2010 In Review: The Year for Latinos In The U.S.

For Latinos in the US, 2010 was a challenge. High school drop out rates did not improve, the economic crisis affected them deeply, and the Senate vote on the DREAM Act stumped hopes of immigration reform for undocumented young people. Columnist Esther Cepeda talks about what's changed for Latinos.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Today, we begin a series of conversations through the end of this year when we're going to ask people from diverse backgrounds what's changed over the past year, and we begin with the country's largest minority group - Latinos.

The new census confirms the browning of America. More Latinos won elections, in sometimes contentious circumstances, but the tough economy made life difficult for millions. And just yesterday President Obama said his most disappointing moment was the defeat of the DREAM Act, which would have provided paths to citizenship for young people brought here illegally as children.

President BARACK OBAMA: Kids are going to school like any other American kid, they're growing up, they're playing football, they're going to class, they're dreaming about college. And suddenly they come to 18, 19 years old and they realize even though I feel American, I am an American, the law doesn't recognize me as an American. I'm willing to serve my country, I'm willing to fight for this country, I want to go to college and better myself, and I'm at risk of deportation. And it is heartbreaking. That can't be who we are.

CONAN: Hispanics, what's changed for you since the end of 2009? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and joins us on the phone from her home in Chicago.

Nice to have you back. Merry Christmas.

Ms. ESTHER J. CEPEDA (Washington Post Writers Group): Merry Christmas to you. Nice to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: And what's the biggest change you've noticed over the past year?

Ms. CEPEDA: Well, I think that the biggest, single most important thing that's facing the Latino community right now is what everybody in the country is facing, which is the impacts of the Great Recession. National unemployment is 9.8 percent in general for the country. It's 13.2 percent for Latinos, which is an almost doubling of the unemployment rate for Latinos than it was at the beginning of the recession. One in three Latinos are unemployed compared to one in five whites. And they've lost more ground than both blacks and whites in the last year to two years. So I think that that's the most important thing that's going on. We're suffering just like everybody else, but of course the magnification in the Latino community is kind of the big issue.

CONAN: And how do you see that manifest? We hear the numbers. But how does that manifest?

Ms. CEPEDA: Well, it manifests itself in a couple of different ways. If you look at some health trends - and, as you know, socioeconomic status is very integrated into health and wellness. So we've got more Latino young men who have been in homicides and crashes last year. We've got drug use among Latinos. It has gone up from 9.2 percent to 12.8 percent between 2008 and 2009. It's 39 percent higher than for whites. So that's one health issue.

And as you know, the younger Latinos, U.S.-born Latinos, have higher rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases that they deal with. So with those kinds of economic pressures, the health issues kind of go up, even though we have this kind of Latino health paradox. We find that immigrants and certain Latinos that come to this country are healthier than whites, and that's certainly one of the things that that came out this year in some of the statistics, that Hispanics are outliving whites by two years and blacks by seven years.

You know, we've got the family, the faith, the community that holds us together, gives for a better life expectancy, lower infant mortality, lower incidence of heart disease. But when you're talking about the younger population, they're the ones that are - they're having these kind of social health issues that are affecting them in different ways. One of the bright spots is that actually Latinos have lower mortality rates for all females over 15. So again, that is a bright spot.

CONAN: Any other silver linings that you see?

Ms. CEPEDA: Well, there are other silver linings. You know, one of the things that came out - some of the really interesting things that have come out about the census that we've been talking about lately. You know, the census shows that we are growing. We are talking about more than one in seven U.S. people are Latino. The population increases have saved congressional seats in Illinois here. The Latino population increases have saved congressional seats in Illinois. And I'm suspecting that the reports are going to becoming out that has happened in other places.

When you look at where Latinos are living right now, the segregation numbers right now are kind of flat. Whites live - 79 percent of them live with other whites, blacks. The segregation number is 46 percent. For Hispanics, it's 45 percent. So the level of segregation is kind of at a midpoint right now. Unfortunately, it looks like it might tip to where Latinos might be increasingly living with only Latinos. But that's kind of open question mark.

