as a result of the mixing of races that has taken place in their countries of origin. Mexican Americans are primarily of mixed (mestizo) indigenous and Spanish background (in Mexico, about 50% of the population is mestizo, 30% is indigenous, and 20% is of European heritage). Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans often are of Spanish heritage, but also may be of African or mixed ancestry.

Although it might be assumed that the significant increase of Hispanics in the U.S. population would lead to an increase in political or economic power, this has not been the case thus far. Many Hispanics struggle economically and are disproportionately represented among the unemployed and underemployed. Many hold semiskilled, blue-collar jobs. It also is common for Hispanics to live in substandard housing. Although this situation may be related to discrimination, it also is due to Hispanics’ relative lack of education or vocational skills. Generally, Hispanics do not fare well in the educational sphere. More than one third drop out of school before obtaining a high school diploma, which is about twice the rate of African American students and almost four times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. Some parents of Hispanic children have difficulty advocating their children’s educational needs because of their own low education levels or lack of English proficiency. Surveys reveal that most Hispanic parents have high hopes for their children’s educational attainment, but struggle knowing how to appropriately support their children’s academic endeavors.

A Closer Look At Three Hispanic Subgroups

Mexican Americans

The Mexican-American war, which began in 1846 and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, resulted in Mexico’s forfeiture of lands now constituting Texas, California, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. The Mexicans inhabiting those areas were primarily mestizos—of mixed indigenous and Spanish ancestry. In essence, with the stroke of a pen, more than 100,000 Mexicans instantly became Mexican Americans.

Historically, Americans’ attitudes toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans have been less than favorable or ambiguous at best. Many Mexican American landowners lost their lands to white Americans shortly after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo as a result of duplicitous U.S. legal maneuvers. Also, during various periods over the past 150 years, the United States has vacillated between encouraging Mexican migrants to the United States to satisfy cheap labor demands and discouraging them by conducting deportation sweeps and denying social benefits and educational opportunities for their children. Today, although completely irrelevant to some Mexican Americans, issues related to immigration still affect many Mexican Americans given that they or extended family members must contend with immigration issues at some point in their lives. Further, because Mexican Americans generally have darker skin than whites, they have endured ongoing social discrimination in various degrees.

Contemporary Mexican Americans are quite diverse. Descriptors commonly applied to Mexican Americans have included loyal, hardworking, humble, family oriented, and Catholic. Although some values and traditions are shared across vast segments of the Mexican American population, Mexican Americans vary in personalities, acculturation, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, and occupation. Mexican Americans also vary in their preferred ethnic label, often as a function of interactions between socio-demographic variables, language proficiency, and experiences with discrimination and oppression. Some self-identify as Mexican, Spanish, Mexican American, Americans of Mexican descent, Latin, Chicano, Hispanic, and Latino. Also, intermarriage increasingly is leaving its imprints on Mexican American identity, attitudes, and behaviors. Marriages in which one partner is Mexican American and the other is non-Hispanic white represent the most common interethnic marriage in the United States.

For some Mexican Americans, the pressure to adapt or acculturate toward mainstream customs and values is stressful as they struggle to negotiate a myriad of personal, family, and cultural changes. In contrast, some Mexican Americans comfortably gravitate toward behaviors and attitudes consistent with non-Hispanic white American culture. Still, other Mexican Americans selectively acculturate, electing to maintain specific Mexican beliefs and values while adopting specific mainstream ideas or customs. Despite the inevitability of acculturation, the unity and cohesion of Mexican American families sometimes can be compromised as family members—particularly during the first few generations—learn to balance their adherence to traditional family values with their adoption of egalitarian and  individualistic  values  of  mainstream American culture.

Mexican Americans’ loyalty to their families is a prominent cultural characteristic. Mexican Americans’ concept of “family” extends beyond the nuclear family and includes uncles and aunts, cousins, and grandparents. An acceptable situation among many Mexican Americans is living with their parents until they marry. Even then, it is not uncommon for newlyweds to live with either the bride’s or groom’s parents indefinitely  following  the  wedding. Among  most  Mexican Americans, no social stigma is attached to adults who live in their parents’ homes. Another custom among many Mexican American families is socializing children to value their relationships with siblings over friendships. The end result is that Mexican Americans often maintain very close, lifelong ties to their siblings. Close sibling ties into adulthood perpetuate the family bonds because their own children will have extensive contact with uncles, aunts, and cousins. Also, many Mexican Americans abhor the practice of placing aging or sick parents into elderly institutions. Aging parents expect to live with one or more of their children up until their death.

