Various Authors

Edited By: R. A. Guisepi

The Story Of Hispanics In The Americas

In the United States, before there was New England, there was New Spain; and before there was Boston, Mass., there was Santa Fe, N.M. The teaching of American history normally emphasizes the founding and growth of the British colonies in North America, their emergence as an independent nation in 1776, and the development of the United States from east to west. This treatment easily omits the fact that there was significant colonization by Spain of what is now the American Southwest from the 16th century onward. It also tends to ignore, until the Mexican War is mentioned, that the whole Southwest, from Texas westward to California, was a Spanish-speaking territory with its own distinctive heritage, culture, and customs for many decades.

The Spanish-speaking citizens of the United States who were incorporated into the country as a result of the Mexican War are called Mexican Americans. Their numbers have since increased as a result of immigration. Other Spanish-speaking citizens came from Cuba and Puerto Rico, and smaller numbers are immigrants from Central and South America and from the Dominican Republic. Taken together, these people are called Hispanics, or Latinos.

Portrait of Ethnic Diversity

Hispanics today form the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States. Numbering about 22.4 million in 1992, they make up the second largest minority in the nation, African Americans being the largest. About 60 percent of these Hispanics trace their origin to Mexico. Although Hispanics have experienced less outright discrimination (except in Texas and New Mexico) than have African Americans, some sections of this group have lower economic and education levels than does the rest of the population of the United States.

The term Hispanic is not an ethnic description. It refers to native language and to cultural background. Within the group called Hispanics are peoples of diverse ethnic origins. There are African Americans and American Indians as well as individuals of purely European background whose families have lived in the Americas for generations. And, because of intermarriage, there are descendants who represent a combination of several origins. Hispanics do not necessarily regard themselves as a single group because their attachments are to their specific national origin. In the case of many Mexican Americans, the national origin is within the United States if their ancestors lived in the Southwest before the Mexican War.

Puerto Ricans enjoy a different status from other Hispanics in that they are citizens of the United States by birth, whether they were born in their homeland or in the United States. They were granted citizenship in 1917. (Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War.) They may therefore go back and forth between the island and the mainland without visas or passports. Mexicans, Cubans, and others must enter the country as immigrants with alien status and must apply for citizenship in the same way as do other immigrants.

Although there are Hispanics in most parts of the United States, some areas have especially large concentrations. Eighty-six percent of Mexican Americans make their homes in five Southwestern states: Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.

Texas and California account for more than 50 percent of the total Hispanic population in the United States. About two thirds of Puerto Ricans residing in the United States are in the New York City area, including nearby New Jersey. About 60 percent of Cuban Hispanics reside in Florida, with the heaviest concentration in Dade County (Miami). Another 20 percent are in the New York-New Jersey area, particularly in Union City, N.J. Illinois also has large numbers of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Hispanics--mostly in Chicago.

There are two basic reasons for Hispanic immigration to the United States: economic opportunity and escape from political persecution. Very large numbers of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans entered the country to escape poverty and to find a way to make a living. The 20th-century Cuban migration, which began in 1959 when Fidel Castro took over the government of Cuba, was mainly for political reasons.

According to statistics compiled by the United States Department of Commerce, Hispanics are a younger, less affluent, and less educated group than the rest of the population. Their median age is about 23. Sixty-three percent were under age 30 in 1992, and 40 percent were 18 or younger. The median family income was $23,400. This was higher than the median for blacks but lower than the rest of the non-Hispanic median of $35,200. Of the three groups--Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans--the Puerto Ricans had the lowest incomes and the Cubans the highest. More than 23.4 percent lived below the poverty level in the early 1990s.

Mexican Americans

Today's Mexican Americans are a product of historical development that began more than four centuries ago, when Spain conquered Mexico and made it a colony. Before that the territory was inhabited exclusively by Indians. The Mexican Americans are, therefore, the second oldest component of American society.

Historical background. Mexican American history can be divided into five fairly distinct periods. The first era, from 1520 until 1809, covers the period from the Spanish conquest until the beginning of the revolt against Spain. It was during these nearly 300 years that the synthesis of Spanish and Indian cultures took place. Early in this period the Southwest of what is now the United States was added to Mexico. (The Spanish administration founded one of the oldest cities in North America, Santa Fe, N.M., in 1610.) The last region to be colonized was California.

