Their dollars are attracting attention from America's corporate giants. Their culture is infusing theaters, restaurants, and galleries with a salsa beat. Now the nation's 19 million Hispanics are being courted by the two major political parties and their presumptive presidential candidates for a vote that will be pivotal in states that could decide the November election.
In California and Texas, Hispanics will likely make up more than 10 percent of the actual voters.
In 1976, for example, when 480,000 Hispanics were registered to vote in Texas, Jimmy Carter won the state by less than 150,000 votes. This year, up to 1.3 million Texas Hispanics will be registered to vote by November.
In seven states, including populous New York and Florida, Hispanics will top or come close to 10 percent of the voting-age population.
``It is not inconceivable that Hispanics will determine the next president of the United States,'' says Andy Hernandez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.
Yet, despite Republican George Bush's pledge here last week to name a Hispanic to his cabinet, and Democrat Michael Dukakis's fluent Spanish, neither candidate is considered to have a lock on what could turn out to be this year's swing vote.
After years of voting very heavily Democratic, Hispanics in 1980 gave one-quarter of their votes to Ronald Reagan. Four years later, their vote for the President topped 35 percent.
``The challenge this year for Republicans is to continue to increase that percentage, while Democrats will try, of course, to bring it back down,'' says Oscar Moran, outgoing president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), whose convention ended in Dallas yesterday. ``But right now,'' he adds, ``the Hispanic vote is very much up for grabs.''
Governor Dukakis is believed by many observers to hold some advantage with Hispanic voters, in part because he speaks Spanish, but more important because he already did very well among them in the primaries. ``In California, Dukakis took 59 percent of the Hispanic vote,'' Mr. Hernandez says. ``I don't see how strengths like that can be nullified.''
Others note that Vice-President Bush also has strengths he can build on with Hispanics. ``George Bush has been accessible to Hispanic groups over the years, which is something longtime active Hispanic leaders here in Texas know very well,'' says Tony Bonilla, a former LULAC president and chairman of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference.
Others say Bush's strong support for aid to Nicaragua's contra rebels, plus the presence in Florida of politically active son Jeb, helps the vice-president among the state's Cuban-Americans, traditionally more conservative than the nationally predominant Mexican-Americans.
Both Bush and Dukakis, in speeches last week before the nation's largest Hispanic organization, gave hints of how they hope to curry favor with the nation's fastest-growing block of voters.
Bush, appealing to the traditionally recognized sense of family among Hispanics, brushed a personal picture of his own family, playing down his patrician roots while emphasizing how he ``struck out'' on his own in Texas to build a business and raise a family.
To offer that opportunity to other Americans, Bush said he would continue operating the ``incredible job machine'' that the Reagan administration has built over the past six years.
Dukakis, on the other hand, spoke of his immigrant parents, but he also emphasized ``good paying'' jobs, a ``real'' war on drugs, and partnership with Latin America - all issues that strike a chord with Hispanics.
But many Hispanics say both candidates will have to become more specific if they are to win enthusiastic support.
``Jobs and education, yes, those are important to us, but just repeating those words won't be enough for Dukakis,'' Mr. Moran says. ``He has to become more specific, and soon.''
Jaime Chacon, a LULAC delegate from San Clemente, Calif., says he believes Bush can win favor among Hispanics if he ``separates himself from Reagan more and shows he really is more moderate.'' Without that, Mr. Chacon predicts Hispanics will help Dukakis take California in a ``squeaker.''
A hopeful sign for Bush and other Republican candidates is that while Hispanics are still registering heavily Democratic, they are more likely to pick the GOP if they are younger and better educated.
Still, Dukakis may be helped most among Hispanics by something analysts say the Massachusetts governor simply cannot win without: a pervasive desire for change.
Like Chacon, many Hispanics interviewed here said Bush's biggest liability was his inextricable association with the Reagan administration.
``I think Hispanics are ready for a change,'' says Genaro Montoya, of Albuquerque, N.M. After voting Reagan-Bush in '80 and '84, Mr. Montoya, a Democrat, says he is leaning toward Dukakis.
Regarding what percent of the Hispanic vote the GOP will get: ``I have a feeling Bush's share will decrease'' from Reagan's 35 percent share in 1984, he says. ``I think they're ready to shift back to some of the Democratic ideals they started out with.''
The Hispanic vote States with the highest proportion of Hispanic voters*
New Mexico 36.0% California 21.6 Texas 21.1 Arizona 14.5 Colorado 10.6 New York 10.3 Florida 9.4
*Projections based on number of people who will be of voting age in November 1988
Source: US Census Bureau