Skip to main content

Hispanic Americans


Despite their common linguistic heritage, Hispanic Americans are a heterogeneous and rapidly growing population that includes no less than twenty-three distinct national identities and combines recent legal and undocumented immigrants with groups whose ancestors predate the formation of the United States as we know it today. The label Hispanic is derived from Hispania, the Latin word for Iberia. In 1973 the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare adopted the term "Hispanic" at the recommendation of the Task Force on Racial/Ethnic Categories to designate U.S. residents who trace their origins to a Spanish-speaking country. Following suit, the U.S. Census Bureau adopted this label as a statistical shorthand for the Hispanic national-origin groups (del Pinal and Singer 1997; Haverluk 1997). Originating in the western United States, the term "Latino" has been adopted as an alternative by groups that view "Hispanic" as a conservative pan-ethnic label imposed by the government that ignores their political and economic struggles for equality and representation. These distinctions notwithstanding, both labels serve as umbrellas for a highly diverse segment of the U.S. population.

Hispanics are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population. High levels of immigration combined with high fertility rates yield a growth rate for Hispanics that is seven times that of the non-Hispanic population (U.S. Department of Commerce 1993). In 1990 the U.S. Census Bureau enumerated 22.4 million Hispanics, representing 9 percent of the aggregate population, but the 1997 population estimate reached 29.7 million, accounting for 11 percent of the national total (U.S. Department of Commerce 1998). Hispanics accounted for about one-third of national population growth during the 1980s, and their contribution to aggregate demographic growth is expected to increase in the future. Census Bureau projections made in 1995 predicted that by the year 2000 the Hispanic population would reach 31.4 million, but this estimate is conservative because annual estimates since that time have consistently been exceeded (U.S. Department of Commerce 1996). Hispanics are projected to surpass blacks as the largest minority by 2003—perhaps sooner, depending on the volume of legal and undocumented immigration from Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Already in 1998, Hispanic children outnumbered black children.

Although immigration has figured prominently in the growth of the Hispanic population since 1941, its influence on demographic growth, ethnic diversification and renewal, and population replenishment has been especially pronounced during the 1980s and 1990s. Immigration was responsible for approximately one-third of the phenomenal growth of the Hispanic population in the 1980s and 1990s. At the end of the 1990s, two-thirds of the population were immigrants or children of immigrants (del Pinal and Singer 1997), and trends in fertility and immigration suggested higher growth of the Hispanic population well into the twenty-first century. By the year 2020, the U.S. Hispanic population is projected to reach 52.6 million, representing approximately 16 percent of the national total (U.S. Department of Commerce 1996).

Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. Hispanics (64 percent) are of Mexican origin, while 11 percent trace their origins to Puerto Rico, 4 percent to Cuba, and 14 percent to other Central and South American nations. An additional 7 percent of Hispanics are of unspecified national origin, which includes mixed Spanish-speaking nationalities, Spaniards, and "Hispanos," the descendants of the original Spanish settlers in what came to be known as Colorado and New Mexico. This national-origin profile of the Hispanic population has evolved since 1970 because of the differential growth of selected groups. In particular, since 1970 the Mexican, Central American, and South American population shares have increased, while the Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic shares have declined (Bean and Tienda 1987; del Pinal and Singer 1997). Differential growth rates derive from rising immigration flows combined with high fertility among the foreign-born.

Defining features of the U.S. Hispanic population, in addition to vigorous growth, include increasing diversity, segmented integration, and rising political influence. Among the more salient aspects of diversity are immigrant and generational status, national origin, residential distribution, socioeconomic status, political participation, and reproductive behavior. Segmented integration is evident in the emergence of a solid middle class coupled with rising poverty, especially among children and immigrants, and greater geographic dispersion coupled with persisting residential concentration—nationally in a few large metropolitan areas and locally in ethnic neighborhoods within major cities (Haverluk 1997). As the number of Hispanics increases, politics also becomes increasingly important in determining their social and economic destiny. Greater political influence is already evident in the growing presence of Hispanics among elected officials. However, Hispanic voter turnout remains exceedingly low, suggesting that the potential political impacts of population growth have not fully unfolded.

