Culture City

Who's Hispanic?

Business owners: If you don't understand Hispanic diversity, you could offend your customers.

By Brad Edmondson March 31, 2015


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“Perhaps the biggest myth is that as the Hispanic population grows, English will no longer be the language of the United States.”

California flipped last year. It happened when the number of Hispanics living in the golden state exceeded the number of non-Hispanic white residents, so that Hispanics became California’s largest single racial or ethnic group. Texas will probably flip in a year or two. And while Hispanics are far from the largest group in Florida, they’re a solid No. 2 and gaining fast.

Over the last 13 years, the Hispanic population in Sarasota and Manatee counties doubled to more than 80,000, as the total population grew about 20 percent to 710,000. In 2013, Hispanics were 8.2 percent of residents in Sarasota County,

and 14.9 percent in Manatee. The Latino presence is strongest in Palmetto (22 percent) and the cities of Sarasota (17 percent) and Bradenton (16 percent), but it is increasing everywhere in Florida. So maybe it’s time to readjust our thinking about so-called minority groups.

The fact is that Hispanics have been responsible for most of America’s population growth over the last 15 years. The Census Bureau’s official estimate of the Hispanic population stands at about 58 million in 2015, up from 35 million in 2000.

More than half of all Hispanics live in California, Texas or Florida, and seven other states—New York, Illinois, Arizona, New Jersey, Colorado, Georgia and New Mexico —have Hispanic populations of more than 1 million.

There are now more Hispanics in the United States than there are people—of any kind—in Spain and Cuba put together. It isn’t smart to put just one label on a group this large. If you don’t understand Hispanic diversity, you run the risk of offending your customers.

A lot of the conventional wisdom about America’s Hispanic population is just plain wrong.

Start with the word “Hispanic.” When the Pew Research Center asked a national sample of American Hispanics how they would prefer to describe their ethnicity, most of them mentioned the country their families came from.

Hispanic is a popular term with politicians and journalists, but it probably isn’t the way your customers think of themselves. In New York City and Northern New Jersey, the most common country of origin for Hispanics is Puerto Rico, but a lot of people in the Big Apple also come from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Salvadorans are No. 1 in Washington, D.C. Cubans are the majority of the Hispanic population in Miami, but Puerto Ricans are No.1 in Orlando and Tampa.

Palmetto has had a large Mexican-American population for generations, thanks to agricultural jobs. Mexican is also the most common Hispanic ancestry in the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton. Mexican-Americans are also the dominant group in California, Texas and the Southwest.

But although many people assume most Hispanics are Mexican, just two-thirds of Hispanics in the U.S. trace their origins to that country. In Bradenton alone there are 5,000 residents who say they are Puerto Rican, 4,000 from Central American countries other than Mexico, and more than 2,000 who look back to Cuba.

You can find Latino faces anywhere in Manatee County. Hispanics are 10 percent of the population in Parrish, and they are 7 percent in Myakka City. But Sarasota’s Hispanics are more segregated. If you want to speak Spanish in Sarasota County, you’ll have the greatest chance of success in north Sarasota, where one-fifth of residents are Hispanic, or Kensington Park, where one-quarter are. But in Venice, Nokomis and most of South County, fewer than 5 percent of residents are Hispanic. And if you live out on the keys, the only Latinos you’re likely to meet are in restaurant kitchens.

Another myth is that all Hispanics are foreign-born. In fact, fewer than half of Hispanic-American adults were born outside the United States, and fewer than 5 percent of Hispanic children were. A lot of Americans have ancestors who were farming and ranching in the Southwest back when it was still Mexican territory. Most immigrants travel to the United States—but for a lot of Hispanic-American families, the United States came to them.

The most important thing is not to generalize. Two-thirds of Hispanics living in Miami are foreign-born, the highest share among the 60 biggest metropolitan areas in the U.S. But a lot of foreign-born Miami residents are anything but poor, because they are middle- and upper-class refugees from Latin American countries. And before you make any more jokes about wetbacks, consider that in Corpus Christi, one of the biggest cities in South Texas, just 8 percent of Latinos are foreign-born. In Sarasota-Bradenton, most of the Mexican-American population was born outside the United States. But only about 10 percent of metro-area residents whose ancestry is South American, Caribbean, or from elsewhere in Central America are foreign-born.

It also is not accurate to say that Hispanics are uneducated. In 2012, Hispanic high school graduates were more likely to go to college than were non-Hispanic white high school graduates. The high school dropout rate among Hispanics is falling fast. Before too long, educational attainment and income among Hispanics will reach the national average.

Perhaps the biggest myth is that as the Hispanic population grows, English will no longer be the language of the United States. The Census Bureau says that today, about three-quarters of Hispanic-Americans speak Spanish, but that share is expected to fall to two-thirds by 2020. If Hispanics follow the path that was set by Italians, Germans and Poles a century ago, the proportion who speak Spanish will slowly decline as they assimilate into the American mainstream. That is how every other immigrant group behaved, and there’s no reason to think Hispanics will be different.

All of this is good news. America has been welcoming immigrants for hundreds of years. It is one of our country’s greatest strengths. And the data on Hispanic-Americans show that our melting pot is still doing its job. 

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