Hispanics the Challenge Ahead
The integration of the ever-growing Hispanic population into the American mainstream will pose a challenge to US society far greater than the civil-rights explosion of the 1960s -- perhaps as great as any since the Civil War.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This is the conclusion after touching base with the three main components of the Hispanic community as it is at present -- at least 12 million officially, but probably closer to 20 million if every head were counted.
It is the Mexican component that will eventually force a still quiescent federal government and national public opinion to come to grips with what is happening every day to increase the Hispanic part of the whole population. In oversimplified terms -- and despite the flotilla of refugee boats pouring into Miami at the moment -- the Cuban component is finite and manageable, the Puerto Rican component certainly less so. But as for the Mexican component, it is hard to see where it is going to end.
Mexicans are coming into the United States at an estimated rate of 1 million a year -- nearly all of them illegally. (Among Hispanics, as already noted, the phrase "illegal aliens," particularly on Anglo lips, is distasteful. The preferred description is "undocumented aliens." Mexicans and Chicanos ask how on earth they can be "illegal" or "alien" in a land once theirs and still dotted thickly with Spanish place names.) No Hispanic with whom this writer talked thought that the Immigration and Naturalization Service could stop the flow -- despite the minimal strips of wire fence and the helicopter patrols. In border areas the INS is hardly the most liked of public agencies and is talked about bitterly as "La Migra" (from "migration").
Not only is there a common border 2,000 miles long, defying complete control -- short of something like the Berlin wall. But on the south of that border is Mexico, which has one of the highest birthrates in the world and is expected to have a population of 204 million by this time next century. The US population, according to World Bank estimates, will have leveled off at 271 million four or five decades earlier. Between now and then, these two lands are locked geographically cheek by jowl, the one (despite its newly discovered oil and gas) likely to have a chronic poverty and unemployment problem, the other still offering more economic promise and opportunity than almost any other place on earth.
Henry Cisneros, a Chicano member of the San Antonio City Council and tipped as the city's next mayor, summed it up. "Nothing," he said, "can offset the strength of the pull of the US."
His proposed solution to the growing tensions likely to result along the US-Mexican border is a 25-year, joint US-Mexican strategy "to reduce the differentials to a roughly common level on both sides of the border." This would mean, he explained, a joint funding of the development of water supplies, roads, and industries on the Mexican side of the border. There is no alternative shortcut, he insisted. Asked if this might not, in Mexican eyes, smack of an intrusion of American colonialism, Mr. Cisneros said the best way to ensure against this was to let US Hispanics have a significant role in developing and carrying out the plan.
Mr. Cisneros happens to be an example of the tenuous entry of Hispanics into the political arena. Nationally, they have little clout as yet. In Washington, there are only six Hispanics in the House of Representatives (compared with 15 blacks), and there are none in the Senate. Such congressional representation as there is, is still little more than tokenism. At the moment there is no Hispanic governor of a state. There is not Hispanic on the Los Angeles City Council, and in New York no borough president is at present Hispanic. Miami has a Hispanic mayor, and two others are on the City Council, but there are none in any of the perhaps more important Dade County (Greater Miami) elective offices.