Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
First language/s: Spanish
Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in the US and were estimated in the 2010 Census at 50.5 million, 16.3 per cent of the population: of this group, the largest were Mexicans at 31.8 million (10.3 per cent), followed by Puerto Ricans at 4.6 million (1.5 per cent), Cubans at 1.8 million (0.6 per cent) and a wide variety of other groups. These figures probably under-count undocumented immigrants. The Census Bureau projects that, by 2060, more than one of every four Americans (28.6 per cent) will be Latino.
Each of these communities favours nationally specific names over any general term, but ‘Latino’ has emerged as the most popular alternative to ‘Hispanics’, which has long been favoured by government agencies and is used interchangeably with ‘Latinos’.
Latinos have lived in what is now the south-western United States (US) for centuries but there are now large groups in every urban centre. Since the 1990s, growing numbers of Latinos have also settled in south and south-east US.
Around 48 per cent of Latinos are Roman Catholic and roughly 25 per cent are Protestant.
During the sixteenth century, many mestizos and some other Mexicans settled to farm and ranch in the mountain slopes and desert valleys of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Eventually much of the frontier was granted to settlers by royal decree, a decision confirmed by the Mexican government after its independence from Spain in 1821. The US annexed Texas in 1845, then captured the remainder of the south-west in the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. Annexation was followed by the gold rush in California, which brought hordes of Anglo settlers. Conflict and discrimination became widespread. In several states, after initial peaceful coexistence, Spanish education and voting rights were cut off and were not restored until well into the twentieth century. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the safety of Mexican land grants, but 80 per cent of grant lands were lost to force, debt or legal manipulation.
Mexican Americans had to cope with becoming a dispossessed minority in their own lands, but the community remained fairly stable. The majority of the rural population was Spanish-speaking, and almost all Mexican Americans lived in rural areas in isolated and self-reliant pueblos (towns). The forces of the Mexican Revolution, in the early twentieth century, brought a flood of immigrants and new political currents to the US. At the end of the Second World War, rural Mexicans (legal and illegal) flocked to the cities to take advantage of plentiful industrial jobs. They created pueblos within cities, called barrios. Barrio Latinos have benefited from strong social and family networks, but have been under-served by government services and outside employers, as well as suffering from internal rivalries that have undermined political unity.
In the early 1960s, unsuccessful efforts were made to reclaim the lands guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United Farm Workers union, led by Cesar Chávez, mounted innovative and effective campaigns against low wages, abuse and pesticide contamination of Mexican American workers in the fruit and vegetable farms of California. Later in the 1960s, the Chicano movement was born. Chicano, once a pejorative for ‘Mexicano’, was used by high school and college students in the barrios of California as a symbol of defiance against discrimination. The Chicano youth movement – including the militant Brown Berets – began to unite the barrios for improved living conditions, bilingual education and cultural pride. The movement led to an upsurge in cultural activity and new national organizations like the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project helped to increase Latino participation in elections, leading to a small increase in Latino representation.
Immigration and the Mexican border
The US-Mexico border is roughly 3,300 km long, running from San Diego, California in the west, to Brownsville, Texas in the east. Throughout the twentieth century, workers have flooded from rural (and later urban) Mexico, and Central and South America to the US south-west, legally and illegally, across the Mexican border. Some are ‘commuters’, others temporary residents and others stay permanently. These people have made up a huge cheap labour force for US employers, often working for less than the minimum wage. The Bethnicityro programme (1942-64) brought in Mexicans for seasonal agriculture; many absconded to work in industry. During the recession after the Korean War, the government launched ‘Operation Wetback’ (‘wetback’ is derogatory slang for Mexican immigrants), which deported some 2 million people in 1954 and 1955. In recent decades, the human traffic has exceeded 9 million people a year – though many of these are the same people crossing back and forth – and many undocumented migrants are deported each year. By the 1980s, an anti-immigration fever was building, despite evidence that immigrants create more jobs and revenue than they drain. The Federation for American Immigration Reform led the demand to close the border. In Texas and California, vigilante groups prowled the border to apprehend and assault migrants. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents became more brutal, often concentrating on language and appearance more than on documentation. In 1986, the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Act greatly expanded the size and powers of the Border Patrol and imposed heavy sanctions against employers of illegal labour (it also granted amnesty to a certain number of undocumented workers, although their chances of achieving citizenship depend on a screening process that will take years to complete.). A General Accounting Office 1990 study found that 20 per cent of employers responded by instituting anti-Latino hiring practices, and two 1992 studies found that beatings, unjustified shootings, torture and sexual abuse by border guards had escalated unchecked. Between 1994 and 2005, more than 3,000 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, the majority in the Arizona desert as a result of exposure to extreme heat and dehydration.
