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Hispanic Americans


HISPANIC AMERICANS. According to the 2000 Census, Hispanic Americans make up 12.5 percent of the total population of the United States and are now the nation's largest ethnic minority group, surpassing African Americans by a margin of 0.2 percent.

The nation's 20.5 million Hispanics of Mexican heritage (often called Chicanos) constitute 66 percent of the Hispanic American population and make up about 7.3 percent of the total U.S. population. At nearly 3.5 million, Puerto Ricans living in the United States are the second largest Hispanic American group; Cuban Americans are third largest, with a population of just over 1.24 million. Hispanics in the United States also come from all the countries of Central and South America including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Columbia, Brazil, Uruguay, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. Each Hispanic subgroup has its own culture, language, customs and way of life.

From the Los Angeles barrios populated mostly by Chicanos to Cubans in South Florida, Puerto Ricans in New York City to Brazilians in Boston, Hispanic peoples and cultures have become part of American cities and towns.

Spanish Exploration and Conquest

The Spanish presence in the United States dates back to the early days of European exploration of the Americas. In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon discovered a sunny spit of North America's southeastern coast that he dubbed "La Florida" (Land of Flowers). In 1565, the Spanish finally began settling Florida with the founding of St. Augustine. In the 1540s, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expeditionary force traversed what is now America's Southwest; in 1610, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was established as the Spanish provincial capital. Spain's oppression of the native peoples resulted in the bloody Pueblo Revolt of 1680. A decade later, when the Spanish returned, they were more careful in their treatment of the indigenous peoples; the centuries-old blend of Native American and Spanish culture remains deeply rooted in that area.

The Spanish claim on "Alta California" was firmly established in 1769 when Father Junipero Sera, a Roman Catholic priest, founded San Diego de Alcalá, the first of California's twenty-one Spanish missions. For some sixty-five years, until the end of Spanish rule in the region, the powerful, well-financed missions infused the region with Catholicism and Spanish culture. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, it allowed the indigenous peoples who had worked the mission lands to settle them as ranches.

United States Expansion

Mexico's territorial disputes with the aggressively expansionist United States resulted in the Mexican-American War, which began in 1846 and ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The terms of this treaty had Mexico ceding 55 percent of its territory to the United States. Mexican residents of the ceded lands—which encompassed modern-day Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico and portions of Colorado, Utah and Nevada—became U.S. citizens.

The brief Spanish-American War of 1898 further expanded the U.S. sphere of influence into formerly Spanish territories. As Spain relinquished its faltering grip on Cuba and Puerto Rico (both of which had been battling for independence for years), as well as Guam and the Philippines, the United States stepped in as a new colonial administrator.

In July 1898, the United States invaded Puerto Rico as a prelude to the anticipated hand-off by Spain already being brokered by negotiators. The island, which had been colonized by the Spanish after its discovery by Columbus in 1493, had been on the verge of instituting its own long-anticipated independence from Spain. The arrival of the American military, which controlled the island until a civilian government was established in 1900, effectively transferred Puerto Rico from one colonial steward to another.

Puerto Rico

In 1917, the Jones Act granted residents of Puerto Rico U.S. citizenship. Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor in 1948; in 1952, Puerto Rico adopted a constitution and became a commonwealth. Spanish was recognized as Puerto Rico's official language after fifty years of English-speaking rule. Puerto Ricans, however, lack some privileges of true citizenship: those who live in Puerto Rico cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections (though they participate in party nominating conventions) and have only "shadow" (non-voting) representation in Congress. They also pay no U.S. income taxes.

Puerto Rican Americans have long walked a tight-rope of loyalties made taut by the tension of pride in their dual cultures and frustration over America's continued rule of their homeland. The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, founded in 1936, has been and continues to be an active and sometimes violent voice for independence; more moderate activists have sought statehood for Puerto Rico.

In 1950, a crackdown on Nationalist protestors in Puerto Rico left more than thirty dead, and the violence soon spread to Washington, D.C. On 1 November 1950, a pair of armed Puerto Rican Nationalists stormed Blair House, where President Harry S. Truman and his family were living during White House renovations. The president was unharmed, but a Secret Service agent was killed and several others were wounded. In 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists opened fire on the floor of the House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen. Political strife and revolution often preceded Hispanic migrations to the United States in the twentieth century—those events, themselves, were often influenced by U.S. military involvement in Central or South America.

Hispanic Immigrants and Political Muscle

Revolutions in Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, and civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador during the twentieth century were among the many violent upheavals that led millions of people to seek sanctuary in the United States. With these immigrants came the same rich, yet dividing languages and cultures, ethnicity and social strata that had marked their former lives. Thus, the different groups found it difficult to stand together under such broad labels as "Hispanics" or "Latino." Facing increased anti-immigration sentiments and movements such as the "English First" effort to make English the "official" language of the United States, Hispanics, especially recent immigrants, are often torn between devotion to the culture of their homelands and the need for political and social clout in American life—most easily gained by joining forces with others who share similar, though far from identical, backgrounds and experiences.

The Washington, D.C.–based National Council of La Raza (NCLR), founded in 1968, is on the leading edge of advocacy for Hispanic rights. Through lobbying and public education, leadership development and community support, the NCLR is actively building the political and societal muscle of America's largest growing minority group.


Acuna, Rudolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2000.

Bonilla, Frank, et al., eds. Borderless Borders: U.S. Latinos, Latin Americans, and the Paradox of Interdependence. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Clayton, Lawrence A., ed. The Hispanic Experience in North America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Cruz, José E. Identity and Power: Puerto Rican Politics and the Challenge of Ethnicity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking, 2000.

Horner, Louise L., ed. Hispanic Americans, 2002: A Statistical Sourcebook. Palo Alto, Calif.: Information Publications, 2002.

Noble, Judith, and Jaime Lacasa. The Hispanic Way. Lincoln-wood, Ill.: Passport Books, 1991.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Suro, Roberto. Strangers Among Us: Latino Lives in a Changing America. New York: Knopf, 1998.

Laura A.Bergheim

See alsoCuba, Relations with ; Cuban Americans ; Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of ; Latin America, Relations with ;Puerto Ricans in the United States ; and vol. 9: Chicano Nationalism: The Key to Unity for La Raza ; Pachucos in the Making .

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