The term "poor Latino" has become almost redundant to most Americans. Government reports, advocacy groups, the news media routinely describe Latinos as the poorest of the poor--the worst paid, least educated minority in the country. The Los Angeles Times alone printed more than 200 articles in the last year in which the word poverty or poor occurred within 25 words of the word Latino. Yet most Latinos--especially those born in the United States--live well above the poverty line, earn wages comparable to other Americans with similar education and skills and are nearly as likely to finish high school as their non-Latino peers. Indeed, U.S.-born Latinos show every sign of assimilating into the American mainstream--moving out of the barrio, marrying non-Latinos, becoming monolingual English speakers.
Why this great divide between stereotype and reality? In part, the confusion stems from dramatic changes taking place in the Latino population. Twenty years ago, the overwhelming majority of Latinos were American-born; today, only about half of the adult Latino population living in the United States was born here. The tremendous influx of new immigrants from Latin America--at least 3 million in the last decade alone--skews most of the data used to create a demographic portrait of Latinos. Recent immigrants have yet to make their way up the economic ladder and into the social mainstream. When we read that only half of the Mexican-origin population completes high school, for example, we have to remember that many of those identified as "dropouts" are recent Mexican immigrants who never "dropped in" on the American education system in the first place, having come from Mexico in their teens or 20s.
Mexican-Americans, on the other hand, are more like Anglos in their social and economic characteristics than they are Mexican immigrants. For example, nearly 80% of second-generation Mexican-American men age 25-34 have completed 12 or more years of school, compared with about 90% of non-Latino whites but only 28% of Mexican immigrants of the same age, according to my analysis of unpublished data from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey for 1986 and 1988. Mexican-Americans also earn wages more comparable to those of Anglos than to Mexican immigrants. On average, Mexican-American men earn 81% of what Anglos do, while Mexican immigrants earn only 56%. Young, third-generation Mexican-American men with one to three years of college education earn the same average wages as Anglos with that education.
Nearly all Latinos born in the United States speak English; a majority of third-generation Latinos in California no longer speak Spanish at all. In this respect, Latinos are not very different from previous immigrant groups. Even in residential patterns, traditionally a very segregated part of American life, most Latinos live in relatively integrated settings.
Despite indications that Latinos are becoming more like other Americans all the time, many Latino leaders seem committed not only to portraying Latinos as unassimilated but to advancing policies likely to slow their integration into the economic, social, and political fabric of this society.
Latino leaders have been quite successful, for example, in encouraging school districts to teach Latino children their lessons in Spanish rather than concentrating on helping them master English quickly. As a result, nearly two-thirds of first-grade students from Spanish-speaking homes now receive reading instruction in Spanish and three-quarters are taught vocabulary and grammar in Spanish.
The price of such policies may well be that this youngest generation of Latinos will be denied the social and economic benefits that accrued to their predecessors, who followed a more assimilationist path.