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Multiple Origins, Uncertain Destinies: Hispanics and the American Future
the Hispanic demographic dividend can be harnessed for the benefit not only of future generations of Hispanics, but also of the nation.
Despite their common language and ancestral ties to Spain, Hispanics are highly diverse. Altogether they represent 20 Spanish-speaking nationalities, both recent immigrants and families that date back to the first Spanish settlements in what is now the United States. Differences by generation, legal status, and nationality affect many dimensions of their social integration, but foreign birth and legal status are the most decisive because they reflect differences in English proficiency, educational attainment, and familiarity with U.S. institutions.
“Hispanics” do not exist in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Coined as an ethnic category in the mid-1970s by government regulation, the U.S.-made panethnic term gained popular currency after being used in the 1980 census short form and in all subsequent Census Bureau surveys and censuses. The term “Latino”—most popular in California during the 1980s and 1990s—was added to the 2000 census. Often used interchangeably, both terms are widely contested, with no consensus on their full meaning. If U.S. Hispanics are forced to choose between the panethnic terms, Hispanic is preferred to Latino by a margin of 3 to 1.
Routine use of both labels for classification purposes has gradually transformed the terms from ethnic categories into racial identities, especially among the second generation. Thus, rather than viewing themselves as an ethnic group, growing numbers of Hispanics are beginning to view themselves as a separate race. The move away from white identity among second-generation Hispanics stands in strong contrast to the experience of earlier immigrant groups from southern and Eastern Europe, whose social acceptance and cultural assimilation in the United States involved self-identification as white. The key question for the future is whether Hispanicity will evolve into a symbolic identity for some or all people of Latin American descent as they join the American mainstream, or whether it will become an enduring marker of disadvantaged minority group status.
SOCIAL INTEGRATION AND MOBILITY
With time, most immigrant communities become ethnic groups, and within three generations (i.e., the grandchildren of immigrants) most ex-