The Latino community of the USA is on the rise, being more numerous and influential than ever. Numbering nearly 50 million, it is, by far, the largest minority group in the USA, and the fastest-growing as well (Gonzalez 2011). Yet the words “Latino community” and “minority in the USA” can be quite misleading when speaking of the American citizens of Hispanic descent. Firstly, “minority” might not be the case by the mid-century: demographic projections estimate that Latino numbers will grow to 132 million by 2050 (Gonzalez). Apart from that, thinking of Latinos merely as American citizens of particular descent limit the perception of the demographic that lived in North America long before the USA came to exist. Finally, the word “community” may be misleading as well, since it is an umbrella term for many different populations, from Mexicans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans to Dominicans, Colombians, and Panamanians, all of whom can have different agendas. To understand the Latino community, one must understand its history – older than the country itself, plagued by the legacies of discrimination and particularism, and only recently emerging as a united political body.
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It is a common knowledge that Spain was the first of Modern Europe’s nations to establish permanent colonies in the New World. When thinking about the Spanish colonization of America, popular imagination is likely to come up with an image of conquistadores as ruthless and avaricious soldiers of fortune coming to conquer and plunder. While there is truth to this assessment, it would be too presumptuous to limit the Hispanic cultural impact on the history of North America to campaigns that left no trail save for sacked cities and destroyed civilizations. Spanish-speaking explorers mapped the new lands, giving the geographical features the names that are still used today (Gonzalez 2011). Spanish-speaking settlers founded the cities that are now the oldest in the USA, such as Saint Augustine and Santa Fe (Gonzalez 2011). Most importantly, colonization created the populations of Spanish-speaking mestizos who have continuously lived in the Americas ever since (Gonzalez 2011). The cultural and demographic impact of the Spanish colonization was profound, if not always recognized, and the Hispanic population was already an inherent part of the American landscape before the Thirteen Colonies even emerged.
The relations between Latinos and Anglo-Saxons, the other prominent European demographic to colonize America, impacted the history of what was to become the Hispanic community of the USA greatly. In the early 19th century, a swift succession of revolutions – not unlike the one that won the USA its independence – created sovereign Spanish-speaking nations in South and North America. Yet the intercourse between the new nations was far from peaceful and respectful. During the 19th and the early 20th century, the USA annexed half of Mexico’s territory, dismantled the remains of the Spanish colonial empire in the Caribbean and established itself as a dominant regional power (Gonzalez 2011). Millions of Latinos of different ancestry found themselves strangers and foreigners in the land they had inhabited for generations. Even the wholehearted support of American ideals guaranteed nothing. Juan Seguin, a Mexican who fought for Texan independence and became a prominent civil servant in the new republic, found himself ousted from his land by Anglo newcomers after the annexation of Texas (Gonzalez 2011). In the USA, the Latino community began as a group of second-rate citizens at best.
The fact that complicated their position even further was the lack of unity and coherence between the different groups of people with Hispanic origins. While the convenient moniker “Latinos” seems to suggest some universal unity of experience and identity between those Americans who speak Spanish, it was far from always being the case. A Cuban refugee escaping persecution in his home country, a middle-class Panamanian migrant, and a Puerto Rican who is a US citizen yet lives in a territory would all have profoundly different experiences (Gonzalez 2011). Even Mexicans – the largest, oldest, and most notable group of Latinos in the USA – have many internal divisions contributing to the differences in their respective experiences. Those who have dwelled north of Rio Grande even before Texas became a state and the first-generation migrants coming from Mexico proper would share similar ancestries but fit differently in the US social context (Gonzalez 2011). The sheer variety of different ancestries and stories that lie beyond the misleadingly common designation “Latinos” remains a considerable, if not always recognized obstacle to building a united and coherent Hispanic community in the USA.
Yet things seem to be moving in this general direction if the political activity and ever-growing influence of the Latino population is any indication. During the mere three decades from 1976 to 2008, the number of registered Hispanic voters in the USA has grown by 460 percent, compared to the average national of 63 percent (Gonzalez 2011). More and more Latinos become prominent civil servants – state governors, US Senators, and mayors of large cities, such as San Antonio or Los Angeles (Gonzalez 2011). These advances are not restricted to executive and legislative branches – in 2009, Sonya Sotomayor became the first Supreme Court Justice of Hispanic origin. Yet, most importantly, the disparate minority groups that had hitherto comprised the broad “Latino” demographic – come closer together in a political sense. This consolidation into a cohesive political body allows Latino citizens to utilize their numbers in order to and unite around a common purpose to influence policymakers. By the beginning of the 21st century, “Latino” becomes less of an umbrella term for people having little in common but their language and more of a political identity uniting a vibrant community.
As one can see, the long and complex history of Latinos in America seems to finally lead to the emergence of a coherent national body uniting the largest minority of the USA. The Hispanics’ impact on American history is not to be denied, as Spanish conquistadores, explorers, and settlers defined cultural landscapes of many parts of America. Populations of Spanish-speaking mestizos inhabited the lands that are now the Southern states of the USA ever since the early Modern time. However, unlike their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Latinos of Americas failed to forge a strong unifying identity even after winning independence from their colonial overlords and, as such, quickly fell prey to the imperialist ambitions of their northern neighbors. Creating such identity within the USA was no easy task either, as the sheer variety of ancestries and experiences often prevented the country’s Hispanics to think of themselves as Latinos rather than disparate minority groups. Still, the developments of the early 21st century suggest that Latinos of the USA are finally consolidating as a cohesive political force ready to sand for its interests.
Gonzalez, J. (2011). Harvest of empire: A history of Latinos in America. Penguin Books.
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