The continued rapid growth of U.S. Hispanic population coupled with increased diversification raises concerns about long-term prospects for their social integration, particularly recent arrivals from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Among casual observers who note the emergence of ethnic neighborhoods where Spanish is spoken publicly as well as privately, the growing Hispanic presence has raised fears about the potential "Latinization" or "Hispanicization" of the United States. However, larger numbers are not likely to be the most decisive force shaping the Hispanic imprint on the U.S. social and economic landscape, for size automatically confers neither power nor status. Therefore, to evaluate the recent past and future imprint of Hispanics in the United States, what follows summarizes several themes that have developed in the sociological literature on Hispanic Americans. These include: (1) the origin of current ethnic labels, (2) the roots of diversification, (3) the changing social, demographic, and economic composition of the population, and (4) the implications for societal integration of recent social and economic trends. A concluding section summarizes key lessons from existing studies and identifies areas for future investigation.


Ethnic labels are partly imposed by the host society and partly chosen by immigrant groups who wish to preserve their national identity. The labels "Spanish origin" and "Hispanic" originally were coined as terms of convenience for official reporting purposes. Before the mid-1960s, Hispanics were unfamiliar to most observers outside the Southwest, where persons of Mexican ancestry were well represented, and the Northeast, where Puerto Rican communities began to flourish after World War II. Therefore, until 1960 the "Spanish surname" concept was adequate for identifying persons of Mexican origin residing in the Southwest, and "Puerto Rican stock" was used to identify persons who resided in the Northeast (predominantly New York) and who were born in or whose parents were born in Puerto Rico. However, with increasing intermarriage, residential dispersion, and generational succession, these concepts became progressively less viable to identify persons from Mexico and Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the influx of immigrants from Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean into areas traditionally inhabited by Mexicans and Puerto Ricans necessitated labels that could more adequately represent the growing diversity along national-origin lines.

In recognition of the growing residential, marital, and generational heterogeneity of the Spanish-speaking population, in 1970 the U.S. Census Bureau adopted the "Spanish origin" concept, which was based on self-identification and could be administered to the U.S. population on a national level (Bean and Tienda 1987). Symbolically, this decision, which was also an important political gesture, recognized Hispanics as a national minority group rather than as regionally distributed subgroups. And in 1980 the term "Hispanic" accompanied the "Spanish origin" item on the census schedule to identify persons from Latin America, Spain, and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. However, through the 1980s the term "Latino" came into popular use as an alternative to "Hispanic." As a symbol of self-determination and self-definition, "Latino" is the label preferred by many ethnic scholars.

Despite their popular use and administrative legitimacy, pan-ethnic terms such as "Latino" or "Hispanic" are less desirable than specific national-origin designations, such as Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Cuban, or Mexican, which better reveal the appreciable socioeconomic and generational diversity of Hispanic Americans. Not surprisingly, diversity along national-origin lines became a major intellectual theme in the scholarly writings about Hispanics during the mid- to late 1980s and remained so at the turn of the century as the powerful forces of international and internal migration continued to diversify the composition of this rapidly growing population.


Social science interest in Hispanic Americans has increased greatly since 1960, and the scope of topics investigated has expanded accordingly. Whereas studies conducted during the 1960s and through the mid-1970s tended to focus on regionally localized populations, the 1980s witnessed a proliferation of designs that compare group experiences. This shift in the research agenda, which coincided with the designation of Hispanics as a national population, also brought into focus the theme of diversity and inequality among national-origin groups. More recent studies have focused on economic opportunities afforded by geographic dispersal and the changing fortunes of the burgeoning second generation—especially the children of recent immigrants.

The Hispanic presence in the United States predates the formation of the nation as we currently know it. Over a decade before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spaniards had already settled in present-day New Mexico. Several subsequent events shaped the Hispanic imprint on the United States. These include (1) the Louisiana Purchase, which provided a powerful impetus for westward expansion during the 1800s; (2) the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and ceded all Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande to the United States; (3) the Mexican Revolution, which propelled thousands of Mexicans north to seek refuge from the bloody conflict; (4) the Cuban Revolution, which provided the impetus for several unprecedented refugee flows; (5) the political instability in Central America during the 1980s, which has augmented legal and undocumented migrant streams from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua; and (6) the economic crisis of the 1980s, which encouraged higher levels of documented and undocumented migration from South America, especially Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador (U.S. Department of Commerce 1993). International events in Latin America continue to influence the U.S. Hispanic population by altering immigration streams and their reception as refugees or labor migrants.

