Updated April 2009


Estimated population in 2005: 41.9 million

First language/s: Spanish

Religion/s: Christianity

Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the USA, having increased more than 60 per cent since 1990. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, the Latino population increased by 3.3 per cent, making 14.5 per cent of the total US population. These figures exclude people in institutions, including prisons and jails, and probably under-count undocumented immigrants. The Census Bureau projects that, by 2050, almost one out of every four Americans (24 per cent) will be Latino.

In 2000, about 59.3 per cent of Latinos were Mexican Americans, 9.7 per cent were Puerto-Ricans, 3.5 per cent were Cubans, 5.1 per cent were from Central America (mainly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras), 4 per cent from South America (mainly Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), and 18.3 per cent from other places. Each of these groups favours nationally specific names over any general term, but ‘Latino' has emerged as the most popular alternative to ‘Hispanics', which is still favoured by government agencies and is used interchangeably with ‘Latinos'. The Latino groups that have grown most since 2000 were Salvadorans (increased by 39%), followed by Guatemalans (22%) and Hondurans (13%).

Latinos have lived in what is now the south-western USA 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 USA. Between 1990 and 2000, North Carolina, Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, have experienced the biggest increase in Latino population, estimated at 393.9 per cent, 299.6 per cent, 207.9 per cent and 148.4 per cent, respectively.

In 2000, 69 per cent of Latino men worked, mainly in production and transportation (26%), construction and maintenance (22%) and services (19%). Fifty-three per cent of Latinas (Latino women) were also in the work force, mainly in sales and office occupations (34.8%) and services (25.6%).

A majority of Latinos are bilingual Spanish-speakers, and 75 per cent mostly speak Spanish at home. Two thirds are Roman Catholic by upbringing, though a growing number (around 29 per cent) are Protestants.

Historical context

Mexican Americans 

During the sixteenth century, many mestizo 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 USA 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 USA. 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 Bracero 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 1 million ‘undocumenteds' 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 have escalated unchecked. Between 1994 and 2005, more than 3,000 people have 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 has 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, 66 per cent of them Latinos, and the racial polarization of the south-western USA. 

Cuban Americans 

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 USA 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 USA 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 1990, 16.9 per cent of Cuban Americans lived below the poverty line, with women refugees in especially dire straits. In addition, those who disagree with the Miami establishment's hard-right 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.

Puerto Ricans 

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 USA-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 million in the USA in 2000, two-thirds were 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 an advantage over other immigrants. They only gained access to bilingual education in the 1990s, and the future of these programmes is in question. For this reason – as well as discrimination, low-quality schools, family poverty and resistance to assimilation – the Puerto Rican education level in the USA is worse 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. In 1999, nearly 26 per cent of US Puerto Ricans lived in poverty, second only to Dominicans of whom 27.5 per cent lived in poverty. This minority also has the highest rate of single motherhood of any group in the United States. Only 42 per cent of Puerto Rican families are headed by married couples. Single motherhood is the single greatest risk category for family poverty in the USA, as opposed to Puerto Rico where common-law marriage is the norm.

Alongside other Latino groups, 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.

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).

Political and socio-economic indicators and issues 

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 National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) estimates that in the 2004 elections, over 7.5 million Latinos voted. This number represents a substantial increase of 27 per cent from the 2000 elections (5.9 million) but is still low relative to their number. Similarly, although the number of Latino appointed and elected officials has also increased to include, in 2005, 25 members of Congress, 232 state legislators and eight state officials, overall the number of Latino officials remains very low.

The Latino population is on average 9 years younger than the general US population, and the average household is larger. Latinos have very low rates of education (only 52.4% graduate from high school, and as few as 10.4 per cent have an undergraduate degree, according to 2000 figures). Health services to Latino communities are ranked the poorest in the USA. Workplaces and communities of low-waged Latinos tend to have more hazardous environmental and safety conditions than the average. Latinos are now 90 per cent urban (compared with 75% of all Americans) 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 kept Latino neighbourhoods from eroding to the same level of anomie and illegality found in African American ghettos.

In 2000, the median earnings of Latino men ($25,400) and women ($21,634) were substantially lower than those of men and women in the general US population ($37,057 and $27,194, respectively). Although there was a smaller gender gap in earnings in the Latino community than in the workforce overall, there were wide gaps in earnings within it, with Cuban American men ($31,527) and women ($26,254) being the highest earners, and Central American men and women earning as little as $22,423 and $18,588, respectively. In contrast, the average family earnings of Central Americans were the highest among the different Latino groupings ($42,824) and substantially higher than the average earnings of Latino families as a whole ($34,397). 