A steel wall has been constructed along parts of the border and there have been calls for a national identity card and other measures that would put all Americans’ civil rights at risk, especially Latinos’. The passage of Proposition 187 in California in a 1994 referendum deprived illegal immigrants of rights to education, social assistance and medical services. None of these measures has decreased immigration. They have only increased the misery of undocumented immigrants, the majority of them Latinos, and the racial polarization of the south-western US. During his election campaign, President Donald Trump promised to build a wall along the length of the US-Mexico border to keep out immigrants; he even suggested that the Mexican government should pay for it. The proposal effectively mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment among many voters, though it has yet to be constructed.
Cuban Americans are seen stereotypically as a powerful, conservative community, quite different from every other Latino group. While it is true that the first Cuban refugees after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution were mostly upper-class anti-communists given generous settlement aid by the US government, subsequent immigrants have not had the same advantages.
In the early 1980s, Fidel Castro began to permit small numbers of people to leave Cuba as a safety valve to release political and economic tensions (partly caused by the US embargo). At the same time, the US passed the 1980 Refugee Act, which severely limited the number of Cubans who could legally enter the county and put them on an equal footing with other prospective immigrants. In April 1980 Castro authorized the Mariel Boat Lift, and within months nearly 125,000 Cubans – 40 per cent of them Afro-Cubans – left Cuba. The Reagan and Bush administrations refused the ‘Marielitos’ immigration processing and thousands, including children, were placed in administrative detention by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for years after their arrival. A few were eventually deported and the rest remained ‘on parole’, their residency status indeterminate. Another exodus in 1994 forced President Bill Clinton to negotiate with Castro to allow 20,000 Cuban refugees to enter the US annually, provided that the tide of migrants was stemmed.
Each group of Cuban refugees has been poorer than the last. Although they sometimes benefit from the prosperity of Cuban enclaves, especially in Miami, they have also been exploited by employers, even within the Cuban community. In addition, those who disagree with the Miami establishment’s anti-Castro position have a difficult time. Assaults, bombings, censorship and blackmail have been used as weapons against such dissidents. However, the Cuban American population is changing to include more economic and fewer political refugees, and there are signs that the boundaries of accepted opinion within it may widen.
Small numbers of Puerto Ricans started moving to the US mainland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Migration expanded after the Second World War, encouraged by both governments to even out labour markets. The migrant population quadrupled between 1940 and 1950, and by 1960 it was 887,000, with about a quarter born on the mainland. Return migration became an important factor in the 1970s, with tens of thousands of US-based Puerto Ricans going back to the island to retire, work or raise children without the burden of discrimination. With cutbacks in federal aid, the flow reversed again in the 1980s. Although there were many second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans among the 4.6 million in the US by 2010, the majority are island-born. Initially concentrated in New York, Puerto Ricans still form a large part of the population there, but now at least half of the Puerto Rican population has spread out across the north-east (especially to Chicago and the state of New Jersey) and into southern states such as Texas, California and Florida. Pre-1950s Puerto Rican migrants tended to be skilled male workers, but since then most have been unskilled labourers, evenly split between men and women.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens but face racial and language barriers that prevent their enjoyment of any advantage over other immigrants. They only gained access to bilingual education in the 1990s. For this reason – as well as discrimination, low-quality schools and family poverty – the Puerto Rican education attainment levels in the US are lower than that of almost any other urban group. In the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Rican migrant employment rates were better than the US average, but by 1990 (male) factory and (female) garment-industry mainstay opportunities were reduced by structural change and competition from new immigrant groups. Puerto Ricans’ employment in New York dropped between 1970 and 1990 more than that of any other group. The average wage of employed Puerto Rican men also dropped. Single motherhood is the single greatest risk category for family poverty in the US, as opposed to Puerto Rico where common-law marriage is the norm.