The uneven integration experiences of the various national-origin groups are as powerful in diversifying the U.S. Hispanic population as are migration streams of largely unskilled workers from Latin America. The cultural and socioeconomic diversity of Hispanic Americans can be traced partly to the diverse modes of their incorporation into the United States and partly to the changing opportunities to become Americanized. Nelson and Tienda (1985) proposed a framework for conceptualizing the emergence, consolidation, and persistence of distinct Hispanic ethnic groups. They identified three domains of immigrant incorporation that are pertinent for understanding the socioeconomic stratification of Hispanics: (1) the mode of entry, namely, the conditions of migration as voluntary labor or as political migrants; (2) the mode of integration, that is, the climate of reception at the time of mass entrance to the host society; and (3) the circumstances that precipitate reaffirmation of national origin. The latter emphasizes the distinction between the cultural or symbolic content of Hispanic origin and the economic consequences of ethnicity that result in the formation of minority groups. This distinction between the economic and the cultural underpinnings of Hispanic ethnicity is pertinent for theorizing about the long-term integration prospects of specific nationality groups.

Along these three domains of ethnic incorporation, the major national-origin groups exhibit considerable diversity. For example, the origin of the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities can be traced to annexation, although the timing and particulars of the two cases were quite distinct. The annexation of Mexican territory resulted from a political settlement subsequent to military struggle and was followed by massive and voluntary wage-labor migration throughout the twentieth century, but particularly after 1960. The Puerto Rican annexation, which was formalized at the culmination of the Spanish-American War, will remain an incomplete process until statehood or independence is achieved. However, like the Mexican experience, the Puerto Rican presence on the U.S. mainland was characterized by a massive wage-labor flow after World War II that has ebbed and flowed according to economic conditions on both the island and the mainland.

Mexico has been the leading source country for Latin American immigrants since 1820, but the Mexican flow began in earnest during the time of the Mexican Revolution. The Bracero Program, which was a binational agreement that allowed entry of temporary agricultural workers, institutionalized migrant streams that persisted long after the formal agreement was terminated in 1964. Also, Mexico is the leading source of undocumented migrants to the United States. Although 2.3 million Mexicans obtained legal status under the provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, undocumented migrant workers continue to enter the United States and are currently settling in such nontraditional areas as North Carolina, Atlanta, New Jersey, and New York.

These distinct modes of incorporation are sharpened by the experience of Cubans, whose socioeconomic success is as striking as the limited socioeconomic achievements of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. Although the U.S. Cuban community was established before Fidel Castro's rise to power, Cuba's internal politics are largely responsible for the dramatic growth of the Cuban population in the United States since 1960. The Cuban Revolution created a wave of U.S.-bound political refugees who were themselves differentiated by social classes. The so-called golden exile cohort, which virtually gutted the Cuban middle class, was followed by the exodus of skilled and semiskilled workers who made up the vast majority of Cuban emigrés. Although the distinction between political and economic migrants is murky, political refugees, unlike wage-labor migrants, usually command immediate acceptance from the host society. The Cuban experience, however, stands in sharp contrast to that of later political refugees from Central America (primarily El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala), whose refugee story is one of clandestine entry and extended legal and political struggles for recognition. Probably this difference reflects the fact that Cubans were fleeing a communist regime while this was not the case for Central American refugees.

Immigration from Central and South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean has continued to diversify not only the national-origin composition of the Hispanic population but also the socioeconomic position of the various groups. The Dominican Republic, a country of only 8 million inhabitants, was the fourth-largest source of U.S. immigrants in 1995, including many who entered without documentation (del Pinal and Singer 1997). Although internal political problems precipitated Dominican emigration after 1960, declining economic conditions fueled the migrant stream during the 1970s. Likewise, the Central American wage labor-flow has been propelled by poor economic conditions coupled with political upheavals, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. That more than two-thirds of Central Americans residing in the United States in 1995 entered after 1980 testifies to the recency and intensity of this wage-labor flow. South American immigration to the United States derives mainly from Colombia, but there is a growing presence of Ecuadorians and Argentineans among this stream. Compared to Mexican, Central American, and Dominican flows, undocumented migrants are less common among South American immigrants.