During the second era, from 1810 until 1848, the Southwest was part of an independent Mexico. It developed slowly, largely because of the distance between it and the capital of Mexico City. Then in 1846-48 the Mexican War gained the Southwest for the United States. The war was ended by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, in which the United States promised to protect the rights of Mexican Americans in the newly won territories. Most of the treaty's provisions, unfortunately, were not honored by the United States. Huge tracts of land belonging to Mexicans were taken from them by the most dubious legal means or by outright theft. Violence was perpetrated against them, and there was a great deal of economic exploitation. This sad tale of exploitation covers the period from 1849 until 1910, an era of Anglo-American assimilation of the new territory. The Mexican Americans of the Southwest were gradually overwhelmed in numbers by Anglo newcomers from the East. (Anglo is a term used by Hispanics to describe all white non-Hispanic Americans.)

In about 1910 the next era began with the start of massive emigration from Mexico itself. This migration, legal and illegal, has continued to the present. During the early decades, however, the arrival of Mexicans was but a part of the much greater migratory trend that included many immigrants from Europe and the Far East. The Mexican immigration continued steadily until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Then, with the collapse of the United States economy, many immigrants returned to Mexico. Many others were sent back by the United States government. During this period, from 1910 until 1939, Mexican Americans remained largely unassimilated, rural, poor, and Spanish speaking. They were for the most part forgotten Americans amid the crises of the depression and World War II.

The current period began about 1940. In the decades since 1940--and especially since 1960--Mexican Americans have emerged as a distinct and visible social group in the United States. Partly because of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they asserted themselves and attempted to take what they perceived to be their rightful place in American life. This self-awareness was reinforced by continued migration from Mexico.

During this period the Mexican American population shifted from a basically rural to a mostly urban way of life. As a city-dwelling minority they found themselves sharing the problems of the rest of the urban poor: lack of jobs, second-rate housing, and educational difficulties.

By the early 1990s more than 90 percent of the Mexican Americans, as well as other Hispanics, were living in or near cities. The Los Angeles-Long Beach area has, after Mexico City, more Mexicans than any other city in the Western Hemisphere. There are also sizable communities in Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. In these and other locations Mexican Americans have begun to seek political and economic power by organizing themselves and registering to vote. In 1985 there were more than 2,100 Mexican American elected officials.

Migrant laborers. Farm workers who move from place to place following harvests are called migrant, or migratory, workers. In the years after the American Civil War, Mexicans began crossing into Texas to work the cotton harvests. By the end of World War I they were also working in California on large farms in the Central Valley. Slowly they began to work their way to states farther north as they heard of other crops to be harvested. Many of the migrants returned to Mexico after each season was over, but others stayed to wait for the next season or to look for better-paying jobs.

During World War II much American manpower was lost to the military forces and to defense work, resulting in shortages of farm workers. In July 1942 the governments of the United States and Mexico negotiated an agreement called the Mexican Farm Labor Supply Program. Unofficially it was called the bracero program. (One definition of bracero is "day laborer.") The program continued until 1964, nearly 20 years after the war's end, largely at the insistence of employers who benefited from it. During that period it brought ever greater numbers of Mexicans to states as far away as Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Mexican government wanted the program continued because of the large amounts of money the braceros sent back to their families, thereby helping the Mexican economy. The braceros favored the program because of the opportunities it offered compared to those in their homeland. Gradually the program lost support, however, and it was terminated by the United States in December 1964.

One advantage of the bracero program was its legality. The United States government kept records of the immigrant workers. After the program ended many undocumented workers kept pouring into the United States, creating the massive problem of illegal aliens.

Illegal immigration. The Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado went northward from Mexico and traveled the Southwest in the years 1540-42. He was looking for the fabled (and nonexistent) Seven Cities of Gold--El Dorado. Since the late 19th century millions of Mexicans have retraced his steps on a similar quest. They have been more successful.

The border between Mexico and the United States stretches for 1,950 miles (3,140 kilometers) from near Brownsville, Tex., in the east to Tijuana, Mexico-San Diego, Calif., in the west. It is the longest border in the world separating dire poverty from unparalleled affluence and opportunity. Because Mexico has never been able to develop a working and prosperous economy for all of its citizens, the lure of El Norte (the North) has been powerful.

In the mid-1980s nearly half of the Mexican working population was either unemployed or underemployed. This condition provided an even greater motive to head northward. There were in 1990 an estimated 2 million illegal aliens in the United States, and about 55 percent of them were from Mexico.

Whether this illegal immigration has proved beneficial or harmful to the United States is uncertain. Employers, whether farmers or factory owners, approve the immigration. They insist it does not take jobs from other Americans. They believe that illegal immigrants take only low-paying jobs that Americans do not want anyway. Keeping wages low is beneficial in profits for companies and in consumer prices.

The unionization of migrant workers in the Southwest under the leadership of Cesar Chavez in the 1960s diminished the appeal of migrants for agriculture. Many growers mechanized their harvesting to spare themselves the inconvenience of strikes at those times when the workers are most needed.

