The Slate Gist


By Karenna Gore

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2010, Hispanics will outnumber blacks. This will make them America’s largest ethnic minority. In the 1996 election, as the general voter turnout neared a record low, the Hispanic turnout soared, providing the margin of victory in several key elections. Who are Hispanics, where do they come from, and what is the political impact of this rapidly growing population?

The Census Bureau officially adopted the term “Hispanic” in 1970, applying it to any U.S. resident whose ancestors lived in Spain or a Spanish colony. (The term itself is derived from “Hispania,” which was the Roman Empire’s name for the Iberian peninsula.)

The bureau’s geography-based definition, which lumps together blacks, whites, and those of mixed race, has provoked a heated debate. Some complain that the categorization falsely homogenizes a diverse people under a label linked to Spanish imperialism. These critics argue for the term “Latino,” because it denotes self-definition, allows for more subcategorization by nationality, and alludes to distant cultural origins rather than a painful colonial past. “Latino” is Spanish for “Latin”; Latin was the official language of Hispania, and “Latin America” was coined by geographers in the 18th century to describe the New World colonies of Portugal and Spain.

Some Mexican-Americans refer to themselves as “Chicanos,” a pejorative term from the 1920s for lower-class Mexican immigrants that was embraced in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Mexican-Americans seeking a new political identity. The Chicano movement celebrated the Indian roots of Mexican culture. As the “Chicano” label fell out of vogue, many of its supporters joined forces with the “Latino” camp, accusing the “Hispanic” partisans of grouping Mexican-Americans under their rubric to inflate their numbers.

Today, the debate boils down to personal preference, shown by clear regional patterns: In California, “Latino” is generally the preferred term. In Florida, Texas, and New Mexico, “Hispanic” is more common. In the Northeast, it’s a tie.

T he rapidly growing Hispanic population is resulting in the “browning of America.” Over the last 16 years, the Hispanic population has grown 93 percent–from 14.6 million to 28.2 million. (The total U.S. population has grown 17 percent, from 226.5 million to 265.8 million.) By the year 2050, the Census Bureau estimates, Hispanics will constitute 24.5 percent of the U.S. population, up from today’s 10 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Asian-Americans will grow from 3.3 percent to 8.2 percent, and the percentage of African-Americans will rise only slightly, from 12 percent to 13.6 percent. Midway through the next century, only 53 percent of the U.S. population will be non-Hispanic white, down from 74 percent today.

The growth of the Hispanic population is due to high birth rates and immigration. Hispanic birth rates are significantly higher than average, because of Hispanics’ lower median age, higher poverty levels, and enduring cultural values that place a premium on large families. The Census Bureau estimates annual net immigration–legal and illegal–of 820,000, with the large majority being Hispanic.

Hispanics live in every state, but their numbers are greatest in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and New Mexico. Of the Hispanics living in these states, 64 percent (concentrated in the Southwest) trace their roots to Mexico; 15 percent (relatively evenly distributed) to Central and South America; 10 percent (concentrated in New York) to Puerto Rico, and 5 percent (concentrated in Florida) to Cuba.

Although Hispanic voters account for only 5 percent of the electorate, they are significant voting blocks in key states and, most of the time, they vote Democrat. In the recent presidential election, Hispanic voter turnout increased 60 percent in Texas, 40 percent in California, and 10 percent in Florida, with roughly three out of four of all Hispanic votes going to President Clinton (15 percentage points above his 1992 showing). In Arizona, where a heavy Hispanic turnout was 10-to-1 for Clinton, Democrats won for the first time since 1948.

Cuban-Americans have traditionally voted solidly Republican. But in the last election, roughly half of Florida’s Cuban-Americans voted for Clinton, double his 1992 share. That helped Clinton carry this traditionally Republican state.

Hispanic votes also delivered the margin of victory to Democrats in several close congressional races.

Why the increase in Hispanic turnout and support for Democrats? The Republicans’ anti-immigrant agenda, which was aggressively covered by the growing Spanish-speaking media, had much to do with it. Bob Dole angered many Hispanics by endorsing the move to make English the official language of the United States. Dole also opposed public funding of bilingual education and the printing of government materials in Spanish. The Republican platform advocated that citizenship be denied to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants.

However, Hispanics tend to be socially conservative, and these instincts could eventually propel many of them toward the GOP.

Despite their growing influence in America–salsa now outsells ketchup–Hispanics have yet to realize anything near their political potential. Currently, voter turnout among eligible Hispanics remains below the national average. But as the community’s population surges in the next century, both political parties are likely to address that shortcoming.