The future role of immigration in stratifying the Hispanic population is highly uncertain, as it depends both on changes in U.S. foreign policy toward Central and South America and on revisions in immigration policy concerning the disposition of undocumented aliens and quotas on admissions of close family members of legal residents. Equally important is the role of expanded social networks in drawing new migrants to U.S. shores. Trends in the 1990s indicate that these flows are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. A comparison of wage-labor migration histories of Hispanics clearly illustrates how diverse modes of entry and integration have fueled the diversification of Hispanic Americans.

Ethnic reaffirmation and consolidation can best be understood as immigrant minority communities define themselves vis-à-vis the host society. For groups that were relatively successful in adapting to the host society, such as Cubans, national heritage acquired a highly symbolic character that is used for economic relationships when expedient and downplayed otherwise. Alternatively, class position and national origin become inextricably linked when immigrants are destined for the lower ranks of the social hierarchy, as seems to have occurred for Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans, or when illegal status forces many underground. Thus, the distinction between symbolic ethnicity and minority status revolves around the degree of choice groups have in controlling their socioeconomic destiny (Vincent 1974).


Until the 1960s, the U.S. Hispanic population was overwhelmingly Mexican and almost exclusively located in the Southwest (Haverluk 1997). But migration from Puerto Rico to the Northeast during the 1950s and the arrival of thousands of Cubans in south Florida and the Northeast following the 1959 Cuban Revolution led to the establishment of distinct Hispanic communities in Miami and New York City. Heavy migration from Mexico and other Latin American countries since the 1970s has altered the regional landscape and created a more geographically and socially heterogeneous Hispanic population whose imprint reaches well beyond the traditional states of residence.

Although Hispanics reside in all states, historically the population has been concentrated in nine states, where 85 percent of Latinos reside. These include the five southwestern states of California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, as well as New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey. Two states—California and Texas—were home to more than half of all Hispanics in 1995, with Mexicans and Central Americans disproportionately concentrated in these states. Despite residential dispersion of Hispanics during the 1980s and 1990s, the visibility of distinct Hispanic communities is reinforced by persisting regional concentration along national origin lines. Puerto Ricans remain concentrated in the Northeast—predominantly in major cities of New York and New Jersey—while Cubans have become bimodally distributed in south Florida and large northeastern cities (Bean and Tienda 1987). Mexicans remain disproportionately concentrated in the major cities of the Southwest and Chicago.

Cities with large Hispanic populations witnessed the greatest growth during the 1990s (Frey 1998). The ten metro areas with the largest Hispanic populations experienced the largest population gains. These include Miami, New York City, and Chicago as well as others close to the Mexican border. In San Antonio, Miami, and El Paso, Hispanics are the majority population. In 1996, more than 6 million Hispanics resided in Los Angeles, making it the second largest Latino city in the world (behind Mexico City). Residential segregation further compounds geographic concentration by spatially isolating Hispanics of low socioeconomic status and recent immigrants from non-Hispanic whites. This segregation reinforces the cultural distinctiveness of Hispanics in regions where visible communities have been established even as increased residential dispersion concurrently fosters national integration. It is in this sense—increasing geographic dispersion combined with persisting concentration—that Hispanics experience segmented residential integration.

The demography of the Hispanic population helps in understanding other characteristics, such as educational standing and economic well-being. For instance, the high immigrant composition of the population means that many have not had the opportunity to acquire a U.S. education, or much education at all. The youthful age structure also means that Hispanic school enrollment rates are higher and retirement rates lower compared to other population groups.

A social and economic profile of the Hispanic population since 1960 provides signals of both optimism and pessimism for the long-term economic prospects of distinct nationality groups. Because education is key for economic and social mobility, as well as for integration of new arrivals, trends in educational attainment are quite revealing about the diverse futures facing Hispanics. On the one hand, from 1960 to 1996 Hispanics witnessed an unmistakable improvement in their educational attainment. Whereas only 30 percent of Hispanics aged 25 and over had completed a high school education or more in 1970, by 1996 more than 53 percent had done so (del Pinal and Singer 1997; U.S. Department of Commerce 1993). However, there have been very modest gains in educational progress since 1980. More disturbing is evidence that educational gaps between Hispanics and non-Hispanics have widened because gains of the latter have been faster. These widened gaps are evident at all levels of educational attainment, beginning in preschool. Because Hispanics average less pre-school experience, they begin elementary school with fewer social skills. Furthermore, high school noncompletion rates remain distressingly high for Mexicans and Puerto Ricans—the two groups with the longest history in the United States.