Some of the other silver linings that are going on for Latinos right now are obviously the power of the Latino vote and the political empowerment that we saw specifically in the midterms elections. Harry Reid's seat in Nevada and a couple of other very, very contested seats across the country were seen to have been saved by the Latino vote.

CONAN: Well, there's been a - there were a number of Latinos elected for the first time in 2010: Marco Rubio, the senator-elect from Florida, Susana Martinez, elected governor of New Mexico...

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...Brian Sandoval, governor of Nevada, Bill Flores in Texas, Raul Labrador in Idaho, David Rivera in Florida, Francisco Canseco in Texas, Jaime Butler(ph) in Washington - interestingly, a number of those, Republicans.

Ms. CEPEDA: Exactly. And that's just one of the things that comes with the high population and the political empowerment. You've got multiple outreaches on a small scale. It's not like the Republican National Convention is doing this massive campaign. But you've got a Newt Gingrich who has this whole arm of his organization courting Latinos, specifically to get them into the Republican Party and to make the Republican Party, at least one part of it, very friendly to Latinos.

So this political empowerment is not something that I would call strictly a Democrat or a Republican thing. I think that candidates and parties all over the country are realizing that, you know, you've got to bring Latinos into any of the parties and let them flex some political muscle.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation, Latinos. What's changed for you over the past year? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Benito with us from Big Clifty - is that right - in Kentucky?

BENITO (Caller): Yes. I'm in Big Clifty, Kentucky. I like your radio program. I want to tell you that I enjoy listening to it every day.

CONAN: Thank you.

BENITO: I'm a naturalized U.S. citizen now. I moved here from Ixtlan, Mexico, about eight years. I work on a farm as farm laborer. But what I want to say is, in - if you notice in movies and things, many, many Latinos are often portrayed as uneducated, as to the - they're bad people. Since all of these new reforms and things of this nature, the Latino people, you know, you see on TV more now being lawyers, being made in the movies as heroes, as police officers and firefighters. I think the people's - the people are beginning to feel that the Latino maybe more equal, you know, to the other races, more educated. They get more opportunities and...

CONAN: And you see that reflected in the media, on TV and in the movies?

BENITO: Yes. You see many people now, Latinos, fully embrace us, like they're officers, shows like "CSI: Miami."

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BENITO: Now the Latino is not just the drug dealer or the bad guy. He's a police officer, and doesn't have to work in porno(ph) anymore.

CONAN: Esther Cepeda, that reflection is very important if a community is going to see itself reflected more positively in the media.

Ms. CEPEDA: You know what? It really is. That is very important. And I think that's a really good point. I think that when you're talking about fiction, when you're talking about television shows and things like that, there have been great stride made.

You know, Georg Lopez is a very, very well-accepted across any kind of population. People love George Lopez. People loved "Ugly Betty." Unfortunately, some of the watchers have given poor grades recently for ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox in terms of having increased blacks and Asians behind the camera and, you know, on broadcast situations, but not Latinos. But hopefully, that will come.

Another bright spot is that, you know, we've talked about - for years about the digital divide. And certainly, the digital divide, where there is less of an access to computers and Internet and technology, it certainly exists. But Latinos, they really are overcoming that greatly. There was just a great study that came out showing that compared to the five percent of the general population that uses the social networking site Twitter, 18 percent of Latinos are doing so. And whereas you might not see Latinos behind the anchor desk on TV, there are many, many, many Latinos really engaged in journalism, citizen journalism, blogging and sharing online where they've created quite, quite a great community for themselves to kind of supplement what they may not see on TV.

CONAN: Benito, thanks very much for the kind words, and Merry Christmas to you. Benito with us from Clifty City in Kentucky.

We're talking with Esther J. Cepeda, a syndicated columnist at The Washington Post Writers Group, the first in a series of conversations we're going to be having for the reminder of this year with various diverse groups about what's changed for them over the past year.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Jaime, Jaime with us from Alameda in California.

