Hispanic/Latino Americans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the historical context and current experience of Hispanic/Latino Americans in the United States

Latino/Hispanic Americans

The segment of the U.S. population that self-identifies as Hispanic in 2017 was estimated at 18.1 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). Like Asian Americans, Latino/Hispanic Americans encompass many different ethnic groups (see Figure 1). But unlike other ethnic groups who share a Pan-Asian or Pan-African identity among various members from different countries of origin, a majority of Hispanics don’t view themselves as simply “Hispanic” or “Latino”, but feel a stronger connection with their family’s country of origin. [1]

Chart titled, "Hispanic origin profiles, 2015" showing the country origins of Hispanics in the U.S. 35 million come from Mexico, then over 5 million from Puerto Rico, about 2 million from El Salvador and Cuba, 1.8 million from the Dominican Republic, 1.3 million from Guatemala, about 1 million from Colombia, 853,000 from Honduras, 799,000 from Spain, 707,000 from Ecuador, 651,000 from Peru, 422,000 from Nicaragua, 321,000 from Venezuela, and 274,000 from Argentina.
Figure 1. The origin country of Hispanics in the United States from 2015. From Antionio Flores “How the U.S. Hispanic population is changing“, Pew Research Center.

A large majority of Latinos live in two metropolitan areas: Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim in California, and New York City/ Newark/Jersey City in New York and New Jersey—with 6 million and 4.8 million respectively. However, four other metropolitan areas (Miami, Houston, Riverdale, and Chicago) are each home to over 2 million Latinos.[2] 

Not only are there broad differences among the different national origins that make up the Hispanic American population, but there are also different names for the group itself. The 2010 U.S. Census states that “Hispanic” or “Latino” refers to a person of “Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.” There have been some disagreements over whether Hispanic or Latino is the correct term for a group this diverse, and whether it would be better for people to refer to themselves as being of their national origin specifically, for example, Mexican American or Dominican American. This section will compare the experiences of Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans.

How and Why They Came

As discussed in the introduction to this section, many Mexicans who became American citizens didn’t “come” to the United States. They lived in areas of Mexico that became part of the United States as a result of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. They didn’t immigrate (or even move); some became U.S. citizens and some remained citizens of Mexico living in the U.S. Since then, Mexican migration was often in response to the need for cheap agricultural labor, and often coincided with seasonal crop cycles. 

The 1898 Treaty of Paris resulted in the purchase of the Philippines and to Spain ceding Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba to the U.S. Puerto Rico is the largest U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans are legally U.S. citizens. Like the Philippines, Puerto Rico was under Spanish control prior to the treaty, so the island went from one colonizer to another; however, unlike the Philippines, which became independent in 1946, Puerto Rico continues to be a U.S. territory.

Salvadorians comprise the third largest of the Latino subgroups, and are the largest group from the “Northern Triangle,” which also includes Guatemala (#6) and Honduras (#8). The number of immigrants from this region rose by 25 percent from 2007 to 2015.[3]. Immigrants from this area of Central America cite economic opportunity as the primary reason why they come to the United States, but many also cite the growing violence in their home nations as a reason for leaving. 

Cuban Americans are the fourth largest Hispanic subgroup, and their history is quite different from the aforementioned groups of Latinos. The main wave of Cuban immigration to the United States started after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. In fact, Cubans were granted political asylum in the 1960s and were given an easier path to U.S. citizenship. This immigrant wave crested in 1980 with the Mariel Boatlift, which resulted in 125,000 Cubans leaving the island with Castro’s blessing, including many prisoners and people released from mental asylums. Castro’s revolution ushered in an era of communism that continues to this day. To avoid having their assets seized by the government, many wealthy and educated Cubans migrated north, generally to the Miami area.

History of Intergroup Relations

For decades, Mexican workers crossed the long border into the United States, both legally and illegally, to work in the agricultural fields of the developing United States. Western growers needed a steady supply of labor, and the 1940s and 1950s saw the official federal Bracero Program (bracero is Spanish for strong-arm) that offered protection to Mexican guest workers. Interestingly, 1954 also saw the enactment of “Operation Wetback,” which deported thousands of illegal Mexican workers. From these examples, we can see the U.S. treatment of immigration from Mexico has been ambivalent at best.