Immigration (both legal and illegal) had a significant effect in the Southwest. It created what one author called a "third country," in which characteristics of both Mexico and the United States are blended. It increased the use of the Spanish language. It also revived Mexican culture in the region.

The presence of illegal aliens also put a financial strain on the public services offered by the states. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that states are required to pay for educating the children of illegal aliens. Many other social services are also available to them at state and local expense. Law enforcement was also burdened, especially with the great increase in drug smuggling across the border. Most illegal drugs, however, are brought in through Florida.

In an attempt to reduce illegal immigration, Congress passed legislation in 1986 that stipulates fines and other penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. The bill includes provisions to grant amnesty to illegal aliens who were in the United States prior to Jan. 1, 1982, and to aid farmers who have relied on illegal aliens to harvest their crops.

Puerto Ricans

Residents of Puerto Rico are not a single ethnic group. They, like other Hispanics, have inherited a mixture of cultures. Puerto Ricans have lived in the mainland United States since at least the 1830s. At that time there was a fairly sizable trade between the island and New York City, but immigration was not large. By the end of the century there were only about 1,500 Puerto Ricans in all of the United States.

The Spanish-American War changed the status of the island by making it a United States possession. In 1917 the Jones Act conferred citizenship on Puerto Ricans, though they had not asked for it. Over the next 23 years several thousand residents moved to the mainland. By 1940 there were nearly 70,000 Puerto Ricans in the mainland United States, mostly in or near New York City.

The great migration began after World War II, and the reasons for it were economic. Puerto Rico, like Mexico, had never been able to develop a growing economy for its residents. Inexpensive airplane fares between San Juan and New York City made it possible for the Puerto Rican immigrant community to more than triple in size by 1950. By 1992 there were about 2.75 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland.

The earliest immigrants settled in the East Harlem section of Manhattan, a region they called El Barrio, meaning "the neighborhood." They moved fairly rapidly into the other four New York City boroughs as well as into upstate New York. In 1970, 64 percent of Puerto Ricans living on the mainland were in New York. By 1980 this figure had dropped to 50 percent, and Puerto Rican enclaves had grown in other major cities--particularly Hartford, Conn.; Philadelphia; Cleveland; Chicago; Los Angeles; and Miami.

Patterns of migration fluctuated in relation to economic conditions in the mainland United States and on the island. During the 1950s an average of 46,000 islanders moved to the mainland annually. During the 1960s this number dropped to 14,000 because economic conditions had improved on the island. During the 1970s, with worsening economic conditions in the United States, more Puerto Ricans returned to the island than came to the mainland. This is not unusual, as there has always been a two-way migration pattern--especially for those born on the island. Many Puerto Ricans prefer living there to living on the mainland, even if they are not as prosperous.

Puerto Ricans have also been seasonal, migrant workers along the East Coast and in the Midwest. The sugarcane season on the island is in the winter, while harvesting on the mainland is in the late summer and fall. Thus migrant workers sometimes work at harvests in both places.

In the 1980s a new wave of migration to the mainland began. This one was significantly different from previous ones. Puerto Rico had entered a state of severe economic decline, brought on in part by the recession in the United States proper. Unemployment in Puerto Rico averaged more than 20 percent for several years. For those who were employed, the average per-person income was lower than in any state.

Many who lost their jobs in the 1980s were highly educated professional people and government workers. (One third of the island's workers are government employees.) They began to leave the island in great numbers, creating what many called a "brain drain," the loss of some of the island's most educated residents. Individuals with graduate degrees in such professions as engineering, law, and medicine left the island for jobs on the mainland, and American companies actively recruited new workers from the island.

As with Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans who come to the mainland tend to be young. The median age is about 22. The families also tend to be larger. Compared with non-Hispanic families, many more Puerto Rican families have five or more children.

Among Hispanics, Puerto Ricans have been less successful economically than Mexicans or Cubans. The more recent migration, however, may change the success rate and income levels of Puerto Ricans. In the early 1990s more than 40 percent were living below the poverty level. Part of the reason for this lack of success can be traced to lower levels of education and a lack of proficiency in the English language. Bilingual education has not generally succeeded in transforming Hispanics into an English-speaking population. Frequently it is used instead for cultural maintenance for perpetuating Spanish.