JAIME (Caller): Yes, good morning. I want to thank you for having this topic on the air today. I think it's really important, not only for Latinos, but all of us as Americans. I'll tell you, I'm a proud U.S. citizen. And the one thing that changed for me as a citizen, as a U.S. citizen of Latino heritage, is the changes in politics, how - although we don't always choose to see ourselves as different, some areas of this country choose to see us as different.

When Arizona says no to, you know - and the way they name it, illegal immigrants, they are not only saying no to people who came here without papers or without inspection. They are saying no to all of us who look like those people, because we are those people. They are our brothers. They are our sisters. And so they say no to them, they say no to us.

You know, when the DREAM Act doesn't passed, you're talking about the best and the brightest of these kids, kids who came here, not by choice, but because they were brought here. And while being here, they have done the best they can. They've gone to school. They are willing to serve. They are willing to do everything that this country asks of them to be not only good for themselves, but good for this county. So...

CONAN: And, Esther Cepeda, just following up on what Jaime says, it does look like - we're talking about 2010, not 2011, but we're going to be looking at a Congress much more interested in enforcement than in immigration reform.

Ms. CEPEDA: It really is. It's just like Jaime said, and it's just like President Obama said. It is heartbreaking. Right now, the Hispanic Caucus leaders, they met with President Obama earlier in the week. And they're talking about a very defensive strategy about some radically anti-immigrant legislation that is being considered by some parts of the Republican Party - not all of them, certainly.

But we are, in addition that, looking at an administration that has tried a dual strategy of increasing deportations, increasing border protections and trying to prove to the naysayers that we can get our border issues under control while working the political side of it to get some traction on comprehensive immigration reform. And just to the naked eye, it would seem that the deportations and the border security portion of it has been extremely intense, whereas the politicking and the getting somewhere for the immigration cause has not taken off quite as much. And as I said, both the Hispanic Caucus leaders, as well as the president in a meeting earlier this week are looking at more of a defensive strategy for the years to come.

CONAN: And, of course, some would look at the first part of that and say more efforts to actually enforce the laws that are on the books. Whether you agree with those laws or not, that's another issue. But, Jaime, thanks very much for the call.

Let's go next to Nate, and Nate's with us from Minneapolis.

NATE (Caller): Hi. Yes. Thank you very much for having this topic on the air.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NATE: Well, I just have a comment. I've been involved with several non-profits in the Twin Cities. And I think there have been great strides made this year. And I think it's valid and important to talk about the political and the government acts and policies that are coming up.

But what I see, what I'm involved with is what's important to me right now. And I feel so thankful for the people that I've gotten to know who are involved with the different non-profits, for example, a man who helps with Latino youth and in getting them empowered to work out and see that that can be part of their life and finding out that, oh, this is amazing. These are different foods that are - that come from my background. They're good for me and important, and it's something that can be valid and brought into the family. And I'm just happy to see that there's work like that that still goes on, despite what happens in government and politics.

CONAN: And, Esther Cepeda, we have to remember that despite all the hardship, despite setbacks, that there are any number of individual stories like Nate's talking about that have been, well, just heartwarming.

Ms. CEPEDA: Absolutely. And just to piggyback on what Nate was saying, the non-profit sector has been just key to keeping the Latino community empowered and moving forward. And a lot of the things that have happened in national policy are going to help that. For instance, the federal Child Nutrition Bill just got passed, and that's really going to increase the quality of the food that are going to be available in schools for children.

Another thing that's really huge: We've got a lot of education focus going on right now. Those are focuses on No Child Left Behind and other educational policies that are really going to impact the way that Latinos access services and what they get that is necessary for them to be able to get the best education possible - and, of course, again, earlier this year, the president also looking at increased college planning for Latinos. So there's a lot of good things that are happening.

CONAN: Nate, thanks very much for the call. Esther Cepeda, thank you very much for your time and, again, Merry Christmas.

Ms. CEPEDA: Thank you, Neal. You, too.

CONAN: Esther Cepeda, national syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, with us from her home in Chicago.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. Have a happy and safe Christmas. We'll see you again on Monday.

CONAN: It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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