The Myth Buster


There’s a typical approach to Latinos: the dysfunctional approach that stems from the ‘60s culture of poverty that posits that minorities in general are dysfunctional. To get funding for anything, we have to prove we are the most dysfunctional. But the more dysfunctional programs that get developed, the more we are seen as dysfunctional.

As I’ve looked at data of Latino behavior, what I’ve been noticing over the years--andI didn’t notice this 20 years ago--is that Latinos are pretty functional: They work harder. They don’t use welfare very much. They form strong families. They know how to take care of their health. They set up businesses.

--David Hayes-Bautista


One morning in 1990, professor David Hayes-Bautista felt uneasy as he drove down Beverly Glen Boulevard to his office at UCLA.


The longtime medical sociologist--then director of the university’s Chicano Studies Research Center--was about to start an unprecedented statewide study on how California Latinos lived daily life.

As a young professor at UC Berkeley in the 1970s, he correctly had predicted a massive increase in the state’s Latino population, at a time when it was believed widely that California’s population growth was over.

In “Burden of Support” (Stanford University Press), a book he co-wrote in 1988, he argued that this largely young Latino work force eventually would play an important role supporting the baby boom generation as it reached retirement age.

But as his 1990 study got underway, Hayes-Bautista was concerned.

Since the days of the Great Society, a timeworn image had persisted of the Latino population as largely poor and uneducated, as problem people lacking a work ethic and family formation skills and suffering from high mortality rates.

The public policy that resulted--urged at least in part by an activist Chicano movement, of which Hayes-Bautista proudly was a part--had been designed to help alleviate the problems of this “urban underclass.”

“I started worrying,” Hayes-Bautista recalls. “Do Latinos work? Do they go to school? I didn’t know. What if I prove the worst stereotype to be true? I should hang myself.”

He began thumbing through fresh data from the Los Angeles County Health Department, and something caught his eye: Latinos had fewer heart attacks, less cancer, fewer strokes and a lower infant mortality rate than the overall population of L.A. County.

Later, he examined census data and found that, among other things, Latinos had been more involved in the labor force, percentage-wise, than any other ethnic group, had formed an above-average number of nuclear families and had lower rates of mortality in general.

It was just the beginning of an intellectual metamorphosis for Hayes-Bautista, a shift from the conventional focus on the internal problems of Latinos, publicly highlighted over the years by academics and politicians seeking funding for antipoverty programs, to a focus on what Hayes-Bautista views as Latinos’ more common but largely unappreciated healthy behavior.

Now, at 53, Hayes-Bautista thinks a similar shift in paradigm is needed as we come to the end of a decade in which it has been debated publicly whether Latinos (including immigrants, who in L.A. County outnumber the native-born Latinos) can contribute to California in the coming century.

Focusing on the Community’s Strength

“He’s the preeminent Latino scholar in the United States,” says Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow with the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. “The view of Latinos among Chicano studies professors was pretty dismal: [held down by] a big white guy with a boot on our heads. But that says something about the establishment and nothing about the individual. . . .

“David turned the corner. In a very uncreative [scholarly] environment, he started talking about the ability of that head to move that boot.”

Rodriguez, 32, first heard of Hayes-Bautista when, as a student at Berkeley, he read “Burden of Support.” Later, he wrote newspaper articles and scholarly papers with Hayes-Bautista in L.A. for three years.

“Some people like him because he speaks to their ethnic pride, but he’s talking about deeper things,” Rodriguez says. “He literally made the transition from a health specialist, looking at Latino health in medical terms, to healthiness in behavioral terms, the capacity of Latinos to run society as they were becoming the majority.”

Hayes-Bautista--now director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health, which he founded in 1992--speaks off campus as often as twice a week, sometimes for free, sometimes receiving as much as $5,000. Earlier this year he was asked to revise “Burden of Support” but declined, saying he’d rather write a new book reflecting all he has learned in the ‘90s. He says he is especially interested in being of service to politicians, especially those with large Latino constituencies.

“Those who came out of the civil rights movement have focused on the victimization model--which focuses on the dysfunction, instead of looking at the tremendous resources,” says California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa. “[Hayes-Bautista] has helped me focus on those [resources] much more than I had.

“He has been someone that I look to not only on health care issues, but on the whole issue of conveying the opportunity that comes with immigration and the change of demographics.”

His Personal Interest Led to a Career

Hayes-Bautista has briefly considered politics himself and was a nominee for director of the census during President Clinton’s first administration. But he decided to stay in L.A. to build up the then-new Center for the Study of Latino Health.

Besides, his daughter had just joined a youth theater group.

“She just said, ‘Daddy, if you go, I can’t go.’ ”

His third-floor office is decorated with pictures of his daughter--Catalina, now 17--and his son, Diego, 13, dressed in mariachi costumes. Hayes-Bautista and his wife, Maria, have spent time in Mexico over the years so the kids could improve their Spanish.

