Not so long ago, the mention of Hispanics in the United States often conjured up images of quaint Mariachi bands, drug smugglers and illegal migrant workers harvesting vegetables in California. But reality is rapidly transforming the image and the role of Hispanics in American society.
Today, Hispanics -- or Latinos as they often call themselves -- make up America's largest and fastest growing ethnic minority group. And according to demographer Roberto Ramirez at the Ethnic and Hispanic Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau, Latinos are putting down roots all across the country.
"In Census 2000, we documented that the number of Hispanics is growing in non-traditional Hispanic states such as Vermont, Idaho and Wisconsin that have not traditionally had a sizable Hispanic population," Mr. ramirez said. "So as an aggregate, you will see that Hispanics are kind of dispersing throughout the U-S. They are still primarily concentrating in the cities of major metropolitan areas. But they are going to places that they have not traditionally gone before."
Although cities such as New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles continue to be major gateways for new arrivals, Hispanics from throughout Latin America are settling across the nation faster and farther than any previous wave of immigrants. Nearly 40% of Hispanics in the United States today entered the country in just the past decade.
One of every six people under the age of 35 in the U-S is Latino. And they're having a profound effect on American culture.
Carlos Santana, Shakira, Ricky Martin and Paulina Rubio are mainstream American music stars. American food is changing as well.
Nestor Rodriguez, a sociologist and co-director of the Center for Immigration Research at the University of Houston in Texas, said America's taste for food is changing.
"The foods of the Hispanic cultures have become very popular. And a measure of how much this has impacted our institutions is when non-Hispanics begin to open-up Hispanic restaurants so that you have what we call in the southwest 'Anglos' [i.e. Americans of Anglo-Saxon ancestry] opening-up Mexican restaurants for Mexican customers," he said. "That says that the Hispanic culture has been assimilated into the American core culture, and what we used to think of as a foreign or ethnic food is now part of the mainstream of culinary America."
Mexicans make up more than 60% of the U-S Hispanic population -- about 21 million people -- followed by 3.5 million Puerto Ricans and almost 1.5 million Cubans. Then there are hundreds-of-thousands of people from throughout the western hemisphere, making Hispanics perhaps the most diverse, as well as the largest, ethnic minority group in the country -- 13% of the U-S population.
Sylvia Martinez is editor-in-chief of Latina, a national magazine for Hispanic women. She says one of the best measures of Latino influence on U-S culture is the change in mainstream television programming.
"Thanks to the growing Hispanic population, you can now turn on your television and actually find a Latino family on prime time network television," Ms. Martinez said. "We cannot forget that the most popular children's television show [in the U-S] for the past couple of years has been about a little Latina (i.e., female Hispanic) adventurer named Dora. 'Dora the Explorer' has both Hispanic kids and non-Hispanic kids learning Spanish from a cartoon!"
Spanish is rapidly becoming America's second language. Opponents of high levels of immigration point out that there are some 9-million illegal immigrants in the United States -- about half of whom are Hispanic. And, most Latinos arrive relatively uneducated, which could lead to the development of a permanent economic underclass.
Critics argue that the government shouldn't spend tax dollars on bilingual accommodations. But the major growth of new English speakers in the United States is in the Latino community. As was the case with the wave of European immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, the children of Hispanic immigrants are assimilating into American society.
Even though most Latinos see education as the key to their children's future, high school and college dropout rates among Hispanics is four times higher than for non-Hispanic whites -- with most experts pointing to problems of poverty, teen pregnancy and learning English.
Roberto Ramirez of the U-S Census Bureau says Hispanics are twice as likely to be unemployed.
"Hispanics actually have a very high labor participation rate. But they do have a higher unemployment rate compared to whites," he said. "They hover around 6-to-7% unemployment. And that has a lot to do with the fact that Hispanics tend to be employed in the service industries where there is a lot more turnover. And because they tend to have less education, it is more difficult for them to get jobs at the professional level."
Nonetheless, Hispanics are having a major economic impact. There are 1-point-2 million Hispanic small businesses in the U-S that generate more than $190 billion dollars in revenue each year.
According to Joe Vidueira (veh-DWEAR-ah), Editor of Hispanic Trends magazine -- a national publication focusing on Latino business and politics -- the growth in Latino purchasing power is twice that of non-Hispanics.
"It's pretty remarkable what's going on. Corporations are really focused on getting a piece of this pie," Mr. Vidueira said. "It's still an emerging market, and companies are grappling with how to deal with it. For example, when you're talking about marketing, whether to advertise in Spanish or English is a big factor and a big question companies are dealing with.
But an interesting industry that is really focused on the Hispanic market is the banking industry, which is really going full out to try to get a piece of the Hispanic market, especially the small business market, which is a growing piece of that pie."
Along with growing economic strength, Latinos are beginning to flex their political muscle: Twenty-two Hispanic Representatives -- a record number --were sworn into the U-S Congress earlier this month.
Although Hispanic voters tend to align themselves with the Democratic Party, Latinos pose a challenge for politicians. Hispanics generally favor government social programs, especially for education, that are typically championed by Democrats. But Hispanics also relate to themes such as economic self-reliance and family values, which are usually stressed by Republican candidates.
Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center here in Washington, says young Latinos could play a crucial role in future elections.
"There will be nearly 3-million new Latino voters by 2008 simply made up of kids who are here now who are under 18 years of age and who will be turning 18 between now and that election -- over the next six years," Mr. Suro said. "It's a very dynamic demographic picture which is quite different than you see in either the white or black electorates, which are fairly static. And because of that dynamism, you really have potential for change. The make-up of the electorate will change, its size will change and its leaning could change as well. It's certainly very much in play in that way."
Throughout its history, the United States has been a nation of immigrants and their children.
Fueled by immigration and high birth rates, Hispanics in the United States are expected to exceed 60 million people by the year 2025. And there's little doubt that they'll continue to shape our society: through their music, foods, values, and their growing economic and political clout -- further defining what it means to be American.