It is not uncommon to walk down the streets of an American city today and hear Spanish spoken. In 1950 fewer than 4 million U.S. residents were from Spanish-speaking countries. Today that number is about 27 million. About 50 percent of Hispanics in the United States have origins in Mexico. The other 50 percent come from a variety of countries, including El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia. Thirty-six percent of the Hispanics in the United States live in California. Several other states have large Hispanic populations, including Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Cubans fleeing the Castro regime have settled. There are so many Cuban Americans in Miami that the Miami Herald, the city’s largest newspaper, publishes separate editions in English and Spanish.
The term Hispanic was coined by the federal government in the 1970’s to refer to the people who were born in any of the Spanish-speaking countries of the Americas or those who could trace their ancestry to Spain or former Spanish territories. Obviously, this represents a wide variety of countries and ethnic groups with different social, political and emotional experiences. Most Hispanics see themselves in terms of their individual ethnic identity, as Mexican American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc. instead of members of the larger, more ambiguous term Hispanic or Latino.
The Newcomers Myth
People think of Hispanics as the latest, most recent group to enter the so called “melting pot”. This erroneous perception is mostly due to the media attention given to Hispanic groups in the 1980’s, after the Bureau of the Census published their 1980 results. Their report revealed that Hispanics were the fastest growing group in the U.S., soon to become the largest minority group. People associated the growth with immigration, ignoring the long history of Hispanics in the United States.
Hispanic heritage in the U.S. goes back a long time. When Plymouth was founded in 1620, Santa Fe was celebrating its first decade and St. Augustine its 55th anniversary. Spanish settlements developed in the southwest of today’s U.S. and also in the Gulf coast and the Florida peninsula. Some Latinos can trace their ancestors back to those days.
Other Hispanic groups, like the Puerto Ricans, did not migrate into the U.S. but instead were absorbed into it during the American expansions of the late 19th century. Puerto Ricans were granted American citizenship in 1917. Economic depressions and two world wars forced many Puerto Ricans to migrate from the island in search for better opportunities. Their current political situation still confuses many who think of Puerto Rico as a foreign country.
Abridged from U.S. State Department IIP publications and other U.S. government materials.