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Hispanics in the US: ethnic 'sleeping giant' awakens

The Hispanic giant in the United States is awakening and coming out of his labyrinth of solitude -- to use the evocative phrase coined by Mexican poet Octavio Paz.

As he stirs himself, this giant will continue to get bigger.

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What is happening was unwittingly summed up by a diminutive elderly Mexican-American woman from one of the barrios (Hispanic neighborhoods) that sprawl for miles eastward across the Los Angeles River from downtown Los Angeles. (East Los Angeles is the home of more people of Mexican origin than are to be found in any other urban concentration except for Mexico City itself.) The woman had just come from a meeting last year of 1,200 members of the area's United Neighborhoods Organization with Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Well-briefed and awesomely organized, this remarkable delegation from the barrios had gone to the meeting determined to get from the mayor his signed agreement to cooperate with them in securing much-needed funds for better housing. They got it.

A few years ago, this elderly woman would never have dreamed of doing anything but passively accepting the often-hard lot of those living in the barrios. But after the triumphant meeting with Mayor Bradley, she said: "Before , I used to think of Mayor Bradley as tall and powerful. Today I feel as tall and powerful as he."

This is a feeling only just beginning in the Hispanic communities across the US. For the full national political and social consequences of it, and for the development of an effective national Hispanic leadership in the US, we may have to wait till the 1990s. But the statistics bespeak the tremendous likely impact on the country when this eventually comes about.

By the end of the century, Hispanics will almost certainly overtake blacks to become the biggest minority in the land. The Bureau of the Census estimated there were 12,046,000 Hispanics in the US in March 1978. That was 5.6 percent of the total population, compared with 11.6 percent for blacks. Leo Estrada of the Chicano Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles says the figure for Hispanics "represents the minimum level of Latino populaton . . . the lowest responsible estimate." These 1978 figures may well have to be revised significantly upward when the results of this April's census are tabulated.

Add to the Bureau of the Census 1978 total the estimated 7.4 million Hispanics in the US illegally (or "undocumented" in the preferred descrition of Spanish-speakers) and the percentage of the whole becomes 9.1. If one wants to recognize how rapidly and steeply the curve on the graph will rise, a couple of other facts must be stated. First, the birthrate of Hispanics in the US is more than twice that of whites and 60 percent higher than that of blacks. Second, Hispanic immigration into the US, mostly Mexican, is running at about 1 million a year -- if one includes the illegal with the legal arrivals.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church's Southeastern regional office for Hispanics in Miami, the Rev. Mario Vizcaino, brings home the point of the size of the Hispanic population in this country in an unconventional way. He argues that the US is the fifth-largest Hispanic country in the world, in terms of population, after Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Colombia.

But the challenge lies not only in numbers. It involves also the digesting into the US mainstream of a vast segment of the population much of which sees itself as both linguistically and culturally different. This raises in turn the question: Can it be done without disruptive collision or confrontation?

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In one of his perceptive essays, Octavio Paz has written of the differences, as he sees them, between North Americans and Mexicans -- who, it should be remembered, constitute some 60 percent of all Hispanics in the US:

"The North Americans are credulous and we are believers; they love fairy tales and detective stories and we love myths and legends. The Mexican tells lies because he delights in fantasy, or because he wants to rise above the sordid facts of his life; the North American does not tell lies, but he substitutes social truth for the real truth, which is always disagreeable. We get drunk in order to confess; they get drunk in order to forget. They are optimists and we are nihilists -- except that our nihilism is not intellectual but instinctive, and therefore irrefutable. We are suspicious and they are trusting. We are sorrowful and sarcastic and they are happy and full of jokes. North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions. They believe in hygiene, health, work, and contentment, but perhaps they have never experienced true joy, which is an intoxication, a whirlwind. In the hubbub of a fiesta night our voices explode into brilliant lights, and life and death mingle together, while their vitality becomes a fixed smile that denies old age and death but that changes life to motionless stone." (Elsewhere in the essay, Mr. Paz writes of the Mexican's "willingness to contemplate horror" and of his "cult of death.")

Some may find Mr. Paz's identification of the basic difference between the two cultures overstark. Yet he has zeroed in on the dividing line between them.

His description of mainstream citizens of the US as "North Americans" is worth noting. That is how most Hispanics in his hemisphere describe their English-speaking neighbors to the north. To Hispanics, the term "Americans" without any qualification (such as "Latin," "South," or Central) means themselves.

