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We are all Americans. Lest we forget, use of the term, "American," is not exclusive to citizens of the United States of America. And yet, somehow we do forget that. How we think of borders, and language, circumscribes our view of nationality.  

The U.S. Census projects that very soon (2050) the population of the United States will be "majority-minority." What will cause this shift is the increase in a demographic group called "Latinos" or "Hispanics," when it is combined with our African-American, Asian-American and Native-American populations.  

As a child who grew up on Gerber baby and food and remembers the little white kid on those jars, I had to smile at this ABC news item a few days ago.  

Even Gerber has recognized that no longer is that child an appropriate symbol for our nation's babies.

Twenty years ago, there was the "Gerber Baby" and it was a white child.
Today's Gerber commercials, on the other hand, feature not one baby, but dozens of faces from all different races.... For the first time ever, non-white Americans, Latino, African-American, and Asian American outnumber white children. "The idea where we had a white, middle-class population that we talked about in the 1950s and 1960s, that's disappearing," said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute.

The new generation is still in the cradle, but as the infants grow up America will start to look very different. Already, the trend lines are becoming clearer: Older Americans are whiter. Younger Americans are more non-white. Most of the change is being driven by a surging Latino population with a much higher birth rate than any other ethnic group. It is further bolstered by legal immigration.

A closer look at the numbers is revealing.

Latino demographics

As of 2010, Hispanics accounted for 16.3% of the national population, or around 50.5 million people. The Hispanic growth rate over the April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2007 period was 28.7% — about four times the rate of the nation's total population (at 7.2%). The growth rate from July 1, 2005 to July 1, 2006 alone was 3.4% — about three and a half times the rate of the nation's total population (at 1.0%). The projected Hispanic population of the United States for July 1, 2050 is 132.8 million people, or 30.2% of the nation's total projected population on that date.

Beyond looking at the numbers, and the nice neat packages that demographers and other social scientists use to predict trends, a more qualitative approach is called for when discussing this "Latino" or "Hispanic" population in more depth, because we err if we begin to accept those big boxes as monolithic, or mono-cultural.  

It is too easy to slip into a mind-set of assuming that we are talking about one group, and then making political decisions based on a faulty framework. Right now, the focus of the right wing—and much of the left—has been solely on immigration and subsets of that debate, like the Dream-Act.  An underlying (and often overt) current in the plaints of the right is a nativism that is racist. There is a rejection of the "Americanness" of a huge segment of our populace, and a desire to push back against a tide of "brown" that will change the face of "Our America." For example, I am not included as part of that  "our" even though some of my ancestors have been here since the 1600’s, and others way before then.  

Headlines about Latinos blare "immigration reform," "border disputes and crossings." The words, "illegal" and "alien," get thrown into the nativist mix, with "Mexican" as the all-inclusive subtext, presenting a skewed portrait of one of the most diverse populations in the US melting, or un-melted, pot.

Contrary to this stereotype, many people who may or may not speak Spanish as a home language or who may have genealogical roots in countries originally colonized by Spain, folks with Hispanic surnames didn’t always come here recently. And of those who recent arrivals, many have roots in the Caribbean, Central or South America—not just Mexico.  

The language debate gets thrown into the nativist mix as well. "They need to learn English…"—as if Spanish has no deep roots in U.S. soil. The geography of the U.S. and its history belies a solely British source for either language or place names here in "The New World."  That history too often is ignored.

The oldest city of European founding in the U.S. is not Jamestown but Saint Augustine, Florida.  Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer and admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, it is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city and port in the continental United States.

Menéndez landed with Spaniards and 500 black slaves. Missionaries and soldiers initiated alliances or battles with local indigenous groups, intermarriage occurred quite early and Spanish was the language of the resulting "criollo" population.

Look at our state’s names—clearly much of the West and parts of the East are derived from Spanish.

Origin of State names
California: From a book, Las Sergas de Esplandián, by Garcia Ordóñez de Montalvo, c. 1500
Colorado: From the Spanish, "ruddy" or "red"
Florida: From the Spanish, Pascua Florida, meaning "feast of flowers" (Easter)
Montana : From the Spanish, "mountain"
Nevada: From the Spanish, "snowcapped"
New Mexico: From Mexico, "place of Mexitli," an Aztec god or leader

Add Puerto Rico (Spanish for rich port) as the birthplace, or ethnicity of over 8.3 million U.S. citizens.  

The 2010 U.S. Census counted 3.7 million people living in Puerto Rico. This was down from 3.8 million in 2000. By contrast, in the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, the population of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin increased from 3.4 million in 2000 to 4.6 million in 2010, surpassing Puerto Rico’s Hispanic population.

Many of our citizens for whom Spanish is a first or second language never crossed borders—the borders crossed them, as the smaller United States expanded its territory westward and acquired colonies.

In order to address our political future, we must first have a better understanding of what and who we are talking about when we use these frames, because to make blanket decisions based on an incomplete and faulty analysis will severely compromise our ability to organize and to form coalitions to make progressive change possible.

So in the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be writing a series of articles on the varied cultures that make up this patchwork quilt called "Latinos," in the hope that it will inform not only our understanding, but will provide a more nuanced approach to the discussion of  issues and policies concerning these groups.

One of the more flagrant missteps in the press centered on our most prominent Latino political figure, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Two years ago, when Ms. Sotomayor was nominated for SCOTUS, an article was published, Sotomayor Cartoon In The Oklahoman Comes Under Fire about an editorial cartoon by Chip Bok, published in The Oklahoman and other papers.

