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ETHNONYMS: Central Americans, Chicanos (alternative for Mexican Americans), Cuban Americans, Dominicans, El Salvadorians, Guatemalans, Hispanics, Marielitos, Mexican Americans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans


Identification. Latinos in the United States are a diverse group and, collectively, the second largest ethnic minority population in the country. Latino groups include, principally, Mexican Americans, who are the largest and (in historic terms) the oldest group; Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Dominicans (from the Dominican Republic) and in recent years Central Americans, mainly from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Most Latino Americans came to the United States as a result of one of the many wars of the last 150 years. Puerto Ricans and many Mexican Americans are descendants of residents whose homelands were annexed by the United States; many more Mexican, Cuban, and Central American refugees fled from civil wars and revolutionary upheavals. Others, however, came with or without government visas to seek economic opportunities. The U.S. Bureau of the Census has used the term "Hispanic" to designate all such persons, and use of the label has become widespread. An Hispanic is anyone in the United States who has a Spanish surname and comes from a Spanish-speaking background. Most people, however, prefer other labels that reflect where they came from, where they live, when they came, and how they have adapted to the dominant culture of the United States. In short, there are many Hispanics, and even within the broader subgroupings, there are very wide spectrums of historical experience and tradition. An understanding of the way these spectrums have come into being requires an appreciation of the importance of time, place, and history. Thus, "Latino" (a generic term created by the people themselves) identity is a varied and complex process that has created a fascinating mosaic.

Location. Place has been crucial to the formation of the many Latino identities. For one thing, geography determines proximity to cultural roots in Latin America. Just as Important, the U.S. government's acquisition and integration of Latinos was episodic, and the political and social conflicts that resulted from that process varied by region and by time period. Mexican Americans live principally in the Southwestern states of California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, all of which were, before 1848, part of northern Mexico. Puerto Ricans outside of the island territory have settled mostly in New York City and large midwestern cities. Dominicans are located principally in New York, Cuban Americans, in Florida, and Central Americans, in California and Houston. Beyond these concentrations, members of each group also live in most major American cities.

Demography. Estimates of the 1989 population based on 1985 figures indicate that there were 21 million Latinos constituting just under 10 percent of the U.S. population. The estimated 1989 populations of the largest Latino groups were 13 million Mexican Americans, 3 million Puerto Ricans, 1 million Cuban Americans, and 4 million other Latin American immigrants and their descendants. In recent decades, the influx of immigrants has sharply increased the total Latino population, so that 12 percent of Mexicans, for example, are first-generation immigrants. The immigration and settlement experiences of Latinos have varied from one group to another and also over time within groups. At the beginning of this century, Mexican immigrants were largely a rural, migrant worker population who joined a settled population that predated the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War by 250 years. Since the 1950s, however, Mexican Americans have become about 90 percent urban, concentrated in California and Texas. Among Puerto Ricans and Cubans, in contrast, initial migration was primarily to the urban areas, with the major Puerto Rican immigration beginning between the two world wars and Cubans mostly arriving after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Central Americans, primarily settling in California and Houston, have arrived after the social upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s in their countries.

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish is the national language of each of the nations from which Latinos emigrated and in which their cultures developed. The Spanish spoken by American Latinos, however, has been transformed by the cultural changes, mixtures and attitudes, and other local and historical accidents and syncretisms that marked conditions in the New World. Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and other national language habits and customs differ; features of American Indian and African languages, for just one example, have variously influenced each of them. Many regional and urban/rural linguistic contrasts exist within each of the groups. With exposure and integration into American Society, however, many Latinos' Spanish-speaking abilities and styles have been "Anglicized" (been affected by the English language), and many even forswore the use of Spanish to speak English, especially Latinos raised primarily in the United States.

