The term “Hispanic” refers loosely to Americans descended from immigrants from Spain, Mexico, Cuba and other Latin American countries, all of which have very different heritages, but which share the Spanish language. At least 14% all Americans are of Hispanic heritage, and the proportion is growing. In some major cities, it is common to see signs or even government documents printed in both English and Spanish. Cities such as Miami, Florida and San Antonio, Texas operate on nearly a completely bilingual basis, while others such as New York and Los Angeles have large, vital Spanish-speaking communities.
In a state like New Mexico, Spanish-surnamed people may be able to trace their ancestry back hundreds of years to Spain itself. These people, though proudly Hispanic, may speak English as a primary language. This only highlights the fact that the categorization Hispanic is over-broad and not reliable. Hispanic people who can trace their family history in America back 400 years may very well share neighborhoods with new arrivals from Latin America with whom they have virtually nothing in common. In turn, immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Cuba have little in common with immigrants from the dominant Latin American culture, Mexico. Puerto Rico, whose residents are American citizens, has its own distinct cultural presence in the United States.
Hispanics in the United States vary widely by racial identification and appearance. The stereotype calls for someone with a swarthy complexion, somewhere between “White” and “Black.” In truth, Hispanic people can appear to be of European, African, Native-American or mixed descent as the case may be. The religious stereotype—that Hispanics are Roman Catholic—is closer to reality (at a level of about 70%, a fifth of whom are “charismatic” Catholics), though nearly a quarter of the Hispanic population identify themselves as Protestant, with some Jews thrown into the mix.
The often-used term “Latino” generally refers to people who come from or trace ancestry to the Spanish (and also Portuguese) speaking countries of Latin America. It is frequently used by many of these people to describe themselves in a positive sense, often with a touch of pride, and is often preferred over the more technically-sounding “Hispanic.”
Another problem arises in the use of Spanish surnames as indicators of ethnicity. The United States has, for example, a large Filipino population, almost all of whom have Spanish surnames, though Filipinos are by no measure “Hispanic.”
The term “Chicano” has a more ambiguous base in its use to describe people of Mexican heritage in states like California and Arizona. Older people often gladly associate themselves with the term and its associations with the movements in the 1960s for better conditions for agricultural workers spearheaded by organizer César Chávez. Among the younger set, the term is often seen as pejorative, hence it is likely to fade out of common usage. The term “Tejano,” Spanish for “Texan,” is used to describe not only people of Mexican descent who live in Texas, but also the border region between Texas and Mexico, its food, culture, economy and distinctive music.
Puerto Rico, a United States territory, would be the first state with a Hispanic majority if it ever achieved statehood; referendums have often brought it close. 43% of all residents of New Mexico are Hispanic, the highest proportion in the nation. Both California and Texas, the two most populous states in the country, count more than a third of their population as Hispanic.
Among American Hispanics, 65% have ties to Mexico, 10% to Puerto Rico, with the remaining quarter divided between the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Cuba and other countries of Central and South America. Generally, though not exclusively, Caribbean (Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican) and South American Hispanics tend to favor the east coast of the United States, Mexicans and Central Americans the west and southwest.
There is no such thing as “Hispanic” music, “Hispanic food” or even “Hispanic culture. The greatest uniting force among this vast and growing group of Americans is the Spanish language. For many it is a first language, for others an important second language to English. Hybrids of the two languages—“Spanglish,” “Nuyorican” (a combination of “New York” and “Puerto Rican”) and other mixtures—enjoy wide appeal, especially among young people.
A healthy Spanish-language media exists in the United States. In addition to thousands of newspapers, radio stations and magazines, the Univision and Telemundo television networks have penetrated every major American media market. American public television also has a major Spanish-language presence.
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