For Hispanics, cultural heft and new tensions

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

Long before Hispanics officially became the nation's largest minority - a milestone announced by the Census Bureau this week - salsa edged out ketchup as the top US condiment and ATMs in rural Vermont asked customers if they wanted to withdraw cash in Spanish or English.

Bilingual education, and opposition to it, was sweeping the nation's schoolrooms. Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan crossed over into mainstream music superstardom.

But this week is a fresh reminder of the transforming impact on American life of this fast-growing community - even as it remains so diverse that it defies easy racial or ethnic generalizations. In the economy alone, the influence of Hispanic Americans is staggering - and controversial. "The economy of the Sun Belt and California would collapse without Hispanics. They are doing the work of the entire culture," says California historian Kevin Starr.

While their rise has helped fueled America's economic growth for decades, it has also sparked tension, such as concern over whether illegal immigrants and others are depriving other Americans of economic opportunity.

While black and Hispanic groups share an interest in improving education, for example, some African-American activists predict that the higher presence for Hispanics could increase tensions among the two groups.

"Blacks have been denied opportunity in years past just because they were black. Now we are faced with the same type of dilemma just because we don't speak Spanish," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), a grassroots group in Miami. "All of these things create tension in our community."

Still, from harvesting the nation's food supply to manning hotels, restaurants, and construction sites, Hispanics have been a key to the long economic surge of the 1980s and '90s.

"It's not about a population rate, about who's the largest minority group. It's about a population that continues to have influence in cultural, social, and economic aspects of American life." Dr. Louis Olivas, a business expert at Arizona State University and founder of the National Hispanic Corporate Council Institute.

Cultural impact

Take Jennifer Lopez, for instance. She influences music and dress in America, cutting across ethnic boundaries. Mexican restaurants are on every corner.

The Latino influence continues to permeate American culture in more subtle ways as well. Avon recently came out with a new line of cosmetics for Hispanic women. Hallmark produces birthday cards in Spanish. Cuban black beans and gourmet burritos are as familiar on store shelves as Le Sueur peas.

Still, in Hollywood, breaking the white, male dominance on the big and small screen is never easy. Miami, for instance, is about 70 percent Hispanic. Consider just the two television shows currently set in Miami, which is almost 70 percent Hispanic. "Good Morning Miami" recently lost its only Hispanic cast member and the only Latino on "CSI: Miami" doesn't have a Hispanic last name.

For all its cultural and economic impact, the large and diverse Hispanic community is just beginning to find a comparable political voice.

"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.

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.

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