That Cubans outperform Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in educational attainment undermines simplistic explanations that immigration and language are the reasons for the continued educational underachievement of the latter. The continued arrival of new immigrants with very low levels of education also contributes to the slow educational progress of Hispanics. However, this is only a partial explanation because even among the native-born, Hispanics lag behind African Americans and non-Hispanic whites in educational attainment. Low socioeconomic status and especially the preponderance of parents with low educational attainment are major forces driving the persisting educational underachievement of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans (Bean and Tienda 1987). Most research shows that Hispanics with family backgrounds comparable to those of non-Hispanic whites are less likely to withdraw from high school and as likely to continue on to college. Unfortunately, the current educational distribution implies intergenerational perpetuation of educational disadvantages well into the future.

These educational disadvantages carry over into the labor market, yet Hispanics have higher age-specific labor-force participation rates than most groups. This labor-market advantage exists largely because immigrants have very high rates of labor-force participation and they comprise a large and growing share of the working-age Hispanic population (Bean and Tienda 1987). However, relatively low skills and limited proficiency in English channel Hispanic immigrants to low-wage jobs with few benefits. Yet because Hispanic immigrants themselves are highly diverse along national origin lines, group experiences in the U.S. labor market are equally varied.

The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a deterioration of the labor-market standing of Puerto Rican men and women, while Cubans became virtually indistinguishable from non-Hispanic whites in terms of participation rates, unemployment rates, and occupational profiles. Mexicans stand somewhere between these extremes, with greater success than Puerto Ricans in securing employment, but usually at low wages owing to their low levels of human capital. Therefore, Mexicans are more highly represented among the working poor than are non-Hispanic whites, but Puerto Ricans are more likely than other Hispanic groups to join the ranks of the nonworking poor. Puerto Rican men witnessed unusually high rates of labor-force withdrawal during the 1970s, and their labor-force behavior converged with that of economically disadvantaged blacks (Tienda, 1989).

Numerous explanations have been provided for the deteriorating labor-market position of Puerto Ricans. These include the unusually sharp decline of manufacturing jobs in the Northeast; the decline of union jobs in which Puerto Ricans traditionally concentrated; increased labor-market competition with Colombian and Dominican immigrants; and the placement of Puerto Rican workers at the bottom of a labor queue. Direct empirical tests of these working hypotheses—all with merit—have not been forthcoming. However, the dramatic improvement in the labor-market standing of Puerto Ricans during the 1990s as a result of tight labor markets and vigorous economic growth suggest that Puerto Ricans are, like blacks, located at the bottom of a hiring queue and hence more vulnerable to dislocation in accordance with the business cycle.

Less debatable than the causes of Hispanics' labor-market status are the associated economic consequences. The median family incomes of Hispanic families place them below white and above African-American families (Bean and Tienda 1987). Although this socioeconomic ranking by groups has been in place since the 1970s, in 1995 Hispanic median family income actually fell below that of African Americans (del Pinal and Singer 1997). However, the emergence of a solid middle class supports the view of segmented economic integration wherein some groups experience upward mobility while others do not.

Trends in poverty rates also indicate that Hispanics are losing ground relative to African Americans. Not only have Hispanic poverty rates risen over time, but they appear resistant to improvement when the economy rebounds. Although black poverty rates have historically exceeded Hispanic poverty rates, this situation changed during the 1990s, when black poverty dropped faster than Hispanic poverty. Thus, by 1995 black and Hispanic family poverty rates had converged, and for some population subgroups (e.g., single-mother families and children), Hispanic poverty rates exceeded those of blacks for the first time.

