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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Latinos have opportunity to transform U.S. society

Latinos have opportunity to transform U.S. society
By NICOLAS KANELLOS
Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
March 3, 2009, 8:22PM

Former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros recently surprised the Washington audience at the launch for a new book he edited, Latinos and the Nation’s Future, by declaring that the country’s first Hispanic president “has already been born.”

Of course, surprise is unjustified. The inauguration of the first black President was a tangible reminder for the entire country, and the rest of the world, of what demographers have long known: The face of America is changing. And the majority of that change comes from Latinos.

Just look at U.S. Census projections based on Latinos already in this country and it becomes clear that it’s time to accept the premise of inevitable and monumental Latino population growth. What exactly this means for the future of the country is still uncertain. But here’s one guarantee: The United States’ ballooning Latino growth will have significant implications for practically all segments of social and economic life in the United States.

Mainstream dialogue about Latino population growth has been dominated for years by debates over immigration, much of it very nasty, and completely focused on negative potential. But consider this — given the falling birth rate and rising population of retired workers in the United States, continued immigration is actually what fuels the country’s economic engine and allows it to grow and expand. And let’s not forget that it’s young Latinos entering the workforce as the economy heals who will pay the Social Security benefits of our aging population as they head into retirement.
It’s time to engage in a productive national dialogue about what this Latino growth means for the country, and how it will inevitably shape the American Dream of the future.

Here are my predictions:

While English will remain the “official” language of the United States, Spanish will become the “unofficial” second national language. After all, at universities, Spanish departments are already separating themselves from foreign language divisions in recognition that Spanish has always been an important language in this country, and has an expanded role in the future.

As for the media — and this holds true for other corporate sectors as well — economic growth will require accessing Hispanic markets. Just look at Univision if you need proof of the economic potential of marketing to the Latino population: The current programming originating in Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Spanish-speaking United States, and distributed from Los Angeles and Miami, is unrivaled by any of the English-language networks. If you are not a native Spanish speaker you may never have heard of Univision’s show Sábado Gigante, but it actually dwarfs shows like David Letterman in audience size.

Latinos will also forge new paths in the work force. As long as U.S. Hispanics remain disproportionately working class, they will ascend to the leadership of movements for worker’s rights and unions, as well as reform of immigration policy. Despite the high number of uneducated Hispanic immigrants and natives, their children already make up the fastest growing segment of college enrollments, in spite of unusually high dropout rates. Their children are already on the first rungs of the ladder to leadership in industry, entertainment, communications and education. Soon, they will also become part of a rupture of the glass ceilings in these fields.

The growing economic integration of the Americas will lead to cultural integration as well: The history, culture and civilization of Hispanics will increasingly be seen as part of the national American culture, one shared by all. Of course, the rise of Hispanics into the middle class will not be accomplished through the traditional path of leaving the “old country” culture behind in order to become “Americans,” purified through a melting-pot process. In fact, the opposite will be true; a bilingual-bicultural citizenry capable of navigating cultural differences at many levels will emerge. Dual citizenship will be more common and university systems will expand across borders to prepare graduates capable of operating in this new culture.

Over time, American racism will no longer limit the access of Hispanics to American opportunities, for their sheer numbers will transform politics and policy, once the population reaches voting age. But more important than demographics and voting power, Hispanic culture has always fostered a dynamic of racial and cultural blending. The Latino influence will further accelerate interracial and interethnic marriage, and along with it the tendency to identify with the rest of the countries and cultures of the Americas rather than solely with Europe.

Latinos have the potential to create a new society in the Western Hemisphere that goes beyond national boundaries or cultures. This society will be the inspiration for a New American Dream.
Kanellos is the director of Arte Público Press of the University of Houston, and contributor to the new book Latinos and the Nation’s Future.

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