Latinos Fuel More Than Half Of U.S Population Growth

For decades, the Hispanic population in the United States has seen rapid and steady growth. New numbers out from the Census today show that, in just the last ten years, Hispanics accounted for more than half of the increase in the U.S population. To discuss how that growth in numbers has manifested in American culture and politics, guest host Farai Chideya speaks with syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano and Veronica Vargas Stidvent, a former Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and now a University of Texas McCombs School of Business program director.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya; Michel Martin is away.

It's a case that's got Oakland, California, area residents riveted: The 2007 murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. This week, a trial is finally under way. We'll tell you about Chauncey Bailey, and explain why a group called Your Black Muslim Bakery is at the heart of the case, just a bit later in the program.

But first, in light of new data on how America's demographics are changing, we look at a broad segment of the population, and how it's making its mark on this country.

For decades, the U.S. Hispanic population has seen has seen rapid and steady growth. And new numbers out from the census today show that in just the last 10 years, Hispanics accounted for more than half of the increase in the U.S. population. But how has that strength in numbers manifested itself in American culture and politics? And how has America altered Latino culture and politics?

To get some answers to these questions, we'll be joined shortly by a second guest. But we've got, right now, Veronica Vargas Stidvent, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. She's now a lecturer and program director at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. VERONICA VARGAS STIDVENT (Program Director, University of Texas McCombs School of Business): Good morning, for Farai. Thank you for having me. It's great to be here.

CHIDEYA: Well, we are delighted. And, you know, in today's America, you've got people who love salsa - the condiment, the dance. They love celebrating Cinco de Mayo as a party night, sort of the way that some people who are not Irish let loose on St. Patrick's Day. But beyond the superficial, how is the growing Latino population shaping the U.S. culturally?

Ms. STIDVENT: Well, I think for the most part, that remains to be seen. And what I mean by that is, as we talk about a lot - we're waiting for the sleeping giant to wake up and cast a ballot. We're waiting to see what happens - this is a very young population. It's a young demographic that's booming. And so the old census data was showing that one in four newborns in this country is Hispanic. One in five schoolchildren is Hispanic.

So the real impact is going to be felt as this cohort ages and gets old enough to work, gets old enough to vote and - we're hoping - goes to college because that's a big, big issue in the Hispanic community.

CHIDEYA: One question that comes up a lot - and you know, obviously, the U.S. constantly is looking at demographics - is how people identify their heritage, particularly if they are of mixed heritage. And Hispanic identity is an ethnicity and not a race, so you have people of all different races who are Hispanic.

There's also the question of language. You know, are you more Latino if you speak Spanish? I mean, how do you parse out - or how does the Latino community parse out all of these questions of identity, do you think?

Ms. STIDVENT: These are very nuanced questions, and I think no one has effectively answered the question: What does it mean to be Hispanic? Because again, Hispanic is a strange term. It encompasses a large group of people from diverse backgrounds. We're talking about folks of Mexican heritage, Dominican heritage, Puerto Ricans, Cubans. It's a big group. And within the Hispanic community, there's a tremendous amount of diversity. And I think people sometimes overlook that.

So finding out what it means to be Hispanic is still an open question. And what that means is, as the country as a whole sees more mixed marriages, what that means for the next generation. I think about it looking at my own children, who I want to be bilingual. But if you looked at them, their last name is Stidvent. They're blonde. They're slathered in sunscreen so they don't get burned.

It's a big question, moving forward: What is the identity of Hispanics in this country? What is the difference between foreign-born Hispanics versus native-born Hispanics? And how do we come together to effectively make change?

CHIDEYA: And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Veronica Vargas Stidvent, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush, and former assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor.

We're also now joined by syndicated columnist Gustavo Arellano, the guy who writes the column "Ask a Mexican."

How are you?

Mr. GUSTAVO ARELLANO (Columnist, "Ask a Mexican"): Hola. Como estes?

CHIDEYA: Muy, muy bien.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: And I'm actually taking Spanish lessons, but that's a whole other situation.

Mr. ARELLANO: That's another conversation.

CHIDEYA: Is another conversation. Well, actually, it's not completely another conversation, because one of the questions I wanted to ask was: Do you think that one of the influences of the rising Latino population in the U.S. will be more people who are bilingual in Spanish, regardless of whether or not they're Latino? Do you think that Spanish is becoming - you know, I mean, it is a linguistic force in the States. And do you think that it will become even more so?

Mr. ARELLANO: Spanish has always been a part of the United States, of the continental mass that we call America, from the day of the conquistadors to the name of states and cities - like Colorado, Las Vegas, New Mexico, Arizona, and so forth. And Spanish has also influenced American English: buckaroo, you know, comes from vaquero. Same thing with barbecue - barbacoa. So Spanish has always influenced American English.

Are people going to be more bilingual, though, as a - you know, to sort of deal with Latinos? I actually don't think so, because here's a little trick about Latinos and the United States. By the very fact that we're calling ourselves Latinos, that's already saying that we're American, that we're already acknowledging that although we might have our own Latino identity - whether you're from Mexico, Central America, Argentina or wherever - the minute you're born in this country, you're already American.