Language usage is an important component of Latino ethnic identity. Certain Latino populations, especially recent immigrants and those of high social status, derive much pride from their ability to speak fluent Spanish. Where Spanish usage is expected, some enjoy the opportunity to demonstrate their bilingual flair. For both social and political (as well as aesthetic and practical) reasons, proficiency in Spanish has become a key component in an emerging ethnic "management" style, particularly in the border areas or where Latinos are heavily concentrated such as in Los Angeles (Mexicans and Central Americans), New York (Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) , and Miami (Cubans). Speaking Spanish has also resulted at times in negative personal and group experiences, for it has been used by outsiders to stigmatize many people because they are different.

History and Cultural Relations

Mexicans can trace their roots to settlements in what is now the southwestern United States as early as 1598; this area was once the northern reaches of Mexico proper and was colonized before the settlement of New England by people from Europe. The region was prospering when Anglo-Americans began arriving in the early nineteenth century, setting in motion events that led to the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. In the aftermath of the war, relations between Anglo-Americans and Mexicans were often characterized by culture conflict and intercultural hostility. With increased immigration in the wake of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, the Mexican population burgeoned in all previously established settlements, a process that has continued to this day.

Puerto Ricans and Cubans became associated with the United States as a result of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States and now has limited sovereignty within its commonwealth status. A migrant stream, increasing considerably after World War II, connected Puerto Ricans with the city of New York and brought the eastern seaboard its first large Latino population. Like Mexicans, Puerto Ricans have had a problematic relationship with Anglo-Americans, in their case further aggravated by the issue of national independence versus Commonwealth status, which has strained both intergroup and intragroup relations. Cubans immigrated to the United States in large numbers after the socialist revolution of 1959. The first waves were primarily from the upper-middle and upper classes and most immigrants were people of European racial backgrounds; the second wave began in 1980 and involved mostly poorer, darker-hued "Marielitos," including many expelled from Cuban prisons. American foreign policy and actions have been affected by events in Cuba, especially the rise of anticommunism.

Large-scale immigration from the Dominican Republic occurred in the early 1960s. Central Americans, mostly from Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, made their entrance in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Coupled with the changes brought by Cuban events, the radical upheavals in Central America have tended to generate even more anticommunist fears. Political and economic refugees from these nations have accounted for a substantial proportion of recent Immigration to the United States.

American military conquests in the nineteenth century made Mexican residents of the southwest and Puerto Ricans on their island subjugated peoples. For subsequent migrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico, this intensified the scorn and discrimination that has been the traditional lot of poor Immigrant populations in the United States. Cuban immigrants were initially comparatively well-off economically, especially because of federal government subsidies for refugee resettlement, which ameliorated economic problems for them. In all instances, however, the dynamic processes of immigration and adaptation have affected all groups in the direction of assimilation and acculturation. Latinos' relations with other racial minorities have been less antagonistic than with Anglo-Americans, although not tension-free, largely because Latinos and other minorities internalize Anglo-American stereotypes of each other. Civil rights measures and changing public attitudes over the last twenty-five years have substantially reduced these interethnic problems, but tensions remain, especially with regard to language and immigration issues.


Initially, Mexicans established missions and small rancherias (hamlets) in what is now the Southwest; in California, a mission-pueblo-presidio structure ordered religious, civil, and military life for both American Indians as well as the Spanish/Mexican newcomers. In the twentieth century, immigration enlarged some of these locales, but more often new settlements were established near work sites such as ranches, mines, railroad tracks, cash crop fields, and light industries. The railroad network helped create a migrant stream to the Midwest to Chicago and other industrial cities. The word barrio (neighborhood) came to be associated with these settlements in both rural and urban regions. Since the end of World War II, the Latino population has become increasingly urban, a trend that continues today, though pockets of traditional culture still exist, especially in areas such as New Mexico and south Texas. Puerto Ricans have established their own barrios in the eastern and midwestern cities. World War II was a watershed period as it created a demand for more workers and soldiers, and Puerto Rican communities expanded as a result. A unique arrangement facilitating travel between the mainland and island has tended to strengthen Puerto Rican culture and community. Arriving much later than the other Latino groups, Cubans and Central Americans have settled mainly in cities. Cubans, in fact, have achieved major economic and political influence in Miami, Florida. The U.S. government attempted to widely disperse the recent Marielitos wave, but in time even these immigrants gravitated to established Cuban enclaves.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Small pockets of Mexican Americans who trace their heritage to the early centuries have maintained their self-sufficient ranches and farmlands, but the majority earn wages as mine, farm, railroad, construction, and light industry laborers. Puerto Ricans have filled the garment district and light industry jobs of the cities. Cubans arrived with some money but, more important, with skills and training and have had much success in various business enterprises and professions. In recent decades there has been a slight increase in employment in white-collar Service and professional occupations, but Latinos generally lag behind the Anglo population in employment in these sectors. A large agricultural migrant-worker population exists in states such as California, Texas, and Florida. Mexican Americans were a major force in the unionization effort by farm workers in California.

