Latinos - Orientation

Identification. Latinos in the United States are a diverse group and, collectively, the second largest ethnic minority population in the country. Latino groups include, principally, Mexican Americans, who are the largest and (in historic terms) the oldest group; Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Dominicans (from the Dominican Republic) and in recent years Central Americans, mainly from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Most Latino Americans came to the United States as a result of one of the many wars of the last 150 years. Puerto Ricans and many Mexican Americans are descendants of residents whose homelands were annexed by the United States; many more Mexican, Cuban, and Central American refugees fled from civil wars and revolutionary upheavals. Others, however, came with or without government visas to seek economic opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of the Census has used the term "Hispanic" to designate all such persons, and use of the label has become widespread. An Hispanic is anyone in the United States who has a Spanish surname and comes from a Spanish-speaking background. Most people, however, prefer other labels that reflect where they came from, where they live, when they came, and how they have adapted to the dominant culture of the United States. In short, there are many Hispanics, and even within the broader subgroupings, there are very wide spectrums of historical experience and tradition. An understanding of the way these spectrums have come into being requires an appreciation of the importance of time, place, and history. Thus, "Latino" (a generic term created by the people themselves) identity is a varied and complex process that has created a fascinating mosaic.

Location. Place has been crucial to the formation of the many Latino identities. For one thing, geography determines proximity to cultural roots in Latin America. Just as Important, the U.S. government's acquisition and integration of Latinos was episodic, and the political and social conflicts that resulted from that process varied by region and by time period. Mexican Americans live principally in the Southwestern states of California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, all of which were, before 1848, part of northern Mexico. Puerto Ricans outside of the island territory have settled mostly in New York City and large midwestern cities. Dominicans are located principally in New York, Cuban Americans, in Florida, and Central Americans, in California and Houston. Beyond these concentrations, members of each group also live in most major American cities.

Demography. Estimates of the 1989 population based on 1985 figures indicate that there were 21 million Latinos constituting just under 10 percent of the U.S. population. The estimated 1989 populations of the largest Latino groups were 13 million Mexican Americans, 3 million Puerto Ricans, 1 million Cuban Americans, and 4 million other Latin American immigrants and their descendants. In recent decades, the influx of immigrants has sharply increased the total Latino population, so that 12 percent of Mexicans, for example, are first-generation immigrants. The immigration and settlement experiences of Latinos have varied from one group to another and also over time within groups. At the beginning of this century, Mexican immigrants were largely a rural, migrant worker population who joined a settled population that predated the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War by 250 years. Since the 1950s, however, Mexican Americans have become about 90 percent urban, concentrated in California and Texas. Among Puerto Ricans and Cubans, in contrast, initial migration was primarily to the urban areas, with the major Puerto Rican immigration beginning between the two world wars and Cubans mostly arriving after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Central Americans, primarily settling in California and Houston, have arrived after the social upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s in their countries.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish is the national language of each of the nations from which Latinos emigrated and in which their cultures developed. The Spanish spoken by American Latinos, however, has been transformed by the cultural changes, mixtures and attitudes, and other local and historical accidents and syncretisms that marked conditions in the New World. Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and other national language habits and customs differ; features of American Indian and African languages, for just one example, have variously influenced each of them. Many regional and urban/rural linguistic contrasts exist within each of the groups. With exposure and integration into American Society, however, many Latinos' Spanish-speaking abilities and styles have been "Anglicized" (been affected by the English language), and many even forswore the use of Spanish to speak English, especially Latinos raised primarily in the United States.

Language usage is an important component of Latino ethnic identity. Certain Latino populations, especially recent immigrants and those of high social status, derive much pride from their ability to speak fluent Spanish. Where Spanish usage is expected, some enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate their bilingual flair. For both social and political (as well as aesthetic and practical) reasons, proficiency in Spanish has become a key component in an emerging ethnic "management" style, particularly in the border areas or where Latinos are heavily concentrated such as in Los Angeles (Mexicans and Central Americans), New York (Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) , and Miami (Cubans). Speaking Spanish has also resulted at times in negative personal and group experiences, for it has been used by outsiders to stigmatize many people because they are different.

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