Latinos Grow in Influence; Say 'Hola' to America's Largest Minority Now

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week, we have the first of two programs about Hispanic life in the United States. We begin with some population numbers, and a look at issues involving immigration.


Group identity starts with a name. Or two. Historically, the term "Hispanic" has meant people of Spanish ancestry. Many people, however, think "Latino" is a more inclusive term for those with roots in Spanish-speaking countries. Still others use either term.

Hispanics, or Latinos, can be any race. They come from different cultures. They may not even speak Spanish.

Whatever the case, in two thousand three the government officially estimated them to be the largest minority group in the United States. The Census Bureau is the agency that counts the population. It now says the Hispanic population reached more than forty-one million as of July of two thousand four. That was fourteen percent of the nation.

Latinos were responsible for about one-half of the national population growth from July of two thousand three to July of two thousand four. The Census Bureau says their growth rate was more than three and one-half percent, compared to one percent nationally.

Half the Latinos in the United States are under the age of twenty-seven. This is a result of high birth rates combined with high immigration levels. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Latinos enter the country legally. But the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group, says that in recent years greater numbers have arrived illegally.

African-Americans are now the second largest minority group in the United States. In the most recent estimates, the black population grew a little more than one percent, to just over thirty-nine million.

Asians, however, are the second fastest-growing minority after Latinos. The Census Bureau estimates the Asian population at fourteen million.

People of Mexican ancestry represent more than sixty percent of the Hispanic population. People from the United States territory of Puerto Rico are about ten percent. Other groups are from El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and other nations in Central America and the Caribbean. South Americans and Cubans add to the mix. Cuban Americans have enjoyed considerable success in business and politics in Florida.


Over time, many Latinos have gained financial security and a better life in the United States. But many others arrive poor. They lack the skills or education to get good jobs.

The Pew Hispanic Center says Latinos held almost half the new jobs produced in the economy in two thousand four. But it says Latinos are the only major group of workers to have had a decrease in pay for two years. The center says they now earn five percent less than they did before.

Several economists suggest that the newest arrivals may be competing with each other for jobs, pushing down wages.

Some public officials and commentators say Latinos place too much demand on health care systems, schools and other social services. There are calls for immigration reform and more border controls. Yet a number of studies have suggested that the economy gains far more from illegal immigrants than they take.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that more than ten million immigrants were in the United States illegally as of March two thousand four. A new report says more than eighty percent were from Latin America, and more than half of them from Mexico. Asians represented nine percent; other illegal immigrants came from Europe, Canada and Africa.

Traditionally most illegal immigrants have settled in California, Texas and a few other states. California and Texas used to belong to Mexico. But the report says many now settle in other states in the Southeast and the Midwest.

It is against the law to employ illegal immigrants, but many businesses do so. Undocumented workers can be found in many industries, including the building trades and service jobs. Many farmers depend on them to pick fruits and vegetables. A life of hard labor rarely pays much. Working conditions can be dangerous, even life-threatening.

President Bush has proposed a guest worker plan. He says it would help both workers and their employers. Under his proposal, guest workers would not be punished for entering the country or working illegally. Their temporary work permits would be good for three years and could be renewed. In the end, workers would be expected to return home unless they had been approved for citizenship under the normal process.

Critics say the plan would, in effect, serve as an amnesty since people who entered the country illegally would not be punished. The president says he does not support the idea of amnesty.

Mr. Bush proposed his plan in January of two thousand four. Congress has not yet acted on it. Recently, Mr. Bush discussed his legislative program with members of Congress. Tom DeLay is the Republican majority leader in the House. He said the president admitted that he had not been very clear about his immigration plan, and would try to do better.

Language is an issue when it comes to schooling for the children of Latino immigrants. There is national debate about how best to teach English and other subjects to Spanish-speaking children.

Studies show that Latinos finish high school at sharply lower rates than non-Hispanic whites.

In two thousand four the Pew Hispanic Center published a study about higher education. The study said that only about half as many Latinos finish four years of college as do non-Hispanic white students. Many Latinos, however, attend two-year colleges. Many also attend school only part-time. Some work two or three jobs to try to earn a living for themselves and their families.


Marketers recognize the growing importance of selling to what is now America's largest minority group. Spanish-language programming is increasing on radio and television.

Latinos are gaining influence in cultural and political life.

On July first, Antonio Villaraigosa (pronounced vee-yah-ry-GOH-sah) will take office as mayor of Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States. He is the first Latino elected to lead Los Angeles since the eighteen seventies. His father came to the United States from Mexico.

Mr. Villaraigosa defeated James Hahn, an unpopular one-term mayor who had defeated him four years ago. Both men are Democrats. This time, Mr. Villaraigosa won with strong support from a coalition of white liberals, African Americans and Latinos.

The United States now has a Latino attorney general. Alberto Gonzales formerly served as the top legal adviser to President Bush. Mr. Bush chose him for the nation's top law enforcement official in November of two thousand four. Mr. Gonzales is often discussed as a possible future justice on the Supreme Court.

And another Hispanic official, Bill Richardson, is often discussed as a possible Democratic candidate for president. He is governor of New Mexico.

Hispanic groups argue that Latinos are not very well represented in movies and television shows. But Latino singers like Jennifer Lopez, Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin enjoy popular success in the United States.

Before we go, we want to tell you about a new record, called "Chavez Ravine." The songs tell stories about life for Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles in the nineteen forties and fifties. Chavez Ravine is an area of the city where homes were torn down, supposedly to build new housing for the poor. Instead, the land became the home of where the Los Angeles Dodgers play baseball.

The record is by the guitar great Ry Cooder, joined by Latino musicians including the singer Little Willie G. We leave you with a song called "Onda Callejera."


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson, with additional reporting by Brianna Blake. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Faith Lapidus. Our programs are online at Listen again next week, when we continue our report about Latinos in the United States on THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.