Latino foods vary and reflect the syncretic Spanish/Indian/African mixture noted above, but beans, rice, and various stews prepared with pork, beef, and seafood are found in all groups. Chilies are also widely used in Latino cuisines. Corn products are of particular importance in Mexican and Mexican American culture (although bread and wheat flour tortillas have replaced corn tortillas on many Mexican American tables). Cubans and Puerto Ricans, as islanders, Generally favor various seafood dishes characterized by Latino methods of preparation and spices.

Industrial Arts. The original settlements in New Mexico produced excellent wood carving, weaving, jewelry, and other artistic traditions. Today, this Latino bent is found among auto paint-and-body, upholstery, and seamstress crafts-people.

Trade. Barrios have shopping centers and stores that cater to the tastes of the local population, and some of these Districts have become ethnic centers for social, cultural, and Political activities. Latinos also use many of the malls that dot urban and suburban regions. Small family-operated stores are common among Latino entrepreneurs, and some have grown into multimillion-dollar enterprises. The Cuban American community has become a major economic force in the Miami area.

Division of Labor. A shift from low-skilled to skilled blue-collar jobs has emerged as an important trend, as has the increase of two-wage-earner households with many women now having the dual roles of breadwinner and breadmaker. Although the middle class has grown, with many professionals and educated people, especially among Cuban Americans, there are still relatively few Latinos of middle- or upper-class status. Because of traditional beliefs and the Spanish colonial influence, there has been particular strain involving changing gender relations and traditionally defined status in Latino communities. Many women have moved out of traditional female roles, and some men have found it very difficult to adjust to this change. Similarly, status distinctions based on the traditional "patron-peon" arrangements are slowly disappearing in an open, class-structured society.

Land Tenure. Since the late nineteenth century, most of the extensive land holdings owned by Mexican Americans has been lost to Anglo-Americans. The few pockets that remain are in rural areas such as New Mexico. As recently as 1966, attempts to raise public attention to the corrupt way in which these lands were acquired have failed. Nevertheless, Chicano (an ethnic name for Mexicans in the United States) activists still offer reminders of the abrogation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War with assurances that land rights would be Respected. Puerto Ricans have largely retained ownership of both large and small farms in Puerto Rico, but are predominantly renters in their urban U.S. communities. Cuban Americans, in contrast, are rapidly purchasing large blocs of real estate in Miami.


