Latinos are already the largest minority group in the United States, and experts estimate that by 2050, one out of three Americans will identify as Latino. Though their population and influence are steadily rising, stereotypes and misconceptions about Latinos remain, from the assumption that they refuse to learn English to questions of just how “American” they actually are. By presenting thirteen riveting oral histories of young, first-generation college students, Mario T. García counters those long-held stereotypes and expands our understanding of what he terms “the Latino Generation.” By allowing these young people to share their stories and struggles, The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America reveals that these students and children of immigrants will be critical players in the next chapter of our nation’s history.
In this guest blog post, Garcia discusses the stereotypes that Latinos still face today and how America will be defined by the Latinos of this generation.
This spring I participated in the Los Angeles Book Festival held at the University of Southern California. I was on a panel titled “Exercising Your Voice,” with co-panelists Tom Hayden and Astra Taylor. I spoke about my new book The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America, and introduced it by saying that it had to be contextualized by certain facts. The first is that in April Latinos became the largest ethnic group in California, exceeding those of white European descent. Latinos now compose 40% of the state, the largest state in the nation. Second is that today Latinos are the largest ethnic/racial minority in the country, with some 57 million Latinos (or 17% of the total population). And, third, that by 2050, Latinos will constitute one out of every three Americans. The Latino Generation is part of this demographic reality.
At the same time, despite these numbers, Latinos are still a very poorly understood group. Most Americans have no clue about the Latino experience. As a result, there are many misconceptions and stereotypes about Latinos. Some believe that Latino immigration to the United States is only very recent and that Latinos are the last of the immigrants. Others believe that Latinos are very different from earlier immigrants, especially those from Europe. They think that Latinos are much more difficult—if not impossible—to integrate, because they don’t really want to become Americans; they, instead, want to just live amongst themselves, speak their own language, and practice their own culture. Then, of course, from a more racist perspective, some still revive the older stereotype of Mexicans as lazy, given to drinking, and dirty. But these are all wrong.
Latinos have long been very much a part of this country. Why is it that the book festival is held in Los Angeles? Did the name of this city come with the Mayflower? The fact is that everything from Texas to California at one time was part of the Spanish colonial empire. Spanish settlements in what later became part of the United States began in New Mexico in 1598. After Mexican independence, this northern area—El Norte—became a part of the new Mexican nation. However, the United States, with its ideology of Manifest Destiny, coveted this territory and provoked a war of choice with Mexico, conquering the area in the U.S.–Mexico War (1846–48). This conquest transferred to the United States the present states of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California. Mexicans living in these areas were extended American citizenship and became the first Mexican Americans.
At the turn of the century mass Mexican immigration to the United States began, and between 1900 and 1930, over one million Mexican immigrants entered to work on the railroads, agriculture, mining, and urban industries in the Southwest and Midwest. This migration has continued until now (with the exception of the Great Depression years in the 1930s).
As immigrants, Mexicans and their Mexican American children and grandchildren have worked, worked, and worked. They could not afford to be “lazy Mexicans.” Economically, Mexican Americans and other Latino groups have contributed immensely to this country by their hard—but mostly cheap—labor. Latinos have also contributed their rich cultures to the American cultural mosaic. Latinos have further struggled to be integrated into American society. They have acculturated by becoming bilingual and bicultural, and some are even just English-speaking and largely influenced by American mass culture.
Combating racism and other forms of discrimination, Latinos have a long history of civil rights struggles with the aim of integration. Despite being considered foreign, strangers, aliens (including “illegal aliens”), Latinos have fought in all of this country’s wars and as American soldiers in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. In World War II, as part of the Greatest Generation, perhaps as many as half a million Latinos fought in the military—and not for the Mexican army but for the U.S. Army. Latinos have shed their blood as Americans. The Latino Generation that I write about is the inheritor of this legacy.
And yet most other Americans know little about this history. It’s not integrated into American history—certainly not at the K-12 level. I have students of every ethnic background—including Latinos—who know nothing or very little of this Latino experience. And then there are the lingering misconceptions and stereotypes that I referred to earlier.
So how does my book on the Latino Generation fit into all of this? I wrote this book in part to put a human face to this experience and to present the new voices of America to a country that knows so little about their new neighbors. This lack of knowing in part has been responsible for the intense new nativism over the last several decades, aimed mostly at Latino immigrants. Some clamor that we have lost control of the border as “hordes of illegal aliens invade our country.” They link Latino immigrants with crime, drugs, rapes, and other horrible acts. They believe that Mexicans in the United States want to work to regain the Southwest back for Mexico. “I want my country back!” the Tea Party–types cry out, meaning that in part they decry the growing number of Latinos in the United States.
In all this, Latinos are spoken about in the abstract, as if they are not even human. But they are. My book on the contemporary Latino Generation is to counter these misguided and even racist views by showing how young Latinos today are very much human, very much American, very much desirous of integration and yet proud of their ethnic heritage, and very much the voice of the new America.
The Latino Generation is composed of thirteen oral histories of some of my former students at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the first decade of this century. These students are part of the Millennial Generation as Latinos. Demographically, they are the children of the New Immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, and the Central American political refugees, all of whom began entering the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of these students were born in the 1980s. But they are brought together as a generational cohort by other factors as well. Their parents’ immigration is the result of the new globalized economy that has uprooted people in the Third World and, in turn, brought much-coveted, cheap labor into the new American deindustrialized economy. This new economic system necessitates large amounts of unskilled service workers to literally serve the new, more educated and high-tech workers and professionals at the other end of the economic spectrum. The children of these Latino immigrants are the result of this globalization.
The new Latino Generation is likewise affected by the fact that members of their generation have come of age at a time when Latinos have become the largest minority group in the country. Being cognizant of this reality has empowered them. The Latino generation is also the product of new technologies that have led to greater communication between the different Latino groups, and as such has helped produce a new consciousness as Latinos. This generation—more than previous Latino ones—has been affected by an almost permanent neonativism as they have grown up, and this has affected their ability to empower themselves to combat anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment.
At the same time, despite this nativist opposition, members of the Latino Generation have experienced more educational mobility—including going to college and graduate and professional schools—than any other previous Latino generation. The Latino Generation is also affected by the significant and unprecedented rise of Latino political power, and as they mature, members of the new generation are contributing to this and beginning to lead it. These factors, along with others that I explain in the introduction to my book, characterize what I am calling the Latino Generation and mark it as a distinct generation. My book is a case study of the Latino Generation that I suggest is also a national generation with many of the same experiences and characteristics as my former students.
The thirteen stories in the book are wonderful expressions of this new generation. Each represents a distinct individual experience even though they are connected by shared historical ones. For example, all of them are children of immigrants. A few arrived as immigrant babies or young children. They attest to the hard work of their parents. They also recognize their parents’ support of education for their children. The stories address acculturation or transculturation as these second-generation Latinos become bilingual and bicultural. And they reveal young Latinos who want to better themselves as Americans and who want to have as much access to educational mobility as possible. They achieve this through their hard work despite many difficulties in their public schools.
They are, in the end, achievers. And not only have they graduated from college, but they have also gone on to successful professional careers. In their stories, written by me, they come across as hardworking young Latino Americans who are pursuing their dreams and aspirations and who want to make this country a better and more democratic one. They are the Latino Generation. And they are the voices of the new America.
Mario T. García is professor of Chicano studies and history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-author of Blowout!: Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. His new book The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America is now available.