At the same time, "Hispanic" does not come naturally to their lips to describe themselves. Mario Barrera, coordinator of Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley, said many younger Hispanics deliberately avoid the word because they see it as an English invention foisted on them. This writer found many Hispanics of all ages across the country favoring the word "Latino" when they needed an umbrella description for all Spanish-speakers in the US. But when they were speaking specifically about themselves, they simply said "Mexican," "Puerto Rican," or "Cuban" -- as the case might be.

Then there is the word "Anglo," used loosely by Hispanics to describe anybody or anything in the US that is not Hispanic. Purists might insist that "Anglo" means anything not Hispanic and not identified with another US minority. But the Rev. Pedro Villaroya of the Church of Our Lady of Talpa in East Los Angeles described blacks as "Anglo" -- reminding this writer of black sociologist E. FRanklin Frazier's designation of black as "exaggerated Americans."

Before leaving terminology, there are two other words often used by Mexican-Americans that deserve comment -- and least because of their emotional content. One is "Chicano" (already appearing twice in this article). The other is "la raza." "Chicano" is synonymous with "Mexican-American and is apparently a folk abbreviation of "Mexicano," in the Spanish pronunciation of which the "x" is approximately like "ch" in the Scottish "loch."

Now to return to the wide sweep of Hispanics. How are they divided up and where in the US do they live? Figure I shows the relative proportions of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Central or South American or other Spanish origin. Figure II gives the percent distribution of all these by residence. Figure III lists the 10 cities in the US with the biggest Hispanic populations.

Of these cities, Los Angeles belongs (in Hispanic eyes) to the Mexicans, New York to the Puerto Ricans, and Miami to the Cubans. Chicago is unique in that it is the only big city in the US whose Hispanic population is shared by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans roughly in the same proportion as they share the total Hispanic population of the US. San Francisco and Washington (the latter not in the top 10) have unusual concentrations of Hispanics from Central and South America. The seeds for this Washington concentration were in great measure planted by domestic staff originally introduced by Latin American diplomatic missions. These domestics then found ways of subsequently bringing in often equally impoverished family members from their home countries.

Five Southwestern states once part of Mexico have always had heavy Hispanic (and specifically Mexican) populations: California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Today, more and more Mexicans are moving out and away from this traditional area. Leo Estrada says: "Most of these people are going to the Midwest, specifically Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Kansas, etc. It's a still unrecognized fact that Ohio and Minnesota have as many Mexican Americans as Colorado and Nevada." (Nuestro magazine, September, 1979)

Illinois and Florida have bigger Hispanic populations than most other non-Southwestern states, based on the urban concentrations already mentioned in Chicago ang Miami. While the Puerto Rican presence, based on New York City, has moved out over the Northeast from New York State to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

Anglo perceptions of Hispanics are often colored by an overall stereotype image that Hispanics themselves understandably resent and consider unfair. Most objectionable to them is the widespread belief in the rest of US society that they are lazy, spongers, and prone to gang activity. The stereotype is, of course, as misleading in their case as in that of any other group or nationality.

Another distorting factor in Anglos' perception of Hispanics is the limitation of regional experience. In other words, Hispanics mean different things to Anglos in different areas of the US. For those in the Southwest, it means Mexicans, for those in the Northeast, Puerto Ricans, and for those in Florida, Cubans. In fact, there are marked differences between these three main groups. Marcelino Miyares, the Cuban-born president of OMAR, the Chicago-based biggest Hispanic-owned advertising and research concern in the US, has gone into these differences and identified many of them. (They tend, incidentally, to set the Cubans apart somewhat from the Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.) But Mr. Miyares concludes that the three groups "are similar enough . . . to justify the Hispanic-American concept."

These differences and similarities will be a thread running through the next three articles in this series, taking the Mexicans, the Cubans, and the Puerto Ricans in that order.

Next: the Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos.

Cities where they are concentrated 1. New York 1,907,600 6. Chicago 419,900 2. Los Angeles 1,827,7007. McAllen-Brownsville 369,000 3. San Antonio 655,900 8. Albuquerque 355,600 4. San Francisco 550,500 9. El Paso 338,700 5. Miami 511,900 10. Houston 291,200 Source: OMAR, Chicago Figure IIIm


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