Kin Groups and Descent. Family life is important to Latinos, especially extended kin networks, even though Anglo-American influences have altered traditional patterns. Family interests are valued over individual well-being. A syncretic mixture of indigenous and Catholic religious beliefs and practices undergirds this sense of familism. Although somewhat revamped in the United States, the compadrazgo (co-parenthood) institution of Latin America is widely practiced in baptisms, where godmothers and godfathers become comadres and compadres of the baptized child's parents. Descent is bilateral with a strong emphasis on patriarchy in how the family sets standards for status, respect, and authority. Generally, a sex and age hierarchy prevails, and often elder kin, especially grandparents, are vested with complete authority in family affairs; they sometimes take over primary care of grandchildren when parents falter. There are some intragroup Latino differences in family structure that stem from time, place, and history. For example, female-headed households are more common among Puerto Ricans; Mexican Americans have larger families on average, and Cuban Americans tend to have the smallest families. Mexican Americans in rural enclaves in south Texas and New Mexico generally embrace traditional family practices and beliefs, such as are found in Mexico proper.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Each person is allowed to seek his or her own mate, but traditionally the elder family members keep close watch to make sure that the choice is an appropriate one. The average age of marriage has increased lately, but typically it is lower than the overall average in the United States. Separate Latino groups have their own marriage customs, but even with American innovations, the wedding and celebrations are large, well-attended, often catered affairs hosted by the bride's family. Postmarital residence is almost always Neolocal, although financial necessity allows for temporary living arrangements with either the bride's or the groom's parents. American-born Latinos who are upwardly socially mobile tend to intermarry more with Anglos, and exogamous Marriage is slightly more common among Latinas of a higher status.

Domestic Unit. Modernization and Americanization, of course, have changed Latino households. Nevertheless, the sense of obligation and responsibility that one owes to family elders and parents remains. This takes many forms, but emphasizes affording them respect and caring for them until death. Machismo, or manliness, is among the traits associated with the patriarchy complex, and male-female relations are often conditioned by the public assertion of male control, especially the positive qualities of providing care and protection for one's home and family. These practices are tempered somewhat by Marian Catholic ideology which places females, especially mothers and wives, in an exalted position.

Inheritance. Land and property is usually transferred to the eldest son, although senior females also have rights. Most traditional practices in the area, however, have given way to American practices.

Socialization. Social class differences account for considerable variation among the Latino groups in their approaches to child rearing. But beliefs in personal honor, respect for the aged, and proper courtship behavior are still stressed by many people in all groups. The bulk of the population follows working-class practices, and new immigrants attempt to continue native ways. Social and economic pressures on family life, however, have weakened parental control in many Communities, with juvenile and adolescent street peers taking on many tasks of socialization.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There are a small number of well-to-do Latinos, with Cuban Americans disproportionately represented among them. The number of Latino entrepreneurs and professionals in the middle class is also relatively small, but increasing. The majority of the population is Divided almost equally between American-born, working-class families and immigrant families headed by low-skilled and unskilled workers.

"Mestizaje," the mixing and amalgamation of Spanish, Indian, and African racial groups, was widespread in various places in Latin America. Terms like mestizo, mulatto, cholo, moreno, and castizo were originally created to categorize the subtle differences in the "hybrid" population mixes. Thus, there is a wide spectrum of racial appearance reflected within the Latino communities. Historically, such diversity has created considerable strain and conflict. As racial appearance and racial attitudes became increasingly important in interpersonal relations, people were made to feel different on the basis of their racial appearance. A kind of "pigmentocracy" was established throughout much of Latin America to shape people's attitudesabout others and, even more important, about themselves. Feelings of inferiority and superiority were implanted in people's heads and these feelings helped determine the extent to which they would have a common heritage and shared experiences.

Political Organization. Latinos vary widely in their access to and inclination toward participation in the political process in the United States. Undocumented and documented alienswho are unable to voteare limited to publicizing their concerns. Many avoid even these activities out of fear of deportation. Recent immigrants often follow political Developments in their homelands more closely than those of the United States. Latinos are sharply underrepresented in Federal, state, and local governments despite the efforts of Organizations such as NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials), which have attempted, with some success, to unite all Latinos and especially to find common ground for political lobbying. Latinos are also profoundly divided in political orientations. Cuban Americans are largely drawn to conservative causes, especially on foreign affairs issues. A majority of Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans align themselves with the Democratic party, but the issues that concern them in part reflect their regional differences. Two political positions that Latinos largely support are improved, less punitive immigration legislation and increased support for bilingual education programs.

Social Control and Conflict. Traditional familial constraints and respect for authority and, of course, the local, state, and federal legal systems operate to maintain social order. But there is still a residue of instability and uncertainty remaining from the past and especially from the negative side effects of immigration. Racial diversity has contributed to continuing social conflict, and frictions with major social control institutions, such as schools and police, have also persisted.