Anti-immigrant sentiments, the shift from manufacturing to service jobs and urban decay have undermined Latino economic and social stability. In 2004, 21.9 per cent of American Latinos lived below the poverty line, compared to 8.6 per cent of whites. Within the various Latino groups, Dominicans were the poorest, with 27.5 per cent of the community living below the poverty line, compared to 14.6 per cent of Cubans and 15 per cent of South Americans (1999 figures).

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 that African Americans do, as well as high levels of unfounded persecution by immigration agents. American Latinos are imprisoned at a rate second only to that of African Americans. In 2004, American Latinos made up 13 per cent of the population and 31 per cent of all those in federal jails and prisons, and had a 1 in 6 chance of being incarcerated in their lifetime. In 2005, 742 Latino men per 100,000 Latino US residents were in prison or jail nationwide, compared to 412 whites. With 1,714 and 1,654 Latino prisoners per 100,000 residents, Pennsylvania and Idaho, respectively, incarcerated Latinos at an even higher rate. A disproportionate number of Latinos are also the victims of crime; in 2004, Latinos were the victims of 11 per cent of all violent crimes. 

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 AIDS. Chicana activists have criticized the Latino male culture of machismo as institutionalized sexism, analysing Latina problems as a nexus of class, race and gender issues. Partly as a result, over the past 20 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.

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 USA 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 have debated the goals of bilingualism, but this debate has been eclipsed in recent years 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 has had a chilling effect on Anglo-Latino relations, and threatens to eliminate bilingual ballots and education or require English proficiency tests before naturalization. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) has published surveys indicating 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. Among challenges to these policies is a suit filed alleging that California State Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo gives undue weight to standardized test scores and geographical location.

Current issues

Latinos continue to suffer high levels of poverty, ill-health, discrimination, arrest and incarceration. One in five Latinos lives below the poverty line, and one in three has no health insurance coverage. More than twice as many young Latino men are in prison or jail compared to young white men. The Immigration Reform and Control Act and other immigration policies and laws continue to marginalize and criminalize immigrants, and produce hiring discrimination against all Latinos by employers who fear immigration service raids. Arizona, for example, has passed Proposition 200, a ballot initiative denying basic public services to undocumented immigrants. The USA-Mexico border continues to claim lives, with an estimated 124 deaths occurring along the Arizona border in 2005 alone.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the US in August 2005, highlighted many of the problems facing Latinos, including language barriers and discriminatory immigration laws and policies. A 2006 National Council of La Raza report documented how, following the hurricane, various agencies, assuming that Latino evacuees were illegal workers rather than survivors, hindered their access to necessary relief services, including housing assistance and other benefits. In at least two cases law enforcement officials have raided shelters erected by the Red Cross, rounded up Latinos and asked them to leave, assuming that they were illegal workers.

On the positive side, there have been increased efforts by the federal government to improve educational programmes for the Latino population. In October 2005, the United States Senate approved the Hispanic Education Amendment, which will provide $30 million in increased funding for six federal education programs that serve Latino students, including the Migrant Education Program ($4.8 million), English Language Acquisition ($7.65 million), English as a Second Language ($3.25 million), Parent and Family Resource Centers ($6.5 million) and Hispanic Serving Institutions ($4.95 million). Although there was still a wide gap between the potential Latino electorate and the number of Latinos who actually vote, the current status of Latinos as the largest minority group in the US has lent some momentum to efforts by campaigning groups to increase their political participation and representation..

Recent suits challenging discriminatory hiring/firing practices targeting Latinos include: Gonzalez v. A.F. filed in the US District Court in San Francisco (settled 14 November 2004 for US $40 million), which alleged that ‘the "A&F Look" is designed to exclude employees of color'; and two US District Court suits filed by the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission, which concluded in 2004 that Latino workers forced to speak only in English had been discriminated against based upon their national origin.

A study released in May 2008 by the USA Center for disease control revealed that Hispanics (Latinos) who make up about 14 percent of the US working age population die at higher rates than other laborers, with 1 in 3 of the deaths occurring in the construction industry.

In 2006 the annual death for Hispanic workers was 5 per 100,000 compared to 4 for for non-Hispanic white workers and 3.7 for African Americans.

This is partly because Hispanics tend to hold more high-risk jobs than those in other ethnic groups. 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.

The most recent analysis (2003-06) found that 2 of every 3 Hispanic workers who died on the job were foreign-born and about 70 percent of the foreign-born fatalities were migrants from Mexico.

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.