Latinos in America: Are they outsiders-within?
I was flying cross country in mid September when I noticed that the airline’s peanut wrappers and napkins announced the arrival and importance of National Hispanic Heritage month. While snacking I began to think about issues that prove important to members of this community, of which I am one. Without a doubt there is much to celebrate, but there is also much that still needs our critical attention. Some fact finding led me to the following noteworthy issued and events:
- Health and Human Services. The California Department of Public Heath reports that the highest rates of whooping cough are seen in Hispanic infants (roughly 6 months of age). This fact hits close to home because my own mother an aunt suffered from whooping cough as they were immigrating to the US and my grandmother was afraid that they would not be allowed entry.
- This year marks the 64th anniversary of Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, which laid important groundwork for Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, KS when the court ruled that segregation of Mexican and Mexican American students into separate “Mexican schools” was unconstitutional in Orange County California.
- The US Senate voted, 56-43, this month against a motion to proceed on the National Defense Authorization Act’s and its amendments including The Dream Act, which would give legal residency to immigrants who arrived in the United States before age 16 and resided here for at least five years, earned a high school degree and completed two years of college or military service. According to The New York Times, these immigrants would be subject to background checks, could not have a criminal record and, even if successful, would still not be eligible for benefits like Pell grants. Although the recent Senate vote shut down the possibility of the DREAM Act being presented as an amendment to the Defense bill, hope is not lost. There is now a push to have the DREAM Act presented as a stand-alone bill by Harry Reid.
- The DREAM Act goes hand in hand with “The Immigrant Paradox,” a recent study conducted by Brown University. The study shows that although first-generation immigrant children are often behind American-born peers in school, they catch up or even surpass them by the late-elementary years. First-generation children also have better attitudes toward school than second- and third-generation children, which has manifested in higher standardized test scores and GPAs for some groups, including Hispanics. They also demonstrated lower levels of delinquency and involvement in risk behaviors and higher rates of support for the US Census. Yet, Native born Hispanics lead the foreign born in internet and communication technology use. Native born Hispanics also do better than their foreign-born counterparts on many key economic, social and acculturation indicators analyzed by the Pew Hispanic Center. For instance, they are much more proficient in English and are less likely to drop out of high school, live in poverty or become teen parents.
- In politics there is much scrutiny and debate over “The Hispanic Vote.” Research indicates that the number of Hispanics voting soared to historic levels in 2008. There was a large influx of young Hispanic voters, along with many naturalized Hispanics submitting votes for the first time. This trend is expected to continue in this year’s midterm elections. Further, the overall number of Hispanics participating in the 2010 midterm election will largely reflect the participation rates of the general population. In the next 15 to 20 years, the Hispanic voting landscape should mirror the current growth trends, both in the number of Hispanics eligible to vote and the number of Hispanics participating in elections. However, we have yet to project whether more Hispanics will participate in the political process as candidates.
- Issues of language. Since many immigrants to the US today are Hispanics, there is a push to teach them English and many US Hispanics are volunteering their time and energy to do it. This refutes the critique that many Hispanics are unwilling to take the steps necessary to assimilate into mainstream culture.
- Education and Standardized Testing. Given the current media focus on public education quality in the US, it is noteworthy that for the high school class of 2010 that took the PSAT/NMSQT test, the average scores for Mexican/Mexican Americans was 1369, for Puerto Ricans it was 1349, and for Hispanics (excluding Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) it was 1363. For the SAT test, Hispanics (excluding Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans) averaged 455 in critical reading, 461 in math, and 448 in writing. According to The College Board, SAT scores generally rise with two things: the income and education levels of parents.
- According to the US Census Bureau, the number of Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 43.7 percent to 2.3 million, more than twice the national rate of 18.0 percent between 2002 and 2007. About 45.8 percent of all Hispanic-owned businesses were owned by people of Mexican origin.
- The US Census Bureau recently released data showing record-breaking poverty in 2009. Nearly 44 million Americans lived below the poverty line; that’s more than the Census Bureau has logged in the 51 years it has kept track. While the overall poverty rate climbed to 14.3 percent—one in seven—more than a quarter of both African Americans and Hispanics lived in poverty last year. The data for poor children is the most arresting. Nearly 33 percent of Hispanic youth were poor in 2009, as were 38.5 percent of all families headed by single mothers.
So, why are these issues important to consider during National Hispanic Heritage Month? For one thing if we stop and digest this data we are forced to think about the inheritance that Hispanic legacy bequeaths to its beneficiaries. Without a doubt there are a host of positive and productive components to this legacy, not least of which is the recent appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court, but there are also some disturbing aspects. Think about this: Sotomayor grew up as part of the more than one third of all Hispanic children raised in poverty.
That led me to think about the attitudes, values, social behaviors, and family characteristics that accompany Hispanic heritage. Are Hispanics “outsiders-within” who can access the knowledge of the mainstream culture but are questioned when they claim that knowledge and seek positions of power?
After conducting a series of informal interviews with students, friends, and family I found that they answer is yes. Despite being presented with the facts above, young Hispanics seem to be satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures and place a high value on education, hard work and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to be exposed to gang violence, live in poverty, and experience discrimination based on presupposed status as foreign (even though two thirds of Hispanics are native born). The latter suggests why Hispanic heritage remains so important in terms of culture and identity. According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s National Survey, more than half (52%) of Hispanics ages 16 to 25 identify themselves first by their family’s country of origin. An additional 20% generally use the terms “Hispanic” or “Latino” first when describing themselves. Only about one-in-four (24%) generally use the term “American” first. And, 33% of young second generation Latinos use American first, while 21% refer to themselves first by the terms Hispanic or Latino, and the plurality (41%) refer to themselves first by the country their parents left in order to settle and raise their children in this country.
At the end of the day, Hispanic heritage also has important ramifications for legislative politics and identity politics in our country. Given the facts and figures referenced above, we can see how race, ethnicity (and gender and class) work together to create similar and opposing experiences, identities and communication styles. And, perhaps more important, we can also see what happens when differing experiences, identities and communication styles clash (i.e., Arizona SB 1070). When we focus our attention in this way we allow for a more thorough understanding of who Hispanics have been, who we now are and, most importantly, to discover and mobilize who we might become for the purpose of positive change.