Local, regional, and sometimes national efforts to resist and change discriminatory practices are common occurrences. The Latino social movements of the 1960s, however, have resulted in continued improvements in such areas as bilingual education, increased hiring in public jobs, and a rise of public interest in Latino issues. The wars of the past continue to affect Latino-Anglo relations in the United States: Mexican Americans deplore violations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; many Puerto Ricans aspire to statehood or independence; Cubans, because of its recency, talk of recapturing the "revolution"; and Central Americans lament the contemporary wars from which many are refugees.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. As with the Spanish language, Roman Catholicism dominates throughout Latin America, but varies in form and practice from country to country and region to Region, owing largely to syncretic mixing with other religious traditions. Latinos in the United States also display this variation, with patron saints, special days of observance, and Rituals of baptism, marriage, and death varying among different Catholic Latino groups. For example, the Virgin of Guadalupe, a brown-appearing icon associated with the Indian-Mestizo segment of the population in Mexico, is of Little interest among Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans, and santeria (worship of African gods clothed in Catholic dogma) beliefs and practices in those groups are far less common among Mexican Americans. Although most Latinos adhere to the Catholic church, evangelical Protestantism has gained many followers in recent decades.

Arts. Folk art traditions in murals, woodwork, music, oral lore, and pottery, as well as modern stylized forms reinterpreting these traditions, characterize a rich artistic cultural element. Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican percussion instruments and rhythms have effected a new American salsa style of music. Recently an increase in Latino American plays, theater, and cinema has brought a new awareness to the population; particularly important are the sociopolitical content of these works, such as demonstrated by the early Teatro Campesino (Peasant Theater) "actos" (politically charged skits) during the United Farm Worker movement in California.

Medicine. Traditional folk practices continue to vie with Western medicine in many Latino communities, although most Latinos seek medical help for serious injuries or acute illness. Still, one can readily find curanderos (folk healers) who offer old indigenous and syncretized herbal and physical remedies for virtually any ailment.

Death and Afterlife. Latinos generally subscribe to Christian beliefs of an afterlife in which one is rewarded or punished for having led a good or evil life. The significance of death and afterlife is symbolized most clearly in Mexican American celebrations of El Dia de Los Muertos (literally "Day of the Dead," but known as All Saints' Day in English), which feature masks, dolls, and cakes adorned with figures of skulls and skeletons. Funeral rites vary as other syncretized Religious ceremonies do among Latinos, but typically include large gatherings of real and fictive kin.


Borjas, G., and M. Tienda, eds. (1985). Hispanics in the U.S. Economy. New York: Academic Press.

Boswell, Thomas D., and James R. Curtis (1984). The Cuban-American Experience. Totowa, N.J.: Rowan & Allanheld.

Hendricks, Glenn L. (1974). The Dominican Diaspora: From the Dominican Republic to New York Villagers in Transition. New York: Teachers College Press.

Moore, Joan W., and Harry Pachon (1985). Hispanics in the United States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Padilla, Felix (1987). Puerto Rican Chicago. South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Rodriquez, Clara (1989). Puerto Ricans: Born in the U.S.A. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Vigil, James Diego (1984). From Indians to Chicanos: The dynamics of Mexican American Culture. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.


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The Latino population represents the largest minority group and most rapidly growing ethnic group in the United States. This population is composed of a variety of subgroups tracing their origins to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Spain. While Latinos represented one-sixteenth of the U.S. population in 1980, they were one-seventh of the U.S. population in 2005, when they numbered 42.7 million. They accounted for two-fifths of the nearly 70 million people added to the national population between 1980 and 2005. Population projections indicate that Latinos will continue to drive the demographic changes in this country throughout the twenty-first century. Indeed, they are expected to make up 46 percent of all people projected to be added to the U.S. population between 2000 and 2030. Thus, by 2030 Latinos are predicted to number 73.1 million, accounting for one-fifth of all people in the nation.