In January 1959 Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Relations with the United States soon began to deteriorate. Castro confiscated property belonging to American companies, announced his intention of fomenting revolution throughout Latin America, and established close ties with the Soviet Union. In January 1961 President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. Four months later, in the early months of President John F. Kennedy's administration, about 1,500 anti-Castro Cubans invaded the southwestern coast of Cuba at a place called the Bay of Pigs. This invasion had been planned by the United States Central Intelligence Agency with the help of Cubans who hoped that Castro would be easily overthrown.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was a complete failure. But it did not end the hopes of Cubans in the United States that Castro's regime would be short-lived and that they would soon be able to return to their homeland. The hope of returning still inspires many Cubans to work for Castro's overthrow. They came to the United States as refugees beginning in 1959; the exodus has not ceased since then.

Historical background. By 1850 Cuba had developed a thriving worldwide market for its cigars. The cigar business created a small middle class. The growth of this class bred a desire for independence from Spain. A rebellion called the Ten Years War (1868-78) failed, however, and Spanish rule became more oppressive. Thousands of Cubans began leaving the island, and most of them headed for Key West in nearby Florida. As Key West prospered, labor unions from the North came to organize the workers. Strikes nearly ruined the economy, and the cigar manufacturers looked for a more agreeable place to settle.

They chose Tampa, Fla. Vicente Martinez Ybor and associates purchased land near Tampa and set up their cigar businesses. In 1887 Ybor City, as it is now known, was made part of Tampa, and it remains a colorful reminder of its Cuban heritage.

Decades later, during the Great Depression, the cigar business worldwide was hard hit. Many workers left for other parts of the United States, though a substantial core of Cuban Americans remained in Ybor City and nearby.

Today Ybor City has been superseded as a Cuban population center by Little Havana in Miami, Fla. Miami has the oldest and largest concentration of Cubans from the more recent waves of immigration. Florida is a natural destination for Cubans--only 90 miles (145 kilometers) from their homeland and having a similar climate. Apart from these two reasons, Cubans settled in Florida rather than in the more industrial North because it offered greater availability of housing and a larger labor market at the time of their arrival.

The modern migration of Cubans to the United States began in 1959 as Castro's victory seemed imminent. Those who came to the United States were not the poorest segments of society, as had been the case with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. They were members of the prosperous middle class--shop owners, businesspeople, and professionals who feared the consequences of a Castro takeover. The first Cubans to arrive were those who escaped. Later arrivals for the most part consisted of those allowed to leave by the Cuban government.

During the years 1961 through 1970 a total of 256,769 Cuban immigrants were admitted to the United States. The largest number to arrive in a single year during that decade was 99,312 in 1968. Another 270,000 came during the next decade.

The Marielitos. On April 4, 1980, Castro allowed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana to be opened to Cubans who wished to leave the island. Within a few days the number wishing to get away had grown to more than 10,000.

Castro decided on April 20 to open the port of Mariel on Cuba's north coast for those who wanted to go to the United States. In the next five months about 123,000 new Cuban refugees landed in Florida. Among them were about 5,000 hard-core criminals and a larger number of persons who had been held as political prisoners.

The Refugee Act of 1980 drastically reduced the number of Cubans to be allowed into the country. President Jimmy Carter therefore classified the Marielitos as entrants with their status pending. These new arrivals were unlike the previous Cuban immigrants in that they were mostly young, single, adult males. Only a very small number of them could speak any English, and their educational level was generally lower than that of previous arrivals.

They arrived when the United States economy was in a recession, and finding sponsors or jobs for them was difficult. To accommodate these new aliens, President Carter opened processing centers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and at military bases in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

The uncertain status of the Marielitos lasted until Oct. 17, 1984, when Congress reenacted the Cuban Refugee Act of 1966. This restored the favorable status Cuban refugees had enjoyed before 1980 and allowed their processing to start within six weeks. By the end of 1985 most of them had received permanent residency status in the United States, which allowed them to apply for citizenship after five years.

Cuban Americans. By the early 1990s there were well over 1 million Cuban Americans in the United States. They had come mostly as refugees, which distinguished them from the other large Hispanic groups. Because of their refugee status they were offered help from the federal government that the other groups did not receive. The Cuban Refugee Resettlement Program provided them with financial assistance and help in finding housing.

Cuban Americans live in most major cities in the United States. By far the largest settlement is in south Florida, and the second largest is in and around Union City, N.J. Other Hispanics have tended to disperse themselves around the country. Cubans, by contrast, continue to concentrate in south Florida, where about 60 percent of Cuban Americans lived by 1992.

In contrast to urban Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans are not concentrated in the ghetto neighborhoods of cities. Their prosperity has enabled them to move to the suburbs. Every part of Dade County, Fla., has some Cuban population, though the largest concentration is still in the Little Havana area of Miami.

