Latinos are on the rise

August 14, 1998|By Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte

NEW FIGURES arrived last week on the playing fields of census, once again casting Latinos as featured contenders.

By the year 2005, much sooner than originally projected, Latinos (two-thirds of whom are Mexican American) will become the largest minority group -- 36 million strong -- in the United States. It's a sobering thought.

Along with the increased numbers come huge, grinding problems: 1.7 million of the children live in poverty -- that's almost half of all the nation's poor children. And even though it is increasingly more difficult for the unskilled to find work, almost 50 percent of Latinos never complete high school. The higher the degree level, the fewer Latinos. The latest figures from the American Council of Higher Education show that Latinos earned 4 percent of college degrees in 1994. They received 3 percent of the nation's master's degrees and 2 percent of the doctorate degrees.

Reading gap

These figures are not likely to change dramatically as the population grows. According to the University of Maryland's timely survey, Latinos spend about five hours a week in educational pursuits (more than whites or blacks, but only half as much as Asian Americans). And in general, Latinos and blacks spend far less time than anyone else reading -- the key to intellectual development.

Latino health profiles aren't any cause for celebration, either. Most are uninsured; they have two to three times the rate of diabetes than whites and, in 1997, four times as many Latinos contracted AIDS than whites.

Many look at California and see a Latino future. Among the nation's 271 metro areas, Los Angeles is home to one-fifth of the total U.S. Latino population. The mistake is applying those demographics broadside. Latino growth is very regional: It does not contribute to general national diversity.

American Demographics reports that "only 21 counties qualify as truly racially diverse" in this country. Overwhelmingly, Latinos live in the Southwest. Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston have all seen their minority populations increase. South Texas is more than 90 percent Latino, almost all Mexican American.

Poverty and low education are concentrated in this region -- and some of these states, like Texas and New Mexico, have some of the lowest public budgets for health, education and other social services. There is going to be a collision between need and provision in the near future.

Political activism, a critical ingredient to social justice, is also regional. For example, California Latinos have long led others in their willingness to confront the system and demand change. One need only look to the recent struggle over affirmative-action rollbacks and bilingual-education issues to see Latino dynamism. This energy isn't matched in Texas, Arizona or New Mexico, where many of the same political issues face this historically disenfranchised group.

The new census figures don't mean it's time for Latino campaign managers to rub gleeful hands. Nor should courted minorities feel reassured. More votes do not necessarily reflect social gains. Until recent elections, Texas had the largest number of elected Latino officials (and a significant amount of Latinos in government jobs). Yet Texas Latinos are among the lowest paid, least educated and most unemployed. In 1995, nationwide Latino unemployment was 10.1 percent.

We are overdue in moving past genetic reflex. It's time to stop voting for politicians on the basis of ethnicity and to start scrutinizing what they actually do.

Most importantly, it's time to object to media reports that cast census results as if Latinos were in some population race with blacks. It's never been more critical to build political coalitions among disadvantaged groups. Otherwise our efforts to attain social justice will be constantly placed in check.

Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a former writer and editor at the Los Angeles Times, is a professor of journalism and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a doctorate in American studies.

Pub Date: 8/14/98

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