Sociologist Douglas Massey (2006) suggests that although the average standard of living in Mexico may be lower than in the United States, it is not so low as to make permanent migration the goal of most Mexicans. However, the strengthening of the border that began with 1986’s Immigration Reform and Control Act has made one-way migration the rule for most Mexicans. Massey argues that the rise of illegal one-way immigration of Mexicans is a direct outcome of the law that was intended to reduce it.

The United States’ original interest in Puerto Rico was economic and related to the production and export of sugar cane. In 1901, the Supreme Court, in a series of cases known as the Insular Cases said that “alien races” that might not be able to understand Anglo-Saxon laws, therefore the protections of the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t apply to them. Puerto Rico had no legal standing as U.S. citizens until 1917, which was the same year the U.S. entered World War I. Approximately 236,000 Puerto Ricans registered for the draft and nearly 20,000 served in the war, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.[4] One of New York City’s most famous Puerto Ricans, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was repeatedly described as  “the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants.” Although migrants versus immigrants might seem like an unimportant distinction to some, the common confusion of these terms highlights the fact that nearly half of all Americans don’t realize (or know) that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Comedian and Last Week Tonight host John Oliver exclaimed, “She is the daughter of Americans who moved from Puerto Rico!” (watch the Last Week Tonight clip “U.S. Territories”).

During the Cold War (1945-1991), as the world’s capitalist nations faced off against the communist U.S.S.R. and its satellite states, the U.S. funneled billions of dollars into El Salvador (a country with a population of 4.7 million in 1980) in an effort to suppress communist-affiliated revolutionary movements in Central America. Leftist peasants and civilians fought against the El Salvadorian military (which was supported by the U.S.), and over 75,000 people were killed during the ensuing civil war. In the aftermath of this conflict, fleeing Salvadorians were given Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1990, which allowed them to legally live and work in the U.S. This program was meant to expire in 1992, but has been extended several times and continues to be a point of contention today as part of the larger debate concerning immigration policy. 

Cuban Americans, perhaps because of their relative wealth and education level at the time of immigration, have fared better than many other immigrant groups. Further, because they were fleeing a newly established communist country (which was backed by America’s Cold War adversary the U.S.S.R.), they were given refugee status and offered protection and social services. The Cuban Migration Agreement of 1995 has curtailed legal immigration from Cuba, leading many Cubans to try to immigrate illegally by boat. According to a 2009 report from the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government applies a “wet foot/dry foot” policy toward Cuban immigrants; Cubans who are intercepted while still at sea will be returned to Cuba, while those who reach the shore will be permitted to stay in the United States.

Current Status

Mexican Americans, especially those who are here illegally, are at the center of a national debate about immigration. Myers (2007) observes that no other minority group (except the Chinese) has immigrated to the United States in such an environment of illegality. He notes that in some years, three times as many Mexican immigrants may have entered the United States illegally as those who arrived legally. It should be noted that this is due to an enormous disparity of economic opportunity on two sides of an open border, not because of any inherent inclination to break laws. In his report, “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States,” Jacob Vigdor (2008) states that Mexican immigrants experience relatively low rates of economic and civil assimilation. He further suggests that “the slow rates of economic and civic assimilation set Mexicans apart from other immigrants, and may reflect the fact that the large numbers of Mexican immigrants residing in the United States illegally have few opportunities to advance themselves along these dimensions.”

The current status of Puerto Ricans today is that more live on the mainland than on the island, with the majority of Puerto Ricans (1 million) living in New York City. The status of American citizens living on the island will be explored below in the context of Hurricane María. 

Blackout in Puerto Rico

The storm season of 2017 resulted in three Category 4 storms,  Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida), and María (Puerto Rico), that occurred within 4 weeks of each other. Despite their similarities, the government response to the storms varied dramatically. For example, nine days following the hurricanes, 5.1 million meals were provided in Texas, 10.9 million meals in Florida, and only 1.6 million in Puerto rico; 4.5 liters of water were given in Texas, 7 million liters of water were given in Florida, and only 2.8 million to Puerto Rico. Within this same time period, there were 30,000 federal workers deployed to Texas, 22,000 to Florida, and only 10,000 to Puerto Rico. 

Look at this comparative analysis on hurricane response to read more about how the U.S. government responded to the 2017 hurricanes in Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico. You can also watch “Blackout in Puerto Rico” to get a closer look at the difficulties on the island following the hurricane.

