Much-Courted Hispanics

The growing numbers and clout of Hispanic-Americans is a long-running story in American politics. And politicians are anything but bored by it.

The top contenders for next year's presidential nominations are doing all they can to appeal to Hispanics, who are projected to become the country's largest minority group in five years. They are already nearly one-third of the population in California and Texas, both crucial states in presidential electoral politics.

Congressional candidates are paying attention to these voters too. It's estimated that 25 to 30 House seats could hinge on Hispanic votes.

Al Gore and George W. Bush have made a point of saying a few words in Spanish as they promote their candidacies. Their chief competitors, Democrat Bill Bradley and Republicans Elizabeth Dole and John McCain, are no less sensitive to these voters.

But appealing to Americans of Latin background is a delicate art. Their heritages trace back to dozens of different countries. Contrary to popular perception, well over half the country's nearly 30 million Hispanics were born in the United States.

Many are poor, but nearly three-quarters of Hispanic families live above the poverty line, according to Census data. Almost 70 percent of these families are married-couple households.

And their political instincts can swing to opposite poles. Many of California's Hispanic millions are reflexively anti-GOP in the wake of the passage of Prop 187, which was strongly backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican. That ballot initiative prohibited giving state benefits and services to illegal immigrants - most of whom come from Mexico, as originally did most of California's larger Hispanic community. By contrast, Florida's largely Cuban, anti-Castro Latin community has usually been solidly conservative and Republican.

But polls indicate the chief concerns of Hispanic-Americans merge with those of voters generally: crime and drugs, education, the economy.

What's going on here, inexorably, is the rise of a significant part of the citizenry to full participation in society. It's a process common to most immigrant groups, though most have been smaller and less closely tied to their countries of origin. Families and individuals, just arrived or here for a generation or two, are figuring out how to reconcile their ancestral cultures and languages to those of their new land. Increasingly, they're seeing people of their own ethnic heritage rise to prominence in business, sports, entertainment - or politics.

It's assimilation at its most meaningful - recruiting more Americans for the work of improving their democracy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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