By Dr. Anthony Daniel Perez
LatinaLista — Dr. Anthony Daniel Perez is a post-doctoral research associate at the Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology and the department of sociology at the University of Washington. Dr. Perez’ research interests include race, ethnicity and social demography.
As a result, he analyzes data from various sources to test hypothesis regarding race and ethnic identity, with a particular focus on Latino identity. He has published papers in the Journal of Black Studies and in Health, Education, and Behavior, and has several more under review, including one entitled “Hispanic Today, Gone Tomorrow: Locating Ethnic Identity among Latino/a Youth.”
His latest paper, co-authored with Dr. Charles Hirschman, is The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities.
Within this paper, Dr. Perez examines Hispanics as one of two new immigrant groups and how its identity is evolving. In response to a special request from Latina Lista, Dr. Perez expands his thoughts and analysis on Latino identity and what it means for the future of the United States.
Terms like Hispanic/Latino have always occupied an ambivalent space in my mind. At one turn seemingly meaningless labels imposed on dozens of diverse national, regional, and cultural groups—and yet powerful tools for coalition building and political mobilization.
Doubtless most of us are aware that these pan-ethnic terms (like those used for other groups) refer to “Americanized” social categories rather than “real” populations like Salvadorians, Dominicans, and Columbians. But how many of us are aware that self-identified “Hispanics” now outnumber all of those groups combined, and might further signal a process of integration, or even acculturation, among 3rd and later generation Latinos?
In the last complete count of the Latino/a population, the 2000 Census finds more than a dozen Spanish-origin populations numbering 100,000 or more. While Mexicans comprise the lion’s share of all Latinos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and every Central and South American origin group are dwarfed by the 5.5 million Hispanics who claim what could be considered a new “Americanized” identity.
That is, some 16 percent of Latinos identify simply as “Hispanic/Spanish/Latino” and do not claim a specific national or regional origin. Second only to Mexicans in size, this large, pan-ethnic group outnumbers Latinos from every South and Central American nation combined.
But who are these self-proclaimed “Hispanics”?
We know only a few things with certainty. The first is that most of them are not immigrants. More than 70% of those who claim to be simply “Hispanic” on the 2000 Census are native born, compared to just 40% of other Latinos, the vast majority of whom are recent immigrants.
In related research on Latino/a youth, I find that only a small number of vague “Hispanic” identifiers speak Spanish at home or live in a co-ethnic neighborhood, and many are the children of interracial unions.
Not all of these persons are 2nd, 3rd, and later generation Latinos, however. An untold fraction were never immigrants, and were never even technically Latino/a, per se.
My wife’s family, e.g., is Tejana—the border crossed them—as she often reminds me. Certainly there is a sizable, if unknown, population of mixed Spanish/indigenous descent that lived in Texas and the American Southwest long before these areas were annexed by the United States.
Still other self-described “Hispanics” do have specific, albeit much older (on the family tree) Latin American origins, but choose to identify with pan-ethnic categories like “Hispanic/Latino” instead.
To the extent that the loss of language and concrete identities signals a weakening of ethnic ties for many long-resident Latinos, could this evidence signal a process of intergenerational incorporation similar to that experienced by former “white ethnics” from Southern and Eastern Europe in the 20th century?
After all, many of these groups were racialzed and stigmatized as non-white “others” and further subjected to xenophobia, restrictive immigration policies, and worse. Yet today, the particulars of whites’ Ancestries, be they Jewish, Italian, or Irish, have little bearing on life outcomes.
These identities are largely elective, highly symbolic, and can often be claimed or ignored at will. Tellingly, evidence suggests that “Hispanic” youth who no longer identify in detailed ethnic terms (Mexican, Cuban, e.g.) are far less likely to consistently identify as Latino. Similar work by Brian Duncan and Steve Trejo finds that some 3rd and later generation Hispanics may no longer identify Hispanic origins (vague or otherwise) at all.
It’s been half a century since Milton Gordon observed that ethnicity cannot survive assimilation. Scores of immigrants have come to the U.S. over the centuries, settled in neighborhoods with their compatriots, and retained their ethnic roots. But within a generation, they or their children typically learn English, intermarry with other Americans of different backgrounds, and ancestral ties begin to fade.
With several more generations, most Americans begin to lose track of their complex family trees, and what was once “ethnic culture” becomes the new American mainstream. With the recent surge of new immigrants in recent decades, and the current climate of anti-Latino xenophobia and intolerance (epitomized by the viscous hate crimes in New York and Pennsylvania last year), talk of a reincarnated ethnic “melting-pot” might ring hollow.
But then again, today’s immigrants will bear tomorrow’s native born. If past is truly prologue, the “browning of America” may be a generation (or two) away.