Latino Americans is my third book, and as with the other two, I’m finding what catches the eye of people who have read or are reading a new work is not what I would have expected.
One question almost everyone who is not Latino asks is “But are they really one people? Can you talk about these 50 million people as if they’re one kind of people?” One of the things that make this a good question is that there’s no easy answer. For example, a generational divide exists over the identification of Hispanic or Latino. Among older people, the primary identifier is national origin, as in, “I’m Mexican…I’m Dominican…I’m Cuban.” Back in the 60s and 70s, Mexicans were largely in the Southwest and Chicago, Puerto Ricans in the New York metropolitan area, and Cubans mostly in South Florida. A growing population, a changing America, millions more native born, and more Hispanic people from more countries living in more parts of the country has spurred the creation of something new, and very much of the United States.
More and more young people tell me they’re very comfortable calling themselves Latina or Latino, and in mixed circles of friends…Mexican, Central and South American, Caribbean, the national origins are more a detail than a determinant of anything.
For those making policy, making ads, or just trying to get their arms around what it means that one out of every six Americans now traces their family back to the Spanish-speaking nations of our hemisphere, a period of adjustment may be required. It need not be feared. You just have to live your way into it.
A struggling school filled with American-born Salvadoran kindergartners in Los Angeles, a Chicago high school trying to hold on to teenage immigrants from Mexico, a middle school in the Bronx trying to convince Dominican and Puerto Rican kids they can go to college have differing and similar challenges. However, the stakes are much higher than they were 50 years ago when America could, and did, write off too many Latino kids as destined for failure.
If America is going to remain a rich and powerful nation, she cannot continue to put up the kinds of numbers in reading and math, high school graduation, and college degrees that she has so far. A generation from now one out of three teenagers in America will be Latino. Instead of 16% of the population, the numbers are projected to be more like 30-32%. If only one of ten are completing four-year degrees in that browner American future, there simply won’t be enough skilled and well-educated people to keep the country affluent.
That’s a message my book carries for the Latinos hungry for an American history that includes them, and for everyone else who is trying to understand where their country has been, and where it’s going.