Poverty rates are higher among immigrants compared to native-born Hispanics; and, among specific national origin groups, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans experience the highest risk of poverty. In 1995 more than one in three Puerto Rican families had incomes below the poverty level, compared to 22 to 28 percent for the other Hispanic groups. Even Cubans, the most highly educated of the Hispanic groups, experienced poverty rates double those of non-Hispanic whites in 1995—16 versus 6 percent, respectively (del Pinal and Singer 1997). Puerto Rican families headed by single women have the highest poverty rates, as nearly two of every three such families were poor in 1995 compared to only 30 percent of Cuban and 50 percent of Mexican mother-only families. In part, these differences among national origin groups reflect the groups' nativity composition. That is, because recent arrivals have relatively low skills, even their high rates of labor-force participation cannot shield them from poverty wages. A working poverty explanation also is consistent with the failure of Hispanic poverty to rebound during periods of economic recovery. Puerto Ricans are a possible exception, inasmuch as their poverty derives more from nonwork than that of Mexicans or Central/South Americans.


The changing demography of Hispanics has direct implications for the integration of Hispanic immigrant minority groups and raises questions about assimilation prospects. The rapid growth and residential concentration of the groups, coupled with the rising salience of immigration as a component of demographic growth, revitalizes Hispanic cultures and fosters maintenance of Spanish. That Hispanics have some of the lowest naturalization rates of all immigrant groups hinders their political participation and, for some observers, raises questions about their commitment to becoming American.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and enjoy most of the privileges that citizenship confers, while Mexican and other Latin American immigrants who enter legally must wait at least five years to apply for citizenship. Those who enter illegally have an uncertain status in the United States as long as they remain undocumented. That Puerto Ricans have been less successful economically than Mexicans raises questions about the significance of citizenship as a requisite for socioeconomic integration. The newest wage-labor migrants—Colombians, Dominicans, and Central Americans—appear to fare better than Puerto Ricans, posing yet another challenge to conventional understandings about immigrant assimilation processes. However, it is too early to determine their long-term prospects, which likely will depend more on changes in labor market opportunities and the educational achievement of the second generation than on processes of discrimination and social exclusion. Furthermore, the growing number of undocumented migrants among these groups could undermine their social and political leverage over the short to medium term.

Although it is difficult to predict the long-term integration prospects of any group, the diversity of the Hispanic experience complicates this task further because of the uncertain future of immigration and the economy, and because the political participation of Hispanics has traditionally been low. While the spatial concentration of Hispanics allows native languages to flourish and under some circumstances promotes ethnic cohesion, some observers interpret the rise and proliferation of ethnic neighborhoods as evidence of limited integration prospects, irrespective of whether the segregation is voluntary or involuntary. An alternative interpretation of high levels of residential segregation among Hispanics, particularly recent arrivals, is that of ethnic resilience. This perspective maintains that in the face of inter-ethnic tensions and economic adversity, individuals rely on their ethnic compatriots for social supports and hence promote solidarity along ethnic lines. One implication of this view is that ethnic resilience is the consequence rather than the cause of unequal integration prospects—that Hispanics' tendency toward elaborate ethnic ties reflects their tentative acceptance by the dominant society. As such, ethnic traits become enduring rather than transitional features of Hispanic neighborhoods.

A similar debate over the integration prospects of Hispanics clouds the issue of Spanish-language retention, which is politically significant because it provides a ready target for policies designed to assimilate linguistically diverse populations and because Spanish-language retention is a ready scapegoat for the poor educational achievement of Hispanics. Spanish is the second most common language spoken at home in the United States, but it is also a limiting attribute because two of five Hispanics reported that they did not speak English well or at all in 1990 (del Pinal and Singer 1997). Although this circumstance could prohibit labor-market integration, this is not necessarily the case in ethnic neighborhoods where virtually all business transactions can be conducted in Spanish. According to Lopez (1996), in Los Angeles, Spanish has become the lingua franca of the city's working class. As such, the public use of Spanish symbolizes and reinforces the ethnic stratification of the Hispanic population, particularly in areas of high residential concentration. Public use of Spanish by the poorer segments of the Hispanic population not only reinforces stereotypes about poverty and immigration but also reinforces beliefs about the limited integration prospects of Hispanics.