This entry provides an overview of the emergence of the terminology to describe this population, the mode of incorporation of the major Latino populations into the United States, and the contemporary social and economic standing of the Latino population in the country.


In the United States, race and ethnicity have been central to public discourse, government, and economics. Throughout U.S. history racial and ethnic categories functioned as a basis for inequality and discrimination. Governmental changes to identifiers during the twentieth century came as a result of the pursuit of civil and equal rights by minorities in areas regarding education, housing, employment, and public services. For instance, mid-twentieth-century civil unrest and subsequent legal challenges compelled the Federal Office of Management and Budget to develop the term Hispanic in 1970 to mean a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race (Hayes-Bautista and Chapa 1987, p. 64). While many adopted the Hispanic ethnic identity, many others eschewed the term as it failed to take into account the unique origins and historical experiences of distinct subgroups. Therefore, the term Latinos has been widely adopted as a more acceptable term of self-identification by people of Latin American ancestry.

Despite pan-ethnic identifiers, the groups that make up the Latino population have diverse histories, cultures, and modes of incorporation into the United States. For instance, the initial incorporation of some groups occurred through warfare, while that of others was the result of civil unrest. For all groups, economicsthe search for favorable employmenthas been an attraction to the United States.


Over the course of 185 years, nearly 15 million people from Latin America migrated on a legal basis to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2006. The majority of this movement took place during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (77% of the 15 million immigrated after 1970). About 45 percent of all immigrants who entered the United States legally between 1970 and 2005 originated from Latin America. Mexico alone accounted for one-fifth of all legal immigrants entering the country during this period. The ten countries with the most Latinos immigrating to the United States from 2000 to 2005 were Mexico (867,417), El Salvador (139,390), Dominican Republic (127,066), Cuba (97,988), Colombia (91,808), Guatemala (78,594), Peru (58,318), Ecuador (47,094), Nicaragua (36,620), and Venezuela (32,500).

Latino groups have entered the United States at different periods under varying conditions. The two groups that have been in the United States the longest, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, were initially incorporated into the United States through warfare. Numerous other groupsincluding Cubans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadoranshave sought asylum in the United States due to warfare in their home countries. Still, the majority of Latin American immigrants came to the United States for economic reasons, drawn by labor opportunities and propelled by poor employment prospects in their home countries.

Mexicans Mexicans, approximately three-fifths of all Latinos living in the United States, have been in the country the longest. Mexicans were incorporated through the Mexican-American War that Mexico lost, along with approximately half of its land, to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. Mexicans who were living on what was now U.S. land were given the choice to remain and become U.S. citizens or return to Mexico. They overwhelmingly elected to remain on their land. Although Mexican Americans were guaranteed all rights as U.S. citizens, including respect for their property, culture, and language, as former Mexicans they became, at best, second-class citizens.

In actuality, Mexican Americans experienced colonization and exploitation as whites from other parts of the United States entered the acquired territories. Colonization included the loss of land due to legal and extralegal means, according to Rodolfo Acuña (2000) and David Montejano (1987). Mexican Americans became a landless proletariat and provided inexpensive labor for Anglo settlers. Similar to the situation that African Americans experienced in the South, Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest experienced great legal and illegal violence, discrimination, oppression, and disenfranchisement.

During the opening decades of the twentieth century, Mexicans fled political and civil unrest to the United States. Ironically, during a period when the United States was creating policies to keep southern and eastern Europeans and Asians from entering the country, many industrialists and growers welcomed Mexican immigrants as cheap labor for a growing economy. By the mid-1920s their growing presence, the countrys economic instability, and the xenophobic attitudes of whites compelled the U.S. government to evict Mexicans from the country. For example, approximately 500,000 Mexicansroughly one-third of the Mexicans enumerated in the 1930 U.S. censuswere repatriated to Mexico during the Great Depression. Within ten years the United States and the Mexican government colluded to establish the Bracero Program to deal with U.S. labor shortages associated with World War II; because of its wide popularity among U.S. employers, the Bracero Program was extended nearly two decades beyond the conclusion of the war. The program allowed United States employers to actively recruit and import Mexican contract labor to meet their needs. In all, approximately 4.7 million Mexicans came to the United States under this program. Since the 1970s, there has been a significant increase in Mexican immigrants and settlers. The entrance of U.S. capital into Mexicoin the form of the Border Industrialization Program and the North American Free Trade Agreementhave altered social and economic structures in Mexico that have helped to create the movement of workers (some of these displaced) to the United States. The combination of old-timers (those whose roots extend back multiple generations) and newcomers (those who have come to the United States in the recent past) has created a diverse Mexican-origin population, as described by Rogelio Saenz in his census report Latinos and the Changing Face of America (2004).

