Long before Hispanics officially became the nation's largest
minority - a milestone announced by the Census Bureau this week -
salsa edged out ketchup as the top US condiment and ATMs in rural
Vermont asked customers if they wanted to withdraw cash in Spanish
Bilingual education, and opposition to it, was sweeping the
nation's schoolrooms. Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan crossed over
into mainstream music superstardom.
But this week is a fresh reminder of the transforming impact on
American life of this fast-growing community - even as it remains so
diverse that it defies easy racial or ethnic generalizations. In the
economy alone, the influence of Hispanic Americans is staggering -
and controversial. "The economy of the Sun Belt and California would
collapse without Hispanics. They are doing the work of the entire
culture," says California historian Kevin Starr.
While their rise has helped fueled America's economic growth for
decades, it has also sparked tension, such as concern over whether
illegal immigrants and others are depriving other Americans of
While black and Hispanic groups share an interest in improving
education, for example, some African-American activists predict that
the higher presence for Hispanics could increase tensions among the
"Blacks have been denied opportunity in years past just because
they were black. Now we are faced with the same type of dilemma just
because we don't speak Spanish," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive
director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE),
a grassroots group in Miami. "All of these things create tension in
Still, from harvesting the nation's food supply to manning
hotels, restaurants, and construction sites, Hispanics have been a
key to the long economic surge of the 1980s and '90s.
"It's not about a population rate, about who's the largest
minority group. It's about a population that continues to have
influence in cultural, social, and economic aspects of American
life." Dr. Louis Olivas, a business expert at Arizona State
University and founder of the National Hispanic Corporate Council
Take Jennifer Lopez, for instance. She influences music and dress
in America, cutting across ethnic boundaries. Mexican restaurants
are on every corner.
The Latino influence continues to permeate American culture in
more subtle ways as well. Avon recently came out with a new line of
cosmetics for Hispanic women. Hallmark produces birthday cards in
Spanish. Cuban black beans and gourmet burritos are as familiar on
store shelves as Le Sueur peas.
Still, in Hollywood, breaking the white, male dominance on the
big and small screen is never easy. Miami, for instance, is about 70
percent Hispanic. Consider just the two television shows currently
set in Miami, which is almost 70 percent Hispanic. "Good Morning
Miami" recently lost its only Hispanic cast member and the only
Latino on "CSI: Miami" doesn't have a Hispanic last name.
For all its cultural and economic impact, the large and diverse
Hispanic community is just beginning to find a comparable political