Furthermore, considerable controversy about the socioeconomic consequences of bilingualism exists, yet the preponderance of research shows that Spanish retention and bilingualism per se are not the sources of Hispanic underachievement. Rather, the failure to acquire proficiency in English is the principal culprit (Bean and Tienda 1987). In support of the distinction between bilingualism and lack of proficiency in English, there is some evidence that bilingualism may be an asset, albeit only among the middle classes who are able to convert this skill into social and financial resources (Tienda 1982). The failure of many Hispanics to achieve proficiency in English certainly limits their economic opportunities, but it is facile to equate lack of proficiency in English with bilingualism, which does not preclude proficiency in English. Although Spanish maintenance among Hispanics is more pervasive than is the maintenance of Asian languages among respective national origin groups, language shifts clearly indicate linguistic assimilation toward English dominance (Lopez 1996). Bilingualism is pervasive among second-generation Hispanics, but by the third generation bilingualism is less common than English monolingualism (Lopez 1997b). In short, language trends indicate that Hispanics are becoming assimilated to U.S. society and culture.

Finally, the long-term integration prospects of Hispanics depend on whether and how groups from specific localities or national-origin groups mobilize themselves to serve ethnic interests. Despite the convenience of the pan-ethnic label for statistical reporting purposes, Hispanics do not represent a unified political force nationally, and the fragility of their coalitions is easily undermined by demographic, economic, and social diversification. Hispanic populations of all ages and citizenship statuses affect routine electoral politics and contribute to the electoral power of registered Hispanic voters by the weight of numbers, which is the basis of redistricting. However, greater numbers are insufficient to guarantee increased representation, particularly for a population with a large number of persons under voting age, low rates of naturalization and voter registration, and, among registered voters, a dismal record of turning out at the polls. Most important is the low adult citizenship rate of 54 percent, compared to 95 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 92 percent for blacks (Rosenfeld 1998). That voter turnout also varies by national origin further divides the fragile Hispanic political alliances, such as the Hispanic congressional caucus, by splitting the Hispanic vote along class and party lines.

In the 1992 U.S. elections, Mexican Americans cast only about 16 votes per 100 persons compared to 50 for every 100 non-Hispanic whites. Cubans cast 29 votes for every 100 persons in the 1992 election; and despite their high citizenship rate (93 percent), Puerto Ricans cast only 24 votes for every 100 residents on the U.S. mainland. Other Hispanics, with an adult citizenship rate of 43 percent, cast 17 votes for every 100 residents in 1992. Despite low rates of voting relative to population shares, Hispanics have increased their representation at all levels of political office. Rosenfeld (1998) analyzed changes in Hispanic elected officials in the five southwest states from 1960 to 1995, a period that captures the entire trajectory of Hispanic electoralism in all states except New Mexico. The analysis considered the universe of elected officials in each state, including statewide and legislative offices as well as U.S. House and Senate seats relative to the voting-age population. Empirical trends indicate the emergence of Hispanic electoralism, which he characterizes as the achievement of a steady and significant level of Hispanic representation throughout the political system.

Thus, political behavior also points to greater political integration, albeit slow and with some uncertainty for the future. This is because most of the gains in political representation and Hispanic electoralism occurred prior to 1980, and the rapidly changing demographic and socioeconomic profile is less predictable. The political status of Hispanics underwent rapid changes during the 1990s, and the eventual outcomes are far from certain. Low rates of naturalization are beginning to reverse. For Mexicans, this has been facilitated by changes in Mexican law that permit dual citizenship in Mexico and the United States. Furthermore, legislative changes that tie access to welfare benefits to citizenship status have also encouraged many immigrants to naturalize. Finally, the higher priority given to citizens in sponsoring relatives for admission to the United States also intensified demand for naturalization. However, there persist large differentials by national origin (del Pinal and Singer 1997), with Mexicans lagging far behind Cubans and Central/South Americans.


Several lessons can be culled from the scholarly literature and public discourse about the social and economic future of Hispanic Americans. One is that generic labels, such as "Hispanic" and "Latino," are not useful for portraying the heterogeneous socioeconomic integration experiences of specific national-origin groups. A second major lesson is that the evolving differentials in economic standing of Hispanic national origin groups are rooted in the distinct modes of incorporation of each group, which in turn have profound implications for short- and long-term integration prospects. A third major lesson, which is related to the second, is that the socioeconomic imprint of Hispanic Americans will be as varied as the population itself. Changes in immigrant composition and residential segregation will play decisive parts in determining how Hispanics shape the ethnic landscape of the United States into the twenty-first century.