Alongside other Latino communities, Puerto Ricans have also been hurt by legislative changes, including the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Puerto Rican migrants’ voting and electoral success rates are very low. Groups like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza have organized to enhance Puerto Ricans’ political clout. Representation, bilingualism, education, community development, housing, jobs, childcare and health are among their prime concerns.
Puerto Rico has long suffered high levels of poverty, exacerbated by the widespread devastation inflicted on the island in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. With much of its infrastructure destroyed and an emerging humanitarian crisis, thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to migrate to the US mainland – according to some estimates, as many as 400,000 residents, amounting to 12 per cent of the island’s population, left around the time of the disaster. By February 2018, only around half had returned, with the remainder still in the US, predominantly in Florida but with significant numbers dispersed across the country. The Trump administration was criticized for the slow and ineffectual response to the catastrophe, which is estimated to have cost some 3,000 lives.
Central and South Americans
Growing numbers of Central and South Americans have joined the US Latino community since the mid-1970s, including Peruvians and Colombians. Dominicans have also come in significant numbers, as have many Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking refuge from repression. The latter groups have not been accepted as bona fide refugees because of US support for Central American military regimes. These people have been subjected to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention, or must work and live as undocumented residents. Most are poor and without political rights. Refugees who attempt to speak out or otherwise aid the opposition in their home countries have found themselves under police investigation. During the 1980s, for example, the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador was infiltrated and undermined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Changing social and political developments
Numbers, visibility and Chicano consciousness brought Latinos into the spotlight in the late 1970s. Yet during the 1980s many prominent Latinos (including city mayors and two state governors) slipped from prominence due to scandal and opposition. Latino electoral participation has remained low and Latino interests have been represented by a select few political figures nationally, but there is some indication that campaigns to increase Latino political participation have had some success.
The Latino population is significantly younger than the general US population and the average household is larger. Latinos have very low rates of education and health services to Latino communities are ranked among the poorest in the US. Workplaces and communities of low-waged Latinos tend to have more hazardous environmental and safety conditions than the average. Latinos are now overwhelmingly urban and are often lumped in with African Americans as part of the urban ‘underclass’; on most measures they register somewhere between whites and blacks in socio-economic status. However, the extended family and social networks of the barrios, while they may hinder social mobility, have helped many Latino neighbourhoods retain a strong sense of community.
Anti-immigrant sentiments, the shift from manufacturing to service jobs and urban decay have undermined Latino economic and social stability. The growth rate of the Latino population has led to conflict with other communities over urban space and influence. Deadly wars between Latino and African-American youth gangs are one symptom of these conflicts, and more Latinos than blacks participated in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Latinos experience many of the same problems with law enforcement agencies as African Americans do, as well as high levels of unfounded persecution by immigration agents.
Along with immigration, language is one of the issues most commonly used to raise educational, occupational and political barriers against Latinos. The vast majority of Latinos in the US speak English, and many second- or third-generation Latinos speak only English. Those who simply prefer Spanish or speak with strong accents may face discrimination. Spanish is widely used in schools, business, advertising and media, but language rights are not protected by the US Constitution. Recognition of language barriers in the 1960s and 1970s motivated federal legislation for bilingual ballots and bilingual education in areas where numbers warrant it, and it is now possible in many areas to use Spanish in courts and other government services. But there is no guaranteed right to these services except in criminal proceedings. When employer discrimination against Spanish-speakers is challenged, courts have generally ruled that employers are within their rights.
Latino communities debated the goals of bilingualism, but this debate was eclipsed from the 1990s by an Anglo backlash. By 1995, 22 states had passed laws declaring English their official language – including California, which was 40 per cent Spanish-speaking – and 38 members of Congress were sponsoring official English legislation nationally. The grassroots ‘English Only’ or ‘US English’ movement had a chilling effect on Anglo-Latino relations, and threatens to eliminate bilingual ballots and education or require English proficiency tests before naturalization. There is evidence that educational and employment opportunities for Latinos continue to be subject to discriminatory practices. Levels of educational segregation affecting Latino children are today in some districts on a par with segregation levels of African Americans pre-Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the segregation of white and African-American children in public school. Several states have higher education admissions policies that place students of colour at a distinct disadvantage.
