Growing up, Mayra Macias often saw her father collapsed on the couch after a 14-hour day as a garbage man for the city of Chicago.
“He didn’t want to do it but would do anything to get his family ahead,” said the 31-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants. “I didn’t take their sacrifice lightly.”
Macias went on to graduate from Yale University and become one of 12 million Latinas who represent a growing share of the U.S. labor pool. Today at her job as executive director of the Latino Victory Project, she works to elect progressive Latinos to political office.
Macias is an example of a salient feature of the U.S. economic expansion in recent years: the rise in women who want a job, or have one. And the labor participation rates for Latinas in particular stand out. Today, 61% of Latinas are participating in the labor force — higher than the 59% national rate for females overall, according to the November job report.
At a time when the Trump administration is aggressively cracking down on unauthorized immigration, the statistic shows that the U.S. economy remains dependent on migrants and their children for growth in the labor force.
The importance of Latinas in the workforce is expected to increase. By 2028, they are forecast to account for 9.2% of the total labor force, up from 7.5% in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Latinos — both women and men — will account for a fifth of the worker pool by then.
The ascent of working Latinas comes as the Federal Reserve is testing the limits of a tight labor market, an experiment that is also benefiting other groups such as African Americans.
Ernie Tedeschi, an economist and researcher at Evercore ISI in Washington, D.C., said rising educational attainment and possibly “shifting cultural norms” in Latino families are also driving Latina workforce engagement.
Yai Vargas, 36, came to America from the Dominican Republic at age 3. Her mom worked as a food server at Costco and her dad sold real estate. She worked her way through college and eventually made enough money to move into her own apartment.
“My mother didn’t speak to me for months because she was so appalled,” for breaking a cultural tradition by leaving home before marriage, said Vargas, founder of the Latinista, a company that helps women of color with career development.
The number of Latinas with college degrees has doubled in the past 10 years to 4.8 million, increasing their ability to engage with the workforce. Enrollment data shows a significant portion of Latinas remain enrolled in school after age 21, suggesting they are pursuing graduate degrees, or juggling school with work and family support.
The U.S. needs immigration to supplement its labor pool if policy makers desire higher economic potential over time. While the immigrant share of the U.S. population is just below historic highs set more than a century ago, some estimates of unauthorized immigration are declining. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell told lawmakers last month that immigration is a “key input” to higher rates of growth.
“Without immigrants, and their children, our labor force would actually shrink,” said Randy Capps, director of U.S. research at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
Despite both labor market and educational gains by Latino women, their median weekly earnings — at $661 — lags behind other groups.
Marie Mora, a labor economist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the wage gap could stem from a variety of causes. The Latino population tends to be younger and earlier in their careers, and there is a “disproportionate representation” of Latinas in service jobs, which tend to be low paying. A third cause could be bias, she says.
“We would expect that if you had a more educated group you would see some of these gaps narrow,” Mora said.
Barriers to work often give rise to business ownership and entrepreneurship in the Latino community.
Mora said her research finds that a lot of Latino small-business growth is driven by women, particularly immigrants. Entrepreneurship has helped bolster employment but may not close the wage gap if it stems from being locked out of other forms of work, Mora said.
Diana Franco, the executive director of WE NYC, a city government program that provides support services for women entrepreneurs, said that an estimated 35% to 40% of the more than 9,000 participants in the program since 2015 have been Latina. And the number of firms owned by women of color has increased at about double the rate of female-owned businesses overall since 2014, according to a 2019 report by American Express.
Ramona Cedeño, 43, started her business, FiBrick Financial Services, in New York four years ago, after coming to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic when she was 18. Her first job was in a shoe store as she helped her mother pay the rent and save money to bring her three sisters to America, she says.
“My mother was always entrepreneurial — she always had a side business at home,” said Cedeño, who’s a certified public accountant with an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J.
For Latinas, the impulse to go to school and work, as with many immigrant groups, often comes from watching their parents sacrifice as their families struggled to find a foothold in the economy.
“For us, failure means literally being on the street,” said Leslie Rangel, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lives in Austin, Texas.
Rangel lived in a homeless shelter at age 8. That left an indelible mark on the now-30-year-old TV anchor. “I knew that college would equal never being homeless again,” she said.
Looking at the women cleaning her office in the evening, Rangel said she has this thought: “I could be you; they could be me. We’re just one opportunity apart.”
Torres, Hurtado and Tanzi write for Bloomberg.