His own interest in the essence of Latinos began with a desire to learn more about himself while he was a student at Berkeley in the ‘60s. Involved in the Chicano movement, he took classes in Spanish and Latin American history. His white father, Floyd Hayes, was a highway engineer who loved Mexican culture. His dying words to his son were in Spanish:

“Dave, ahora si me voy a morir”--I think this is it.

In 1968, while still a student, Hayes-Bautista began studying the records at the Alameda County Welfare Department. By 1970, he had co-founded La Clinica de la Raza in east Oakland--still a fixture of the community--and he needed health data on Latinos to plan services.

He found very little. The censuses dating back to 1940 had ample information on whites, African Americans and Native Americans but virtually nothing on Latinos because “Mexicans” had been lumped in with the whites.

“I had very little data available. But there was this well-accepted urban underclass model of how Latinos were supposed to behave,” Hayes-Bautista says. “I sort of accepted that.”

Meanwhile, two things were obvious to him: Latinos had a high fertility rate, and just by looking at the faces at La Clinica de la Raza, he could see that immigration was occurring.

He made his first public pronouncement in 1978 at a meeting in Los Angeles of the American Public Health Assn., saying that contrary to popular belief, California was entering a period of population growth.

At the time, he also was a member of the University of California’s Health Sciences Committee, and he posed his prediction to that body, which was considering proposals to close a medical school--either at Davis, Irvine or San Diego--because student enrollment was expected to wane. The plans were shelved.

When “Burden of Support” was published a decade later, it triggered both outrage and fear at the thought of a surge in California’s Latino population. After all, the urban underclass model suggested that all these Latinos would become a burden.

“I thought, ‘Gee, I didn’t think of it quite like that,’ ” Hayes-Bautista recalls. “But I didn’t have a lot of information of what [the Latinos] would do.”

To find out, he began his 1990 study, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation and involving 1,200 households in California.

A New Look at Numbers From the Past

He looked at a new database of recoded census information dating back to the 1940s. In 1980, “Hispanic” finally had been used in the census. The government then went back, took traits (such as surnames and language) consistent with those of the Hispanics in the ’80 census, and matched them to people in the four previous censuses.

Hayes-Bautista found that through five decades, this group had the highest percentage of labor force participation, worked more hours per week, worked more in the private sector and was twice as likely as whites to form families composed of couples and children.

When the 1990 census data started trickling out, it showed that Latino behavior patterns had remained consistent--and that immigrant Latinos, though poorer, worked even harder than native-born Latinos and had even stronger families.

“I guess that created a shift in my thinking, away from this underclass model,” Hayes-Bautista says. “Latinos, clearly, we have our problems, but we can also contribute a lot.”

Hayes-Bautista ventured into other areas of study, including the Latino middle class, immigrants’ use of public programs, Latino business dynamics and Latino health. After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, he worked with the Latino Coalition for a New Los Angeles, which was formed to promote a Latino agenda in the city’s rebuilding process.

A study he produced for the group explored ways that Latinos in the inner city could help in the rebuilding. Again, Latinos were revealed as a highly entrepreneurial, family-oriented group that increased labor-force participation rates wherever they moved in.

In other major cities, inner communities became ghost towns after middle-class whites and blacks moved out. But in Los Angeles, Hayes-Bautista noted, Latino immigrants were moving in, partnering up with older African Americans and, with no public funds, renewing the business and social fabric.

“It was absolutely amazing,” he remembers. “In spite of low income and low education, they very much had middle-class values. They believe in the American dream. They’re willing to work for it.”

A Call for Politicians to Get Involved

He says he’s not one to ignore Latinos’ problems, pointing to his studies on HIV-AIDS, substance abuse and teen violence and pregnancy in the Latino community. But, he says, to imagine a positive future for Latinos, more scholars and politicians need to study and invest in the 90% of Latino teens who don’t join gangs, for instance.

A Democrat, Hayes-Bautista says he has lukewarm feelings for his party, which he says still draws much of its power by scattering money to whichever group can show it is most dysfunctional.

Republicans? He says there’s a faction of the party--particularly in California--that just doesn’t like Latinos.

And scholars such as himself? He offers “loving criticism” to the aging Chicano movement, which he says still focuses on Latinos’ worst traits, thus feeding stereotypes. It’s easier, he says, for scholars to secure public funding to study a group’s deficiencies--studies that, in turn, give politicians something to wave in their own efforts to get money for programs.

Hayes-Bautista sees California’s Latino population today--at least its newer wave of immigrants--as not much different from the whites who flocked to the state in the 1940s and ‘50s: new to California, poor and uneducated but hard-working and family-oriented.

Investments were made on the white newcomers--the buildup of the UC and Cal State systems, for instance, so their children could be educated. The result was a baby-boom generation that is arguably the best educated and wealthiest in the state’s history.

But despite a persistent climb up the socioeconomic ladder, “the average Latino is defined in the news as the gangbanger, the undocumented worker or the welfare mom.”