Magazine article USA TODAY

Hispanics Pursue the American Dream

Magazine article USA TODAY

Hispanics Pursue the American Dream

Article excerpt

The more than 21,000,000 Hispanics now living in the U.S. rapidly are becoming the nation's largest minority group. Some demographers already can see the day when one of three Americans will be of Hispanic descent. Will this mean a divided nation with millions of unassimilated, Spanish-speaking, poor, uneducated Hispanics living in the barrios?

In 1990, the president of the National Council of La Raza, one of the country's leading Hispanic civil rights groups, stated: "Each decade offered us hope, but our hopes evaporated into smoke. We became the poorest of the poor, the most segregated minority in schools, the lowest paid group in America, and the least educated minority in this nation."

This pessimistic view of progress is the prevalent one among Hispanic leaders and is shared by many outside the Hispanic community as well. Hispanics are perceived widely as the dregs of society with little hope of participating in the American Dream.

The trouble with this perception is that it is wrong. The success of Hispanics in the U.S. has been tremendous. They represent an emerging middle class that is a valuable addition to American culture and the nation's economy. However, their story effectively has been suppressed by Hispanic advocates whose only apparent interest is in spreading the notion that Latinos can not make it in American society. This has been an easy task since the Hispanic poor-even though they constitute about one-fourth of the Hispanic population -- are visible to all. These are the Hispanics most likely to be studied, analyzed, and reported on, and certainly they are the ones most likely to be read about. A computer search of stories about Hispanics in major newspapers and magazines over a 12-month period turned up more than 1,800 stories in which the words Hispanic or Latino occurred in close connection with the word poverty. In most people's minds, the expression "poor Hispanic" is almost redundant.

Rather than being poor, most Hispanics are achieving solidly lower middle- or middle-class existences, but finding evidence to support this thesis sometimes is difficult. Hispanic groups vary one from another, as do individuals within any group. For example, many Cubans are highly successful. Within one generation, they virtually have closed the earnings and education gap with other Americans. Although some analysts claim their success is due exclusively to their higher socioeconomic status when they arrived, many Cuban refugees-specially those who came after the first wave in the 1960s -- were, in fact, skilled or semi-skilled workers with relatively little education. Their accomplishments in the U.S. mainly are attributable to diligence and hard work.

Cubans have tended to establish enclave economies, in the traditional immigrant mode, opening restaurants, stores, and other emigre-oriented services. Some have formed banks, specializing in international transactions attuned to Latin American as well as local customers, and others have made major investments in real estate development in south Florida. These ventures have provided not only big profits for a few Cubans, but jobs for many more. By 1980, there were 18,000 Cuban-owned businesses in Miami, and about 70% of all Cubans there owned their own homes.

Cubans, as a rule, are dismissed as the exception among Hispanics. What about other Hispanic groups? Why has there been no "progress" among them? The largest and most important group is the Mexican-American population. Its leaders have driven much of the policy agenda affecting all Hispanics, but the importance of Mexican-Americans also stems from the fact that they have had a longer history in the U.S. than any other Hispanic group. If Mexican-Americans whose families have lived in the U.S. for generations are not yet making it in this society, they may have a legitimate claim to consider themselves a more or less permanently disadvantaged group. …

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