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Essay: Latino Today, But What About Tomorrow?

File 2014 photo of students in Jane Cornell's summer school class at the Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center in Kennett Square, Pa.
File 2014 photo of students in Jane Cornell's summer school class at the Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center in Kennett Square, Pa.Matt Rourke / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

CHICAGO – There are two kinds of Hispanics in this country.

Those who are Latino only by others’ definitions of them, who have unique identities of their own tied to either their parents’ home country or their own experience of growing up in a specific region of America. They probably identify more with their personal areas of interest – foodie, Catholic, parent, marathoner, IT professional, knitter – than they do with an overt statement of their heritage.

And then there are those who are uniquely tied to a specific hyphenated American experience whose contours are delineated by a pride, a struggle, a story, an aspect of the development of U.S. history that is not only a point of honor for those who blazed the trails of the American Dream before them, but a responsibility and a privilege to keep alive and pass on to others.

To put it another way, there are those who read the first few paragraphs of this piece and were unable to get past the interchangeability of my use of the terms Hispanic and Latino due to their deeply personal preferences for one label or the other. And then there are those who probably clicked away to check on the latest basketball scores or tomorrow’s movie times.

Which type you are may have to do with whether both your parents came to the United States from different countries or whether they shared a nationality and passed it on to you.

It may have to do with whether you led a comfortable life, socioeconomically, with few struggles to access decent education, health care and job opportunities or if you had multiple barriers to overcome.

And it may differ depending on your racial makeup, the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes or nose. It almost certainly has to do with how racially or ethnically diverse the community in which you grew up was.

In all likelihood, however, your children will be a different story.

The so-called third generation always is. And with the rates of intermarriage among the second generation – the adult children of immigrants – and continued flows of Latin American immigrants to the U.S., there will continue to be very different, impassioned views on identity among Latinos.

Hispanic/Non-Hispanic Coupling

The Pew Research Center on Hispanic Trends’ most recent statistics on Latino Second-Generation Americans could be generally seen as a celebration of diversity, ethnic pride and positive attainment:

Adults in the second generation are doing better than those in the first generation in median household income ($58,000 versus $46,000); college degrees (36 percent versus 29 percent); and homeownership (64 percent versus 51 percent).

They are less likely to be in poverty (11 percent versus 18 percent) and less likely to have not finished high school (10 percent versus 28 percent), with most favorable comparisons holding up not just in the aggregate but also within each racial/ethnic subgroup. (For instance, second-generation Hispanics do better than first-generation Hispanics; second-generation whites do better than first-generation whites, and so on).

Identity-wise, Pew Research surveys of Hispanics and Asian Americans have found that most in the second generation also have a strong sense of identity with their ancestral roots, with majorities saying they identify themselves most often by their family’s country of origin (i.e., Mexican, Chinese American) or by a pan-ethnic or racial label (i.e., Hispanic or Asian American).

But that all-important third- and higher- generation (the approximately 177.7 million adults who are the children of U.S.-born parents) will surely be of a different mindset, considering how many of them will come from mixed-race and ethnicity couplings.

In my small family, the Ecuadorian and Mexican coupling that yielded me and my two cousins went on to produce three marriages with partners of different races or ethnicities: my white husband, my cousin’s Asian wife and my other cousin’s African American wife.

According to Pew, about 15 percent of married second-generation adults have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity from themselves, compared with 8 percent of all immigrants and 8 percent of all U.S. adults. Intermarriage rates are especially high for second-generation Hispanics (26 percent) and Asian Americans (23 percent).

Oh boy, don’t I know it.

In my small family, the Ecuadorian and Mexican coupling that yielded me and my two cousins went on to produce three marriages with partners of different races or ethnicities: my white husband, my cousin’s Asian wife and my other cousin’s African American wife.

These unions have produced seven beautiful kids, two who look white, three who look as though they are predominantly Asian and two who look like citizens of a borderless, delicious caramel world.

If by the time these third-gen kids are grown, ethnic identity is still as hot a topic as it seems to be today, each of these children will make their own, highly personalized decisions about how to identify themselves.

Like so many immigrant families before them, they will either carry on a second language throughout subsequent generations, or lose it altogether. They’ll carry on longstanding cultural traditions, integrating them into their non-Hispanic family members’ lives in the process, or melt right into the pot.

The Melting Pot

The melting pot is not as happy a construct as it was in the days of my childhood, in the 80’s, when it was the place to be. Today, the idea of the melting pot and the belief that eventually everyone becomes singularly “American” is a contested fact.

Duke University professor of sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva put it this way: “The idea of the melting pot has a long history in the American tradition, but it really was a notion that was extended exclusively to white immigrants. That pot never included people of color: Blacks, Chinese, Puerto Ricans, etc., could not melt into the pot. They could be used as wood to produce the fire for the pot, but they could not be used as material to be melted into the pot.”

This has direct bearing on how the children in my family will, and possibly already, see themselves.

My two sons see themselves as white. Their cousins, with their distinct features, will not have the facility of laying claim to such a simple course. This illustrates the firestorm that exploded last May when a New York Times article titled “More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White” broke the Latino internet.

Reporting on research presented at the Population Association of America, the Times’ Nate Cohn wrote: “The data provide new evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white.”

Clearly, this statement dances on a tightrope of competing ideas of what it means to be Hispanic, the veracity of the Census-driven label “White Hispanic” and, additionally, ironically, ignores the very notion of identity that the Italians and Irish trailblazed.

Pushing back against my youthful, idealistic notion that identity was not as much a thing in my post-Chico and the Man, Benetton-commercial colorblind upbringing, Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center notes that though “about 20 years ago people started playing closer attention to identity, it has been an enduring part of American culture for a a long time. There’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrating the Irish and the Italians have had Columbus Day as an important part of their experience for a long time… but with Latinos one of the big interesting parts of this identity issue is that we have this group that calls themselves Hispanic,” Lopez says.

“There are no genetic tests, it’s a self-labeling thing. In fact, there are approximately 2.1 - 2.5 million people who say they have an ancestry that is Hispanic but don’t identify as such.

It’s interesting; a lot of people don’t mind, don’t seem to care. There’s a sense that we live in a world where we can be proud of all those different identities.”

Changing mores

And, it’s partly cyclical.

I don’t mind at all that my bicultural sons identify as white. But, it’s not over yet: their children may yet take on the traits of my Latin American heritage.

“We have asked [several generational groups] what their parents emphasized – ‘be proud of your heritage or be American’? And when you ask older Latinos, they said they were told to ‘be American, don’t emphasize your heritage.’ But now, we’re in a period where everyone and even non-Hispanic whites emphasize knowing where you’re from,” says Lopez.

As Lopez notes, there need not be any worry about Hispanics melting in too much. Rates of Latino marriages to non-Latinos are stable, compared to whites and blacks, who are increasingly marrying outside their own race.

If nothing else, for those with any concern of a diminishment in either Hispanic numbers or hearts, Lopez assures us: “If you want to be Latino all you have to do is say so. You are if you say you are.”

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