Puerto Ricans Puerto Ricans share a colonized past with Mexico. Indeed, the island of Puerto Rico has been marked by colonial exploitation beginning with its colonization by Spain and continuing into the present as a Commonwealth of the United States. The history of Puerto Rico is similar to that of other Latin American countries that have been under the sovereignty of colonial nation-states. The native people of the island were first colonized in 1493 by the Spanish. When this population declined as a result of forced labor and disease, according to the writers Joe R. Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin in their book Racial and Ethnic Relations (1999), slaves were brought in to fill the labor gap until 1873, when slavery was abolished. Rule over Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as result of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship with the passage of the Jones Act of 1917 and gained self-governance in 1952. However, although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, island residents are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they are required to enlist in military service to the United States.

Puerto Rico functioned economically in an agricultural system until the late 1940s when a rapid program of industrialization, known as Operation Bootstrap, was introduced by then Governor Luis Munoz Marin. Operation Bootstrap allowed locally tax-exempt U.S. corporations to develop industries on the island, which placed an economic burden on the Puerto Ricans who were required to finance the necessary infrastructure through high personal taxes. Although Puerto Rican migration to the U.S. mainland existed prior to the rapid-industrialization projects, massive unemployment in the 1970s resulted in the migration of approximately one-third of the islands population to the United States (Feagin and Feagin 1999).

Due to their U.S. citizenship status, Puerto Ricans tend to migrate in a circular pattern. Over the years many have settled in the United States. Puerto Ricans have subsequently had a major impact on mainstream American culture, especially in cities such as New York, where ethnic enclaves have existed since the 1920s.

Cubans The island of Cuba became a U.S. protectorate in early 1900, and in the middle of the twentieth century, through revolution, it became a socialist state. U.S. interest in Cuba arose out of economic investments by U.S. businesses. The United States became the major market for Cuban goods and a provider of essential supplies needed to sustain the islands economic system. The political instability on the island began in the 1930s and lasted through the 1950s; student-led protests, along with instability within the Cuban polity, threatened the economic, social, and political interests of capitalist Cuban elites, U.S. investors, and as a result the governments of both countries. Socioeconomic disparities led to the establishment of a socialist state with Fidel Castro in power beginning in 1959. Castros rise to power resulted in large-scale emigration of the middle and upper classes, who sought asylum in the United States. As advantaged political refugees fleeing what was labeled as a communist state by those who were adversely affected by Castros rise to power, Cuban refugees were offered numerous resettlement benefits by the United States.

Other refugees accepted into the United States in 1980, however, were not provided resettlement programs. This group, referred to as Marielitos (after the Cuban port from which they left, Mariel Bay), were drawn from the lower classes and were largely black. While the group included some criminals, the media exaggeratedly portrayed Marielitos as undesirables, write Alejandro Portes and Robert L. Bach in their book Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States (1985, p. 87). The group was confronted with a negative reaction from the American mainstream and their own communities, notes Juan González in his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2000).

Still, the favorable economic and human-resource assistance that the early waves of Cubans received helped some to achieve upward mobility in the United States. Cuban enclave enterprises have been highly successful in Miami and have helped integrate Cuban immigrants, according to Portes and Bach (1985).

