Hispanic Population Grows Dramatically In California

California's latest race and ethnicity Census information was released this week. Leo Chavez, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, talks to Renee Montagne about how the Hispanic population of California has changed over the last 10 years.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

New Census data reveals one dramatic change in California. Over the last decade the Latino population in the state has grown so fast that the population under 18 is now majority Latino. We brought in Leo Chavez to talk about what this means for California. He's a professor at the University of California Irvine and the author of a book about legal and undocumented immigrants.

Welcome to the program.

Professor LEO CHAVEZ (University of California Irvine): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Now, we who live and come from California won't be surprised that there's this huge Latino population. But Latino children making up a majority of the state's under 18 population, that's that's interesting. Do you think the younger generation will be significantly different in attitudes to race and ethnicity than the older generation is?

Prof. CHAVEZ: Definitely. I think what we're seeing in California, which is a bellwether of what's happening in the nation, is that the native population is primarily an older population. And because they're older, their fertility rates are lower. And what we're seeing now is parity between the Latino population and the non-Hispanic white population.

MONTAGNE: Which is about 40 percent 37 and 40.

Prof. CHAVEZ: Exactly. And I think that you can either go two ways on this. You can either continue, sort of, a fear that Latinos are somehow going to change the nation in ways that are very negative or you can realize that Latinos are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream in terms of culture, language, but also they are contributing to American culture. American culture never sits still and Latinos are really making contributions to music, to humor, to family, to work.

MONTAGNE: When you say though, it could be either or, your book "The Latino Threat" is, in a certain way, a play on fears people have. What would be the fears?

Prof. CHAVEZ: Well, the fear is basically that Latinos somehow dont want to become part of American society and culture. They want to remain separate. They don't want to learn English or they're incapable of learning English. That basically, you know, they want to live apart and separate from the larger society.

MONTAGNE: How true - is that merely a fear or is there something to it?

Prof. CHAVEZ: No, its pretty much a fear, I would say. The data we've collected, particularly here in Southern California, which is the new Ellis Island, shows that relatively quickly, the children of immigrants learn English, they integrate and they start intermarrying by the second and third generations, particularly. And even in terms of something as basic as religion, we find that by the third generation, people, say for example, of Mexican origin, only about half of them are even Catholics. I mean they are basically subject to the kind of ideas that are in society. They try new things. They change. You know, this idea that Latinos are somehow a-historical(ph) and never changing is really a fear that really doesn't have much basis, at least in empirical data.

MONTAGNE: You know, we spoke just a moment ago about the fears people have of the negative aspects of this, but in a way, a part of the affect of this demographic changes the notion of families, when you have a younger population, much more front and center.

Prof. CHAVEZ: Thats right. I think the challenges are how to take advantage of those values in ways that allow Latinos to achieve the potential, because of this growing population, and because Latinos tend to be lower income. When we say Latinos are in parity with white Californians, we don't mean economically and we don't mean in terms of education. And to me, those are where we really need to focus our attention.

MONTAGNE: Well, just finally, Latinos in California and elsewhere in the United States have not participated in voting in as high a numbers as they might. Do these new census numbers have any implications for the Latino vote?

Prof. CHAVEZ: Oh, definitely. I mean when you have the Latinos under 18 moving into majority, and the under 18 population being made up primarily of U.S.-born citizens, their interests and their concerns are really going to be heard at the voting booth. And we're already seeing that. I mean California has changed, dramatically, since back in the early 90s. You know, right now, Arizona has taken up that sort of anti-immigrant call. California is a little bit more reluctant, because even Republicans realize, in California, that the vote among Latinos is something they have to really be concerned with.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Prof. CHAVEZ: Oh, thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Leo Chavez teaches anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is "The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation."

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MONTAGNE: Youre listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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