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How Many Hispanic-Americans Are There?

Two USC professors examine why Hispanics often fail to identify themselves that way
  • January 23 2012

Because U.S. Census data is based on self-identification, the total Hispanic population could be underrepresented in results by as much as 2.5 million people. A recent study by Amon Emeka and Jody Agius Vallejo, assistant professors of sociology at USC, examines why Hispanics often do not choose the Hispanic ethnic identification on Census surveys. We asked Emeka and Vallejo why this is happening.


What is a Hispanic? The Census has a definition, but is it how Hispanics see themselves?


Yes and no. The Census defines “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not as a distinct race. Following this definition, some Hispanics do see themselves as racially White, Black or Asian and ethnically as Hispanic or Latino. However, some Hispanics view their ethnicity as a race, which is evident by the one third of Hispanics who checked “some other race” on the 2010 Census—the majority of those write in Spanish, Latino, Mexican, Salvadoran or some other Latin American national-origin group. And, as our study shows, some people with Latin American ancestry do not see themselves as ethnically Hispanic.


You’ve noted that as many as 6 percent of Latinos failed to identify themselves as such on the American Community Survey. Why was that?


This tendency reflects two patterns. The first reflects the traditional assimilation story. Those who are born in the U.S., those who speak English exclusively and those who are descendants of interracial or interethnic marriages are more likely to identify as non-Hispanic since they are farther from the immigrant generation and the cultural trappings of “Hispanic life” are absent from their own lives. The second pattern is that race is also related to non-Hispanic identity. Some people with Latin American ancestry are moving away from their Hispanic ethnicity and becoming simply racially White, Black or Asian. Some may also insist that they are simply “American.”


How does this impact how marketers target Hispanic-Americans?


Marketers—and laypersons—often homogenize Hispanics into one group. They forget that “Hispanic” is a category that glosses over numerous different Latin American national-origin groups and histories, socioeconomic characteristics and generational differences. It is also important to understand that racial and ethnic categories are “made-in-the-U.S.A.” labels that have changed over time and that will change in the future. Thus, the “Hispanic” category is dynamic and the meanings people attach to it will continue to change, especially because the growth of the Hispanic population in the U.S. is being driven by the second and third generation, the native-born children and grandchildren of immigrants, and not by high rates of migration. Finally, marketers need to recognize that in the eyes of many Latin American descendants, the fact of their Latin American ancestry does not make them any less American than, say, Italian or Irish ancestry.


With one in six Americans now of Hispanic descent, why do we still think of Hispanics as a subgroup and not as part of the mainstream?


Hispanics today are almost viewed like the Southern and Eastern European White ethnics of yesterday, who were viewed as inassimilable and likely to never lose their language and distinct ethnic traits. Of course, Southern and Eastern Europeans now comprise the “mainstream.” There are pervasive stereotypes that Hispanics as a group are overwhelmingly poor and uneducated and not assimilating into American society. However, study after study shows that Hispanic immigrants and their descendants are making socioeconomic progress and becoming part of the American mainstream. For example, the Spanish language is dead by the third generation and each generation improves on the education and occupational status of the last.


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