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Thursday, May 10, 2001 - 03:29 p.m. Pacific
From http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/134293952_hispanic10.html

Latin melting pot: Mexicans lead U.S. Hispanic gains, but distinctions fading

By The Washington Post and The Associated Press

Ernesto Alvarez hands a customer change at a McDonald's fast-food restaurant in Suwanee, Ga., where he is an assistant manager.

WASHINGTON - A surge in the Mexican population in the United States paced the explosive growth among Hispanics over the past decade, the Census Bureau reports, with newcomers settling in the Midwest as well as traditional immigrant gateways like Texas, California and Florida.

The Puerto Rican and Cuban populations in this country also rose significantly during the 1990s, though to a lesser extent, said a Census 2000 report being released today. The once-a-decade head count found nearly 13 million more Hispanics in the country in 2000 than in 1990, of which more than half were Mexican.

The report offered the first new details of the country's Hispanic population, which at 35.3 million strong, now is approaching non-Hispanic blacks as the nation's largest minority group. Non-Hispanic blacks totaled 35.4 million.

But the data released yesterday also create a mystery: For the first time, a huge number of Hispanics, more than 6 million, declined to identify the country where they or their ancestors were born.

Some experts say this could be confusion over the census form. But many also say there may be a more profound implication: growing assimilation by many Hispanics who no longer identify with a home country and see themselves primarily as U.S. residents.

In any case, Hispanics with no identified national origin are the nation's second-largest group of Latinos, after people of Mexican origin.

Racially, nearly 17 million Hispanics described themselves as white, followed by nearly 15 million who checked "some other race."

People of Mexican origin grew by 7.1 million over the decade, accounting for most of the 12.9 million increase in the nation's Hispanic population, according to a national head count a year ago.

Advocacy groups seized on the new numbers to call on political leaders to give more attention to issues affecting those groups. These include improving educational opportunities and attacking racial profiling.

"The growing number of Hispanics is a catalyst, not only for discussing the changing face of our nation's demographics, but also for discussing the changing face of our nation's democracy," said Juan Figueroa, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The report did not address how much of the Hispanic population increase resulted from illegal immigration - a question that bureau officials said could be better answered when additional figures are released later this year. The bureau does not ask people to divulge their legal status.

Among the findings:

• There were 20.6 million Mexican Americans in the country in 2000, up 53 percent from 1990. Mexicans outnumbered all other Hispanic groups.

• Puerto Ricans were the next biggest Hispanic group, increasing 25 percent to 3.4 million. New York had the largest Puerto Rican population, at 1.1 million, but was also the only state to see a decline among that group (down 3 percent).

• The Cuban population, the third largest group, was up 19 percent, with the highest growth in the South and West. The Cuban population decreased in New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.

• Nearly 5 percent of all other Hispanics in 2000 were from Central America, and 4 percent were from South America.

• The census also found the Hispanic population is relatively young, with a median age of 25.9 years, compared with 35.3 years for the population overall.

In Washington state, the Hispanic population doubled in the last decade and now numbers 441,509, about 7.5 percent of the population.

The large number of Hispanics without an identified country of origin make it difficult to pinpoint what subgroups are growing or shrinking. Demographers say Puerto Ricans and Cubans likely are becoming a smaller fraction because they aren't seeing many new migrants.

Although past surveys have found that Hispanic subgroups see themselves as having little in common, "perhaps there is an emerging pan-Hispanic identity," said Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Passel. The rise of Univision, Telemundo and other national Spanish-language media could be part of an increasing Hispanic self-identity that transcends country borders, he said.

Passel and University of Texas political scientist Rodolfo de la Garza said any fading of home-country identity would be most true for Hispanics born in the United States. Two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics were born here.

Passel also suggested that with increasing intermarriage among Latinos from different countries, parents may describe their children as Hispanic rather than, for example, as a mix of Salvadoran and Mexican.

When the census began asking about Hispanic origin in 1970, the term was challenged as "a combination of disparate groups without much in common," Passel recalled. The new data suggest that Hispanics may now be more inclined to view themselves as united under a common identity, he said.

Now, Hispanics must continue to unite their diverse groups and turn the population gains into political and social gains, said Angelo Amador, policy analyst with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

For instance, President Bush's nomination yesterday of 11 lawyers to federal judgeships included one Hispanic, a statistic that is "unacceptable," said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

As Democrats and Republicans rethink political strategies to reach out, Hispanic Americans must continue to effectively articulate policy priorities, encourage citizenship and exercise their right to vote, Vargas said.

Both parties offered glimpses last Saturday of their increased attention. Bush gave his weekly radio address in both English and Spanish for the first time and Democrats also gave a bilingual radio response.

Among Mexicans, growth rates surged in places that have not traditionally drawn immigrants as people flocked to small towns and cities for jobs at manufacturing and meatpacking plants. The Mexican population in North Carolina, for instance, rose 655 percent.

But California, with 8.5 million Mexicans, and Texas, with 5.1 million, were still the top two states, as in 1990.

Copyright 2001 The Seattle Times Company


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