The second generation, they're going to be even more American. And as that happens, you're going to lose more and more of your language - and also, frankly, your identity. Eventually, we're going to - it's always happened, with all immigrants. I don't think that Latinos are an exception to the rule, this idea of symbolic ethnicity, that as you have more generations in this country, eventually, you just stick to whatever parts of your ethnicity, of your mother ethnicity or race, that you want to. That's a beauty of this country.

But you know - and I - trust me, I'm as proud a Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano - whatever day I feel like, you know, I affix a different label to myself. But I think that gets to the essence of what the influence of Latinos have for the United States.

CHIDEYA: So looking into a crystal ball, do you see - like, say, 50 years from now, would you see more American Latinos actually not speaking Spanish, and not seeing Spanish as - as much of a cultural unifier?

Mr. ARELLANO: It's inevitable. And as much as I hate to say it, it's inevitable. I'm the child of Mexican immigrants who - they've been in this country, now, 40 years. Spanish - they speak Spanish 95 percent of their life. And they only speak English if they absolutely have to.

My first language when I entered school - was kindergarten - I'm bilingual, although English - you know, as they say, I dream in English. And I - and my parents, they make fun of me for my Spanish. They say (Spanish spoken) - that I speak, you know, like an assimilated Mexican. I want my children, too, to be bilingual. But I know - and I know no matter how much I try, they're going to favor English.

It's already happening with my cousin's children, where they can't even speak to their grandparents. My - they can't even speak to their grandparents, my aunts and uncles, because they're kids - they're Mexican kids here in the United States, and they're always going to speak English before Spanish.

CHIDEYA: Well, let me go back to you, Veronica. You know, you have worked at the Department of Labor; you've worked in the White House. When you take a look at the political issues of empowerment, you talked about how the Latino population is young, demographically. What kind of political moves, and political power, can we expect in the coming years from the Latino community?

Ms. STIDVENT: Well, take, for example, Texas. We're looking at 25 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic. And so that's a huge amount of voting power, if it's exercised. And that's really the key. You have to have people going to the polls, or there is no power. So that's a big, big component of it. The other issue - and the Pew Center did a great poll and study last year - there's an absence of leadership, or visible leadership. When people are asked, who do you think of as a great Latino leader in this country, they have a hard time coming up with a name.

And I think that's a big difference, for example, than what you see in the African-American community, where people of all races and ethnicities - that can name major African-American figures and leaders in this country. And you don't see that in the Hispanic community.

And so that's going to be a big issue, going forward - is, can this community vote and exercise its power of numbers? And two, where is the leadership going to come from?

CHIDEYA: And I'm going to ask this of both of you but start with you, again, Veronica. What about labor? You know, there are a lot of contentious issues around what Latino labor - documented, undocumented workers - means in the United States. Where do you see things headed?

Ms. STIDVENT: I think at some point, this country is going to have to realize that our birthrate, like most developed countries, is fairly low. And so if you want to grow your economy, the way to grow an economy is to have more workers. And you need an immigrant labor force for that.

And I think we need to think very critically about how we do that, and make sure that it's fair and safe, and all of those things. But we have to recognize the importance of immigrant labor to the future of this country, and come to embrace it and understand it, and realize that - the contribution that immigrants throughout our history have made, and will continue to make, to grow the economy.

CHIDEYA: And Gustavo, I'll ask you, what do you see ahead for labor but also, do you see the possibility for toning down some of the antagonism that we have right now, surrounding immigration and labor?

Mr. ARELLANO: Oh, a lot of the rhetoric that you hear right now is the exact same rhetoric that Anglo settlers of Texas were saying 150 years ago. It's not going to go away. It's never going to go away. America, God bless our soul, we always have this little xenophobic streak in our synapses, and it's been around for centuries.

In terms of labor, there's - as long as there's been Latinos in this country, you've had Latinos at every single level. You have the immigrant Latinos who are working the fields, working construction. Then you have the entrepreneurs. Then you have the owners, and so forth. And that's - I think in that sense, that's how Latino immigration has differed from, say, the traditional European immigration, even the Asian immigration - in that there's always going to be a labor pool of cheap labor.

But there's also that assumption that somehow, those Latinos remain - you know, strawberry pickers for their entire life, and so do their children. No. There's advancement, and that's what's going to happen. Unfortunately, we do - or fortunately, for some of you out there - we do live in a capitalistic society, so we do need that cheap labor. It just has always been part of our traditions.

What I find interesting, though, is when even though you have this cheap agricultural labor and other cheap labor, the power of unions. Of course, everyone knows the United Farm Workers from the '60s. But down in Florida, you have the Coalition of Immokalee Workers that's been organizing the tomato pickers down there. Out here in Los Angeles, you've had Justice for Janitors, SEIU, people who are organizing cheaply paid hotel workers, both documented and undocumented...

CHIDEYA: Well, Gustavo...

Mr. ARELLANO: ...and giving them the force of union.

CHIDEYA: Well, Gustavo, we have to end it there. Gustavo Arellano, syndicated columnist who writes "Ask A Mexican" for the OC Weekly, joined me from Costa Mesa, California. And Veronica Vargas Stidvent, lecturer and program director at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, joined us from KUT in Austin. Thank you both so much.

Ms. STIDVENT: Thank you.

Mr. ARELLANO: Gracias.

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