Some more recent immigrants from El Salvador were granted TPS in the wake of several earthquakes in 2001. In January 2018, President Trump announced that this program will expire, leaving nearly 200,000 Salvadorians in danger of deportation. In October 2018, a federal judge blocked the administration’s decision, and a new deadline of January 2020 has been set.  

By contrast, Cuban Americans are often touted as models of a Latino immigrant success story. Many Cubans had higher socioeconomic status when they arrived in this country, and their anti-Communist agenda has made them valuable symbols of the superiority of Western capitalist democracy. In south Florida, especially, Cuban Americans are active in local politics and professional life.

While immigration is slowing, there is evidence to suggest a growing number of Hispanics are experiencing positive gains and upward social mobility, especially in the second and third generations. In 2015, almost 40 percent of Hispanics have attended some college, which is up from 30 percent in 2000. [5].

Try It

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070

A group of protesters at an immigrant’s rights rally. A protestor holds a sign that reads, "Immigrant rights are human rights"
Figure 2. Protesters in Arizona dispute the harsh new anti-immigration law. (Photo courtesy of rprathap/flickr)

As both legal and illegal immigrants, and with high population numbers, Mexican Americans are often the target of stereotyping, racism, and discrimination. Arizona has been at the forefront of a national debate over immigration laws. In 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070), which required that Arizona police officers establish the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be undocumented during a lawful stop, detention, or arrest.

Federal law already requires aliens older than 18 to possess proper identification, with failure to do so classified as a federal misdemeanor; what SB 1070 added was police officers’ discretion to detain people they suspected might be undocumented. The minimum fine for a first offense under SB 1070 was $500, with a minimum of $1000 for a second violation and a maximum jail sentence of six months; a violation of the federal law carries a fine of up to $100 for a first offense, plus court costs and up to 20 days in jail. Subsequent offenses may include a penalty of up to 30 days in jail.

To many, the most troublesome aspect of this law is the latitude it affords police officers. Having “reasonable suspicion that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States” is reason enough to demand immigration papers (Senate Bill 1070 2010). Like “stop and frisk” in New York City, racial profiling is the likely result, making it hazardous to be caught “Driving While Brown,” a takeoff on the legal term Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), or the slang reference of “Driving While Black (DWB).”

After its passage, several legal challenges were mounted against SB 1070. Courts agued about issues in the bill pertaining to the Supremacy Clause (a federal law is paramount over a state law), the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, First Amendment freedom of speech protections (since one’s accent could result in racial profiling), and Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures

A complex chain of legal filings and lawsuits at the state and federal level ensued and in 2012, Arizona v. United States was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Some of the most controversial provisions were pre-empted by federal law, but the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the portion of the law that required Arizona law enforcement to verify the citizenship or alien status of anyone who was lawfully arrested or detained.  [6]

How can sociological theories help us to understand the tension between state and federal laws or between the dominant and subordinate racial/ ethnic groups in Arizona? Try examining SB 1070 from a conflict perspective and compare that to a functionalist perspective.

In what ways do you think the law could be seen as a symbol of “law and order” or as a symbol of racial profiling? What does it mean to different groups?

<a style="margin-left: 16px;" target="_blank" href="https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vy-T6DtTF-BbMfpVEI7VP_R7w2A4anzYZLXR8Pk4Fu4"

  1. Cohn, D. 2017. "Seeking better data on Hispanics," http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/20/seeking-better-data-on-hispanics-census-bureau-may-change-how-it-asks-about-race/.
  2. Stepler, R. and M. Lozpez. 2016. "U.S. Latino population growth and dispersion," Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2016/09/08/5-ranking-the-latino-population-in-metropolitan-areas/ 
  3. Cohn, D., Passel, J., and A. Gonzalez-Barrera. (2017). "Rise in U.S. Immigrants From El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras Outpaces Growth from Elsewhere." Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2017/12/07/rise-in-u-s-immigrants-from-el-salvador-guatemala-and-honduras-outpaces-growth-from-elsewhere/.
  4. "Collins, Shannon. Puerto Ricans Represented Throughout U.S. Military History," U.S. Department of Defense. https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/News/Article/Article/974518/puerto-ricans-represented-throughout-us-military-history/
  5. Flores, A. 2017. "How the U.S. Hispanic population is changing," Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/18/how-the-u-s-hispanic-population-is-changing/.
  6. "Arizona v. U.S.", Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/11-182.


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