Mexican culture has historically provided well-defined hierarchal roles for husbands and wives whereby males enjoyed power, privilege, and status. However, changes over the past several decades have modified those perceptions and expected behaviors. Contemporary Mexican American women generally have more freedom to pursue their own occupational or professional interests. Moreover, various social, acculturative,  and  political  changes  have  created  a wide range of lifestyles that have characterized family life for Mexican Americans anywhere from patriarchal to egalitarian, and every style in between.

Puerto Ricans

In 1898, following the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States. Since 1917, when U.S. citizenship was granted to all Puerto Ricans, they have been migrating to the United States in search of improved economic opportunities. During the first half of the 20th century, Puerto Ricans settled  primarily  in  New York  City  and  performed mostly manual labor in various industrial and agricultural types of employment. The largest Puerto Rican migration occurred between 1946 and 1965, when an average of 34,000 Puerto Ricans per year relocated mostly to New York City, but also to some areas of New Jersey, Connecticut, and Chicago. As economic conditions improved dramatically on the island of Puerto Rico during the 1970s, the number of Puerto Ricans immigrating to the United States declined considerably and even influenced many U.S. Puerto Ricans to  return  to  the  island.  Nonetheless,  today,  almost as many Puerto Ricans live in the United States (3,406,178) as on the island (3,623,392). The Puerto Rican migration has been described as a “revolving door” because since 1965, many Puerto Ricans have moved to and from the United States, sometimes multiple times.

Puerto Ricans’ experiences in the United States are similar to other immigrant groups because they have different sociocultural traditions and speak a language other than English. Even after several generations in the United States, Puerto Ricans tend to maintain a strong ethnic identity and retain the ability to speak Spanish. Puerto Ricans living on the island have most of the rights and obligations of U.S. citizens, such as paying social security taxes, receiving some federal welfare, electing to serve in the U.S. military, and holding U.S. passports. Only Puerto Ricans living in the United States must pay federal taxes and have the right to vote in the presidential elections.

Puerto Ricans, both in the United States and on the island, often call themselves Boricuas and refer to the island as Borinquen in verses, songs, and conversation. Puerto Ricans, as a group, are ethnically and racially mixed. They are the descendants of Taino (the original indigenous people on the island when it was discovered by  Spaniards),  Spanish  settlers,  and African  slaves (Puerto Rico actively participated in the slave trade until  1870).  Taino  and African  cultural  beliefs  and traditions blended with the dominant Spaniard culture to give rise to Puerto Rican musical, literary, and cultural tradition and to their contemporary national identity. Puerto Ricans have a fluid concept of race that considers  shade  of  skin  color,  facial  features,  and hair texture in determining a person’s race. Racial categories in Puerto Rico include black and white as the two ends of the continuum, with other categories in between that describe specific combinations of features such as trigueño (light brown skin ), moreno (dark brown skin), indio or canela (light brown skin with Caucasian features), or jabao (light skin color with Negroid facial features or hair texture).

In the United States, Puerto Ricans are one of the most economically disadvantaged ethnic groups. They have a lower rate of labor force participation, a higher rate of unemployment, and a higher poverty rate than non-Hispanic whites as well as other Hispanic groups. According to the Census Bureau in 1999, the unemployment rate among Puerto Ricans in the mainland aged 16 or older was 8.1%, compared with 3.4% for whites, 7% for Mexicans, and 5.8% for Cubans. Moreover, close to 26% of Puerto Ricans lived below the poverty level, compared with less than 8% of whites, 24% of Mexicans, and 17% for Cubans. In addition to social discrimination, it is believed that their relative lack of educational attainment and difficulty with the English language significantly contribute to their economic problems. They also have been affected disproportionately by the industrial restructuring of the northeast United States in the past decade.

Many Puerto Ricans long to return to their island, where they think they will feel “at home.” However, once back on the island, they often experience language and adjustment difficulties, including occasional rejection by island Puerto Ricans. From the perspective of those on the island, U.S. Puerto Ricans have excessively liberal gender attitudes, inadequate fluency in Spanish, low achievement levels, and somewhat of an aggressive  demeanor.  On  the  island,  Puerto  Ricans born or raised in the United States are referred to as Nuyoricans, a term referring to Puerto Ricans from New York. That label implies a separate identity from island Puerto Ricans.

Puerto Ricans generally place a high value on maintaining harmonious and interdependent relations with family and friends and place less emphasis on individual  autonomy.  Puerto  Rican  culture  is  relatively sociocentric. The needs and interests of the group (usually the family) take precedence over individuals’ needs. There is a tendency to avoid dealing with conflict directly. For example, they prefer to say a “white” lie rather than openly refuse information to someone. They also expect their children to be respectful, quiet, and obedient. Regarding religion, Puerto Ricans are overwhelmingly Catholic, although Puerto Rican men tend to be Catholic “in name only.” Elements of Taino mysticism, African Santería, and European spiritism have infiltrated Puerto Rican Catholicism. Evidence of their influence is apparent by some Puerto Ricans’ willingness to consult with traditional folk healers for social support or assistance with emotional or family problems.