The nagging question is: Why does there persist a close association between Hispanic national origin and low social standing? On this matter there is much debate, but both sides accord great emphasis to the role of immigration in deciding the socioeconomic destiny of Hispanic Americans. One interpretation—the replenishment argument—emphasizes how immigration continues to diversify the composition of the population by introducing new arrivals on the lower steps of the social escalator, even as earlier arrivals experience gradual improvements in their economic and social statuses. The recency of immigration of a large share of the Hispanic population has direct implications for other demographic, social, and economic characteristics. They are younger, and less proficient in English, and many cannot vote because they are not citizens. Immigrants are also more likely than native-born Hispanics to be working class and to have lower education levels. Consistent with the predictions of classical assimilation theory, the replenishment hypothesis implies that observed differences in socioeconomic standing among Hispanics will disappear with time, irrespective of country of origin or period of arrival. Lending support to this prediction is a growing body of evidence showing that later arrivals fare better in the U.S. labor market and social institutions than do earlier arrivals.

Despite some compelling aspects of the replenishment argument, it falls short of accounting for the limited social mobility of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, the two groups with the longest exposure to U.S. institutions and traditions. These experiences challenge the immigrant-replenishment hypothesis and place greater emphasis on the complex set of circumstances that define distinct modes of incorporation for the major national-origin groups and subsequent entry cohorts. The structural interpretation emphasizes the role of unique historical circumstances in which each national origin group established its presence in the United States and acknowledges that social opportunities depend greatly on the state of the economy and public receptiveness toward new arrivals.

Unfortunately, it is too early to evaluate the relative merits of the two hypotheses, especially in the absence of the longitudinal data required to trace socioeconomic trajectories of successive generations. That the future of immigration (its volume, source countries, and composition) is highly indeterminate further aggravates the difficulties of assessing these hypotheses. Of course, the greatest uncertainty about immigration concerns the volume and sources of illegal migrants. Finally, the socioeconomic fate of Hispanic Americans as a whole and as separate national origin groups will also depend on the extent to which Hispanic elected and appointed officials use ethnicity as a criterion for defining their political agendas. The early decades of the twenty-first century will be pivotal in resolving these uncertainties.

(see also: Discrimination; Ethnicity)


Bean, Frank D., and Marta Tienda 1987 The HispanicPopulation of the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

del Pinal, Jorge, and Audrey Singer 1997 "Generations of Diversity: Latinos in the United States." PopulationBulletin 52(3):2–48.

Frey, William H. 1998 "The Diversity Myth." AmericanDemographics (June):39–43.

Haverluk, Terrence 1997 "The Changing Geography of U.S. Hispanics, 1850–1990." Journal of Geography 96(3):134–145.

Lopez, David E. 1996 "Language: Diversity and Assimilation." In Roger Waldinger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, eds., Ethnic Los Angeles. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Nelson, Candace, and Marta Tienda 1985 "The Structuring of Hispanic Ethnicity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives." Ethnic and Racial Studies 8:49–74.

Rosenfeld, Michael 1998 "Mexican Immigrants and Mexican American Political Assimilation." In Migration Between Mexico and the United States: BinationalStudy, vol. 3. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.

Tienda, Marta 1982 "Sex, Ethnicity, and Chicano Status Attainment." International Migration Review 16:435–472.

——1989 "Puerto Ricans and the Underclass Debate." Annals of the American Academy of Political andSocial Sciences 501:105–119.

U.S. Department of Commerce 1993 We the AmericanHispanics. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, Economics and Statistics Administration.

——1996 "Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin: 1995–2050." Current Population Reports, P25-1130. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of the Census, Economics and Statistics Administration.

——1998 The Hispanic Population in the United States:March, 1997. Detailed Tables for Current PopulationReports P20-511. Washington D.C.: Bureau of the Census, Ethnic and Hispanic Statistics Branch.

Vincent, Joan 1974 "The Structuring of Ethnicity." Human Organization 33:375–379.


Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Hispanic Americans." Encyclopedia of Sociology. . 22 Sep. 2018 <>.

"Hispanic Americans." Encyclopedia of Sociology. . (September 22, 2018).

"Hispanic Americans." Encyclopedia of Sociology. . Retrieved September 22, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.