Titled "Fiesta Time at the Confirmation Hearing," it depicted Sotomayor strung up as a piñata and President Obama wearing a sombrero surrounded by a herd of angry bat- or gun-wielding elephants. The article cites an outcry from feminists, about Sotomayor being portrayed as a punching bag. But this critique, though valid, missed the most problematic symbolic references.

The debate made its way here to Daily Kos in a diary, and the wrongness of the imagery resonated on any number of levels. I commented about it at the time: Why a sombrero on President Obama? Why a piñata strung up as in a lynching?  

We tend to associate lynching primarily with the ugly history of terrorizing African Americans, but it is also closely historically related to Mexican-Americans (see incidents like The Porvenir Massacre, 1918).

The lynching of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest has long been overlooked in American history. This may be because most historical records categorized Mexican, Chinese, and Native American lynching victims as white. Statistics of reported lynching in the United States indicate that, between 1882 and 1951, 4,730 persons were lynched, of whom 1,293 were white and 3,437 were black. The actual known amount of Mexicans lynched is unknown. It is estimated that at least 597 Mexicans were lynched between 1848 and 1928 (this is a conservative estimate due to lack of records in many reported lynchings ). Mexicans were lynched at a rate of 27.4 per 100,000 of population between 1880 and 1930. This statistic is second only to that of the African American community during that period, which suffered an average of 37.1 per 100,000 population. Between 1848 to 1879, Mexicans were lynched at an unprecedented rate of 473 per 100,000 of population. These lynchings cannot be excused as merely “frontier justice”—of the 597 total victims, only 64 were lynched in areas which lacked a formal judicial system.

It's improbable the cartoonist had that history in mind when he penned his work. Most likely, it was simply a case of all Hispanics being the same—who cares if Puerto Ricans are American citizens, with ancestry from a Caribbean culture, culturally and historically different from Mexican-Americans? "Those people" (insert racist epithet of choice) are all the same. And foreign. Read "not us" as "not U.S."

Sotomayor is a native of the U.S., born in the Bronx. Yes, her parents are U.S. citizens too, born in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans don’t wear Mexican sombreros (the traditional hat of the Puerto Rican agricultural worker or "jibaro" is a "pava" made of dried palm leaves). Pinatas are part of Mexican culture as well, even though nowadays  at kiddie parties all Americans use them.

In the media, and in many minds, symbols, images and stereotypes are mixed and matched with total disregard for anthropology or history.

And the question arises: Who cares what hat was used?

I do.

Who wants to deny that stereotyping and bigotry in images shape and form our view of the Latinos among us?

I don’t and won’t.

We persist in using lazy demographic sociology-speak, lumping any and all persons who fit the socially constructed ethnic category of Hispanic/Latino into one data set. After we stuff all Latinos into one box, we then have the omnipresent box of "race" to consider. "Ethnicity" and "race" are a quandary, and the U.S. Census Bureau cannot be depended upon to accurately tabulate these data due to shifting categories and collection methodologies over time. Many persons of Mexican ancestry in some of our earlier census records were simply dropped into the "mulatto" category.  

Socially-constructed "race" in the U.S. varies from "race" in the Caribbean or South and Central America. We wobble back and forth between thinking of "Hispanics" as a race, labeled as "white" or as a default as "brown." Rarely is the border crossed into "black," even though when talking about genealogical descent or culture, when dealing with certain populations who are part of the Latino category, African ancestry in both phenotype and culture can be discerned. A look at this is proffered in the recent series produced by Professor Henry Louis Gates for PBS, Black in Latin America.  

Self-definition is called into question too. The box one fits one's self into may depend on racial power relationships and hierarchies here, or in the home country. Very few (about 2%) of "Hispanics" checked the "black or Negro" box in the 2010 census, nor did many select "Native American." America encompasses the entire hemisphere, and though U.S. citizens refer to themselves as "American" as if they have a patent on it, everyone in "the Americas" can lay claim to its usage. The category of Hispanic masks indigenous ancestry and even language assumptions. When U.S. southern borders were locked into their current configurations, how many people on one side became "Mexicans" while those north of the line remained "Indians?"

I did data analysis for a research study of migrant workers on Long Island in New York, where intervention materials were developed for women attending pre-natal clinics. All materials were in Spanish.  And many of the women didn’t understand them at all, since they were not fluent in Spanish even though they hailed from Mexico. The project directors had to find bi-and-tri lingual mixteco and náhuatl speakers to assist in conducting qualitative interviews.

If we are going to deal with the shifting populations in the U.S., where the Democratic Party fits into serving the needs of and representing this mélange of constituencies all neatly boxed into a package, we really need to begin to unpack that big box and examine the smaller subsets. We need to be cognizant of more than immigration as an issue and to be aware of how shifting patterns of settlement can tip the balance in certain states where we don’t normally assume that Latino voices either exist or are of importance.

Where does the demographic data lead us?  

The inevitable conclusion is that the population of the United States, as we know it, is going through a major change. No wonder there is push-back and a loud outcry from those who want their idealized, ahistorical country "back." This outrage is reflected in an uptick in nativist legislation. Those of us on the left need to be just as aware of the pitfalls of adopting any and all rhetoric or assumptions that underlie this last gasp of a mythical "white" America. We need to learn more about the diverse nature of Latino communities (with a decided emphasis on the plural).

Pa’lante Siempre Pa’lante—in other words—we are always moving forward.

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