Cuban Americans

Among Hispanics in the United States, Cuban Americans make up roughly 3.7%, with 65% of them residing in Florida alone. There also are significant Cuban American  populations  in  New  Jersey,  New York, and California. The mean age for Cuban Americans is 40.7 years (for comparison, the mean ages for other U.S. Hispanics and for the entire U.S. population are 25.9 and 35.3 years, respectively). Moreover, in comparison to other Hispanic groups in the United States, Cuban Americans have the highest education and income levels, the lowest birthrates, the highest percentage of married households with both spouses present, and ironically, the highest rate of divorce.

People  from  Cuba  have  been  immigrating  to the United States since the 19th century, and Cuban influence in the history of the United States often is overlooked. The U.S. government has a history of intervening in Cuban affairs dating back to the Spanish-American war. When Fidel Castro assumed control of Cuba in 1959, his government implemented drastic social, economic, and political changes to the country, consequently instigating the first significant wave of Cuban immigrants to the United States. This first wave of immigrants was primarily upper-class and upper-middle-class professionals whose ethnic background was mostly Spanish (white Europeans). They generally were welcomed to the United States, and many benefited from federal resettlement programs. Shortly thereafter, this cohort of Cuban Americans came to be viewed as “model minorities” in terms of their ability to integrate into U.S. society and establish themselves as a viable economic and political social group.

Subsequent waves of Cuban immigrants increasingly resembled the Cuban population as a whole in terms of race and socioeconomic class. In the early 1980s, the Marielito wave of Cuban immigrants was largely unemployed and had a larger percentage of Afro-Cubans. Many of these immigrants were interned upon entry to the United States and were frequently stereotyped as criminal, homosexual, or socioeconomic outcasts of Cuba. Their plight in the United States was further complicated by the social rejection they encountered by many Cuban Americans who, having come to the United States during the first wave, had already established themselves in their respective communities. Cuban immigration once again peaked after the collapse of the Soviet Union with the balsero (rafters) wave of immigration in 1994. Although there has not been a subsequent wave of immigrants, some Cubans still attempt to navigate the treacherous waters between Cuba and Florida with the hopes of reaching the United States. Cubans—unlike any other national group—are the recipients of a favorable U.S. immigration policy that grants permanent residency to any Cuban who physically reaches U.S. soil.

Despite the fact that compared with other minority groups,  Cuban Americans  generally  have  excelled along various economic and political indexes, many continue to contend with an array of problems associated with their status as ethnic minorities, including racial discrimination. For example, they still lag behind non-Hispanic whites in terms of annual income and educational attainment. Also, Cuban American professionals may encounter a “glass ceiling” restricting their promotion and upward mobility. A common problem among Cuban American families is related to differential rates of acculturation, causing intergenerational conflict. More specifically, younger family members typically adopt mainstream U.S. social values more quickly than their parents and grandparents. This form of strife between parents and children is a common presenting problem at counseling centers where some Cuban American families seek professional assistance for intra-familial distress.

Moreover, for many Cuban American elderly people, life in the United States has been a mixed blessing. Many of the first wave of Cuban immigrants had believed they were coming to the United States on a temporary basis while they awaited the demise of the Castro government. Many members of that generation have died or are quite elderly and have witnessed, to their own surprise, the tenacity of the Castro government despite a U.S. military invasion, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and an ongoing economic embargo. Consequently, despite relative success in the United States, many elderly Cuban Americans have considerable anger and resentment over the lives and property they have lost in Cuba. Although they may have pride in the success of their children and grandchildren, they also may resent younger generations’ inability to sustain, or lack of interest in sustaining, traditional Cuban culture.

Current Trends

Because of relatively high birthrates and legal and illegal immigration, Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. Projections indicate that the percentage of Hispanics in the United States will be comparable to that of non-Hispanic whites or possibly larger within the next 30 to 50 years. Because of the United States’ close proximity to Mexico, Hispanics of Mexican ancestry likely will continue forming the largest Hispanic subgroup in the United States. However, the national origins of U.S. Hispanics will continue diversifying given the new and steady flow of South Americans immigrating to this country. Whether Hispanic Americans collectively attain more economic and political power remains to be seen and will depend in large part on the degree to which they attain higher levels of education. Nonetheless, their presence and influence are already felt in areas such as music and art, foods, political discourse, and scholarship, and they will continue to have a significant impact on contemporary U.S. culture.


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