Nicaraguans Significant immigration to the United States by Nicaraguans is often recognized as beginning in the late 1970s at the end of the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Immigrants were escaping a repressive government whose actions had impoverished the majority of the population, destabilized the economy, and started a U.S.-supported revolution. Nicaraguan immigration was characterized by three subsequent waves.

The initial arrivals were limited in number and composed of upper-class or elite familiesindustrialists, large landowners, and top businessmenescaping the Sandinista takeover of the country. Many had the financial means and education required to establish themselves in the United States. Their arrival and presence was therefore much less noticeable than subsequent arrivals.

The second phase of Nicaraguan migration occurred in the early 1980s and consisted of political asylumseeking urban, middle-class professionals and business personnel escaping a dysfunctional economy destabilized by political turmoil. Some used prior degrees and skills to find jobs, but the majority of immigrants were reduced to labor occupations until they could better accommodate themselves. State assistance was provided for them as long they had legal documentation. Improper documentation resulted in deportation procedures.

The third wave of immigrants began in the mid-1980s and consisted of laborers and peasants escaping the Contra war and a disrupted economy. Many resorted to the informal economy in order to earn subsistence wages. These arrivals initiated a recognizable flow that alarmed many Americans, who urged the U.S. government to respond.

Unlike the Cuban experience, but much like that of other Central and South Americans, Nicaraguans were hardly welcomed to the United States or given much opportunity for permanent settlement. By the late 1980s the Reagan administrations support for the Contra military was overtly stopped, and the flood of refugees to the United States seeking asylum increased exponentially. In an effort to stop the flow of refugees, the United States detained and incarcerated all new arrivals while their cases for asylum were processed. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services classified most as illegal aliens and initiated deportation. Established Nicaraguans attempted to intercede, but U.S.-supported political changes in Nicaragua compelled democratic changes and prompted refugees to return. In contrast to other refugee groups, Nicaraguans were offered no resettlement programs, note Portes and Alex Stepick in City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (1993).


Latinos have comparable, yet distinct immigration experiences. Foreign policies and territorial ambitions coupled with the United States need for cheap labor established the initial ties between Latin America and the United States, paving the way for immigration and setting the stage for Latino identity in the United States, as described by José Calderón in his contribution to Latin American Perspectives (1992). Latino Americans who settled in the United States are represented in all socioeconomic classes and at various stages of assimilation or acculturation. Latino subgroups have established distinct communities around the country. Ethnic enclaves attract newcomers that reinvigorate immigrant culture, and each successive generation blends with mainstream American culture, shaping a new identity for Latinos.

There is a significant amount of stratification within the Latino population, notes Saenz (2004). Cubans and South Americans tend to have the highest levels of socioeconomic achievement in the United States, while Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and, to some extent, Central Americans are positioned at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Nonetheless, due to their increasing numbers, Latinos have begun to achieve some degree of political success. Furthermore, because they are situated in urban areas and in the most populous states, they are a group that politicians must acknowledge. However, other forces tend to limit the political power of Latinos: They are a young population (with many not old enough to vote), many Latinos cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens, and they are noticeably divided across national origin and class lines.

The presence of a diverse and growing Latino population may diminish Anglo cultural dominance and introduce a sense of multiculturalism to U.S. society. As Latinos retain and assert their own ethnic identities, they add cultural distinction to their respective geographical centers across the United States.

As a consumer group, Latinos have been recognized by marketing agencies and corporations who previously had failed to target this large group and their buying potential, observes Arlene Dávila in Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (2001). In this regard, the influence of Latinos in the labor market and their presence as a consumer force impact economics in the United States and abroad.

SEE ALSO Boricua; Bracero Program; Citizenship; Cuban Revolution; Ethnicity; Identity; Immigrants to North America; Immigrants, Latin American; Immigrants, New York City; Latino/a Studies; Mexican Americans; Naturalization; Nuyoricans; Politics, Identity; Politics, Latino; Race


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Jesus A. Garcia

Aurelia Lorena Murga

Rogelio Saenz

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LATINOS. SeeHispanic Americans .

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