Latinos have long suffered discrimination and stigmatizing stereotypes that associate them with various social problems, such as crime. These issues have only been deepened since the presidential campaign and subsequent electoral victory of Donald Trump. Among other targets, Trump vilified Mexican immigrants from the very beginning of his campaign, claiming that Mexico was ‘bringing drugs, crime and rapists’ to the US. The sustained abuse of immigrants, besides impacting directly on millions of Latino immigrants, also has implications on public perceptions of the Latino minority in general. While the negative portrayal of Latinos is not grounded in reality, the impact within the community of these representations can be devastating. This pressure has led some belonging to younger generations to assimilate more quickly and completely, to the detriment of knowing and practising their heritage and cultural traditions.
The loss of cultural practices within the Latino community has had a multitude of negative consequences, including diminished life expectancy. While recently arrived Latino immigrants live on average three years longer than white Americans and six years more than African Americans, despite experiencing nearly double the poverty rates of the native-born population, this gap is seen to decrease among later generations of Latinos. The fall in life expectancy has been associated, in part, with a move away from traditional foods and increased consumption of highly processed products. Research has found that family and community bonds are critical to the upbringing, education and passing down of cultural heritage to the younger generations, including cooking methods. Traditionally this has been achieved, to a large degree, by having multiple generations of a family living under one roof and sharing spaces intentionally set up to promote interaction. However, it has become increasingly difficult to engage younger generations in cultural education and practices, including teaching in traditional languages. Within the Latino community, initiatives such as the Rayito de Sol Spanish Immersion Early Learning Center have been established to promote cultural learning. The school, based in Minnesota, provides children with an immersive Spanish language curriculum and instruction in Latin American cultures.
Latinos continue to suffer high levels of poverty, ill-health, discrimination, arrest and incarceration. 21.4 per cent of Latinos in the US were living below the poverty line in 2015, compared to 9.1 per cent of non-Hispanic whites. According to 2010 census data, Latinos are imprisoned at almost double the rate (831 per 100,000 people) of non-Hispanic whites (450 per 100,000) – though still significantly below the levels experienced by the African-American population (2,306 per 100,000).
In recent years the US has seen a hardening of its border and immigration policies, with the emphasis increasingly on the marginalization and criminalization of immigrants, reflected not only in militarized border surveillance measures but also crackdowns on undocumented immigrants living within the country. While long predating the current administration – indeed, for periods of President Barack Obama’s time in office deportation levels were considerably higher than those under his successor – Trump is notable for the tone and character of his anti-immigration policies. Among other steps, he has attempted to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a flawed but nevertheless significant source of provisional access to education and employment for the children of undocumented children, while also escalating his rhetoric against the immigrant population. Most notoriously, beginning with the announcement in April 2018 of a‘zero tolerance policy’, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a highly controversial policy of immediately arresting all immigrants crossing the border illegally – with the result that thousands of children were forcibly separated from their families. After widespread media coverage and criticism, Trump rescinded the policy in June 2018. As of the end of August 2018, however, almost 500 children were still being held in US custody as authorities had failed to reunite them with their deported parents.
The crackdown on undocumented immigrants can also have knock on effects on the Latino population in general – for example, resulting in hiring discrimination against all Latinos by employers who fear immigration service raids. At the same time, Latino workers tend to hold more high-risk jobs than those in other ethnic groups, resulting in more frequent fatalities. While there were 4,836 workplace fatalities nationwide in 2015, amounting to 3.4 people per 100,000, for Latinos the rate was almost 20 per cent higher – 4.0 per 100,000. Additionally many who work in the construction industry are recently arrived undocumented immigrants who besides facing language and literacy barriers also have poor job training, all of which hinder the understanding of safety precautions and the risks associated with certain tasks. Of the 903 deaths among Latino workers in 2015, 605 were foreign-born. The highest number of Hispanic deaths were in the states that tend towards high concentrations of undocumented migrant workers, such as California, Texas and Florida.
Latinas tend to work, marry and bear children younger than their white counterparts. Many Latinas are teenage mothers, many are exploited as sweatshop workers, and many suffer health problems, including HIV infection. Chicana activists have criticized the Latino male culture of machismo as institutionalized sexism, analysing Latina problems as a nexus of class, ethnicity and gender issues. Partly as a result, over the past 30 years, Latina organizers, members of Congress and artists have emerged in equal numbers to men. Latinas still face pressure to fulfil traditional roles, but there may be greater recognition now of their right to participate in public and economic life.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in