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THIS IS AMERICA – February 24, 2003: Hispanics in America - 2003-02-21



In the United States, the population of Hispanics is growing fast into America's largest minority group. I’m Steve Ember.


And I’m Mary Tillotson. Today we report on Hispanics in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

(MUSIC: "La Bomba"/Los Lobos)


Hispanics come from or have ancestors from Spanish-speaking countries. The term Hispanic or Latino describes an ethnic group. Hispanics can be white, black or Latin-American Indian, or a mixture or races. Experts who study communities point out that Hispanics from different countries often have different cultures.

Between nineteen-ninety and two-thousand, the Hispanic population in America increased fifty-eight percent. That was more than any other minority group.

Recently the Census Bureau estimated that thirty-seven million Hispanics lived in America in two-thousand-one. That was thirteen percent of the population. Just over thirty-six million people were black or African American. However, when the population counters added people of mixed race, that number grew to thirty-seven-point-seven million.


In little more than one year, from April two-thousand to July two-thousand-one, the number of Hispanics increased four-point-seven percent. This included babies, immigrants and some people here illegally. The African American population grew by just one-point-five percent.

During this same period, Asian Americans increased by almost four percent, to twelve-point-five-million. America’s white, non-Hispanic population grew by three-tenths of one percent.

Most Hispanics live in the southern and southwestern states. But they have settled in many cities across the country. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, Texas, had the largest numbers in the two-thousand Census. Many of those in New York are from the United States territory of Puerto Rico. In Los Angeles, America's second-largest city, half the people are Hispanic, mostly of Mexican ancestry.


The roots of Hispanic life in the United States are deep and historic.

California, on the Pacific coast, was formerly ruled by Spain and then Mexico. Americans captured California during the Mexican American War in the eighteen-forties. Mexico lost half its land under the treaty that ended the war. Not only California but all or part of six other states grew on this land.

Today, among all the fifty states, California has the most people. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles recently announced that the majority of babies born in the state are now Latino. In the words of one researcher, "The future of California looks very much like its nineteenth-century past."


The largest number of Hispanics in the United States are of Mexican ancestry, followed by people from Puerto Rico. Hispanics also come here from other parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Spain.

Hispanics are taking an increasing part in American life. They bring new food, new music and new customs. Religion -- traditionally of the Roman Catholic Church -- is also an important part of family life.


Hispanics in America are politicians, teachers, engineers, doctors, business leaders and lawyers -- although none has yet reached the Supreme Court. They are actors, artists, writers, poets and musicians. Hispanics like Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan are among popular entertainers.

At the same time, though, many Hispanics are poor. There are large numbers of unskilled laborers and farm workers. There are those who struggle with two or three jobs to make a better life for themselves and their children.


Some African Americans worry about the growth of the Hispanic population. Hispanics have joined the competition for jobs, housing and social aid. Some African Americans see this as unfair, because blacks have struggled hundreds of years for better living conditions in a country that once kept them as slaves.

But there are issues of common concern to black and Hispanic groups. Both, for example, oppose government efforts to end special minority-admissions programs by colleges and universities.

Also, no group likes to see itself treated unfairly or insulted. Hollywood is one target of criticism by Hispanic activists. They say there are not enough Latinos in television or film -- and when they do appear, it is often as criminals or housekeepers.


Some experts say it will take years to know how the big increase in the Hispanic population will affect the nation. For one thing, not all who immigrate here become citizens. That means they cannot vote.

And then there are the ones here illegally. Immigration officials recently estimated that the United States had seven-million illegal immigrants in January two-thousand. The report said sixty-nine percent of them came from Mexico, up from fifty-eight percent in nineteen-ninety.

Still, Hispanics hope to gain more political influence. Some groups already have -- Cuban Americans in Florida, for example.


More than forty years ago, many Cubans left their island after Fidel Castro took control and established a Communist government. Over time, hundreds of thousands followed. They became extremely successful in business and other professions.

Cuban Americans are only four percent of America’s Hispanic population. Yet they exercise strong influence. This was apparent a few years ago in the dispute over a six-year-old Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez. His mother tried to take him to Florida on a small boat at the end of nineteen-ninety-nine, but drowned.

Elian was rescued. Relatives in Miami wanted him to live with them. His mother and father had ended their relationship. The administration of President Bill Clinton, however, supported the right of Elian's father to raise him in Cuba.

Cuban Americans in Miami protested. Finally, armed federal agents seized the boy. Courts upheld the decision, and Elian went home with his father. But his story captured the interest of the American public.



Because of the large Hispanic population, Spanish is sometimes called America's second language. There is also a mixture of English and Spanish called Spanglish. This version is especially popular with young Hispanics. Spanglish is working its way into popular culture, in music and television shows.

But some Spanish language experts see Spanglish as a threat to Spanish culture. One professor says that if Hispanics choose to speak their first language, then they should speak it in its pure form.


Language is an issue for Hispanics in America. There have been tensions in some states over laws that declare English an official language. There is also debate over bilingual education in schools that receive public money. In California, for example, until recent years, schools taught Spanish-speaking children first in Spanish. Only later, sometimes years later, did the children enter classes taught in English.

Opponents said bilingual education slowed the progress of Hispanic children. In nineteen-ninety-eight, Californians rejected this bilingual system. They voted to replace it with one year of intensive preparation in English.


Many activists protested this new system as unfair. The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund brought legal action. So did other organizations. But courts upheld the measure. Other states have faced similar arguments over bilingual education.

In any case, educators agree that more must be done to help Hispanic students get a better education. Many of these young people leave high school without finishing. In places like Los Angeles, many turn to the criminal life of street gangs.

Only sixteen-percent of Hispanic high school graduates in America finish four years of college by the age of twenty-nine.


Activists are working to increase that number. For example, the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities represents three-hundred-forty schools. In a recent letter to President Bush, association leader Antonio Flores urged increased federal spending for these schools.

The Pew Hispanic Center is a research organization at the University of Southern California. The goal is to improve understanding of the Hispanic population in the United States. Recently the center reported that education levels among Latino immigrants have increased sharply over the past thirty years. It says educational gains are extremely important if millions of Hispanics are to improve their lives in America.



This VOA Special English program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Paul Thompson. I’m Steve Ember.


And I’m Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.