As residents of both city and suburb, Cubans have been more economically successful than other Hispanics. This situation is accounted for by the fact that they were mostly members of the middle class in Cuba (except for the Marielitos), and they have established themselves in business and the professions in the United States. The average family income for Cubans in the mid-1980s was far higher than for other Hispanics, and far fewer Cubans live below the poverty level than do other Hispanics.

Politically, Cuban Americans have tended to be more active than Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans, though there were strong indications during the 1980s that this trend was changing. Most Hispanics tend to vote with the Democratic party, but Cuban Americans tend to be heavily Republican. Part of the reason for this party affiliation is their greater affluence. Another reason is their vehement anti-Communism. They persist in their desire to see the Castro government overthrown, and they find more allies within the Republican party. In the 1984 election, for example, it is estimated that 93 percent of Cuban voters supported President Ronald Reagan against his Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.

Little Havana. Cubans succeeded in transforming southern Florida in much the same way that Mexican immigrants changed the border area of the United States and Mexico. Dade County's population is more than 40 percent Cuban. The heartland of this population is within the city of Miami. Little Havana is a 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) neighborhood within the city limits of Miami, southeast of the airport and just west of Hialeah. It is a distinctively Cuban city-within-a-city. It is possible for those who live there to exist entirely within the culture they transported from their homeland. Stores, restaurants, schools, churches, theaters--all exist to serve a primarily Spanish-speaking constituency.

As the Cuban population increased and spread beyond Little Havana, cultural influences likewise followed. There are Spanish-language television and radio stations. The Miami Herald publishes a daily edition in Spanish.

As many Cubans prospered and left Little Havana, that part of the city changed. Other Hispanics arrived to replace the departed Cubans--immigrants from Nicaragua, Colombia, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries. Within greater Miami in 1990 there were more than 200,000 non-Cuban Hispanics, including the sizable Puerto Rican colony.


Every group of immigrants that has come to the United States has had to deal with the second generation-- the children who are born in their new home and who grow up knowing nothing of their parents' native land. Whereas the parents, if they learn English at all, must make a real effort to do so, the second generation grows up speaking English.

Until programs of bilingual education were instituted, there was no other choice. Although each immigrant group tends to congregate together, the need to learn the new language is prompted by the pressing need of getting involved in the economy: the need to have a job and to support a family.

Members of the second generation do more than learn to speak English well. They also absorb values and ideas that are often foreign to those of their parents. The United States is the homeland for the second generation. Even as the immigrant generation tries to maintain its traditional culture, the second generation brings home a new culture, a new set of traditions that often clash with the values of the parents.

In the case of Hispanic groups, the Americanization process has been uneven. (Americanization primarily means becoming integrated into the economy, being able to take advantage of the opportunities that should be available to everyone.) Mexican communities in the United States are continually augmented by immigration from Mexico. This tends to reinforce traditional cultural patterns, especially the use of Spanish. Puerto Ricans, because they are United States citizens by birth, have found it easy to maintain contact with their native island. This, too, reinforces cultural stability. The Cubans, on the other hand, have not had the privilege of visiting their homeland frequently.

The main barrier to assimilation is not cultural. It is economic. As a second, then a third, generation grows up and moves up the economic ladder, large segments of an originally immigrant society become Americanized. Thus Cuban Americans have made greater strides, in proportion to their numbers, than have Mexican Americans or Puerto Ricans. But as the latter two groups make themselves permanent residents of communities and take part in the political processes, they too improve their situation.

In politics. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen became the first Cuban American elected to the United States Congress in 1989; Henry Cisneros was the first Mexican American to become the mayor of a major city (San Antonio, Tex.), in 1981 and was named secretary of housing and urban development by President Clinton in 1992; Raul Castro became the first Mexican American to be elected governor of Arizona (1975); and in 1985 Xavier Suarez became the first Cuban American mayor of Miami. Bob Martinez, the first Hispanic governor of Florida, became the Bush Administration's antidrug leader in March 1991. A Mexican American, Lauro Cavazos, became the first Hispanic named to a Cabinet post when President Reagan appointed him secretary of education in 1988. President Bush appointed Antonia Novello, a native of Puerto Rico, to be Surgeon General of the United States in 1989.

In entertainment. Numerous Hispanic Americans have gained fame in the movies and television. These entertainers include Rita Moreno, Anthony Quinn, Linda Ronstadt, Edward James Olmos, Chita Rivera, Jose Ferrer, and Freddie Prinze.

In athletics. Hispanic Americans have also excelled in sports. Prominent athletes include golfer Lee Trevino, tennis player Pancho Gonzales, boxer Julio Cesar Chavez, football player Jim Plunkett, and baseball player Keith Hernandez.

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