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For Hispanics, cultural heft and new tensions

Now the largest minority, Latinos are still searching for a political voice.

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"Now that we are more numerous, maybe we'll finally be better represented around the country, in schools and in government," says New York City resident Indhira Mota, a daughter of Dominican immigrants who is training to be a teacher.

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Waiting for political clout

Hispanics now number 37 million, just edging out blacks at 36.2 million. But some 60 percent are not yet eligible to vote, since many are not US citizens.

Perhaps a bigger factor is that Latinos do not weigh in politically as a single group. They are an unusually diverse community, which didn't even register as a distinct ethnic group in the US Census data until the 1970s.

In large numbers, Latinos say that those of different countries of origin share no common culture. Some 83 percent in a recent poll said that discrimination by Hispanics against other Hispanics is a problem, finds a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center and Kaiser Family Foundation last year.

Still, pollsters say Latinos overall are more socially conservative than most American voters, especially on issues involving gender roles, abortion, and homosexuality. As a group, Latinos have lower mortality rates and smoke and drink less than non-Hispanic whites, but are less likely to have health coverage.

"Latinos are not monolithic, even on issues of special interest to them," says Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino elected officials. "This means that it is in America's self interest to make sure that Latinos succeed in education, economically, socially, because such a large section of the country is Latino, we cannot afford to have them underestimated, or undereducated.... They are the future of this country."

Unlike African American voters, who vote overwhelmingly with the Democratic Party, the Hispanic vote is not solidly aligned with either party in most states. With the national political scene split down the middle, the major parties are mounting aggressive campaigns to win Latino votes.

Activists say it's an opportunity for Hispanics to move their concerns to the top of the political agenda, especially higher investments in education and healthcare. "Half [of Hispanics] are under 25" - they are the future taxpayers and voters, says Sonia Perez of the National Council of La Raza.

Facts about America's Hispanic population, from the US Census Bureau:

Total Hispanic population in the US: 37 million. Greatest number in a single city: 2.2 million in New York.

Growth rate: A 58 percent rise between 1990 and 2000.

Language: 28 million speak Spanish at home.

Median household income: $33,455

Poverty rate: 21.2 percent

Homeownership: 46 percent of households, up from 42 percent in 1990.

Businesses owned: 1.2 million

Education: 57 percent of those over age 24 have at least a high school education; 11 percent have a college degree.

Contributing to this report were staff writers Daniel B. Wood in Los Angeles and Kris Axtman in Houston, and contributors Stacey Vanek Smith in New York and Jennifer LeClaire in Miami.