LATINOS (Social Science)

The Latino population represents the largest minority group and most rapidly growing ethnic group in the United States. This population is composed of a variety of subgroups tracing their origins to Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Spain. While Latinos represented one-sixteenth of the U.S. population in 1980, they were one-seventh of the U.S. population in 2005, when they numbered 42.7 million. They accounted for two-fifths of the nearly 70 million people added to the national population between 1980 and 2005. Population projections indicate that Latinos will continue to drive the demographic changes in this country throughout the twenty-first century. Indeed, they are expected to make up 46 percent of all people projected to be added to the U.S. population between 2000 and 2030. Thus, by 2030 Latinos are predicted to number 73.1 million, accounting for one-fifth of all people in the nation.

This entry provides an overview of the emergence of the terminology to describe this population, the mode of incorporation of the major Latino populations into the United States, and the contemporary social and economic standing of the Latino population in the country.


In the United States, race and ethnicity have been central to public discourse, government, and economics. Throughout U.S. history racial and ethnic categories functioned as a basis for inequality and discrimination. Governmental changes to identifiers during the twentieth century came as a result of the pursuit of civil and equal rights by minorities in areas regarding education, housing, employment, and public services. For instance, mid-twentieth-century civil unrest and subsequent legal challenges compelled the Federal Office of Management and Budget to develop the term Hispanic in 1970 to mean "a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race" (Hayes-Bautista and Chapa 1987, p. 64). While many adopted the Hispanic ethnic identity, many others eschewed the term as it failed to take into account the unique origins and historical experiences of distinct subgroups. Therefore, the term Latinos has been widely adopted as a more acceptable term of self-identification by people of Latin American ancestry.

Despite pan-ethnic identifiers, the groups that make up the Latino population have diverse histories, cultures, and modes of incorporation into the United States. For instance, the initial incorporation of some groups occurred through warfare, while that of others was the result of civil unrest. For all groups, economics—the search for favorable employment—has been an attraction to the United States.


Over the course of 185 years, nearly 15 million people from Latin America migrated on a legal basis to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2006. The majority of this movement took place during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (77% of the 15 million immigrated after 1970). About 45 percent of all immigrants who entered the United States legally between 1970 and 2005 originated from Latin America. Mexico alone accounted for one-fifth of all legal immigrants entering the country during this period. The ten countries with the most Latinos immigrating to the United States from 2000 to 2005 were Mexico (867,417), El Salvador (139,390), Dominican Republic (127,066), Cuba (97,988), Colombia (91,808), Guatemala (78,594), Peru (58,318), Ecuador (47,094), Nicaragua (36,620), and Venezuela (32,500).

Latino groups have entered the United States at different periods under varying conditions. The two groups that have been in the United States the longest, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, were initially incorporated into the United States through warfare. Numerous other groups— including Cubans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans—have sought asylum in the United States due to warfare in their home countries. Still, the majority of Latin American immigrants came to the United States for economic reasons, drawn by labor opportunities and propelled by poor employment prospects in their home countries.

Mexicans Mexicans, approximately three-fifths of all Latinos living in the United States, have been in the country the longest. Mexicans were incorporated through the Mexican-American War that Mexico lost, along with approximately half of its land, to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848. Mexicans who were living on what was now U.S. land were given the choice to remain and become U.S. citizens or return to Mexico. They overwhelmingly elected to remain on their land. Although Mexican Americans were guaranteed all rights as U.S. citizens, including respect for their property, culture, and language, as former Mexicans they became, at best, second-class citizens.

In actuality, Mexican Americans experienced colonization and exploitation as whites from other parts of the United States entered the acquired territories. Colonization included the loss of land due to legal and extralegal means, according to Rodolfo Acuna (2000) and David Montejano (1987). Mexican Americans became a landless proletariat and provided inexpensive labor for Anglo settlers. Similar to the situation that African Americans experienced in the South, Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest experienced great legal and illegal violence, discrimination, oppression, and disenfranchisement.

During the opening decades of the twentieth century, Mexicans fled political and civil unrest to the United States. Ironically, during a period when the United States was creating policies to keep southern and eastern Europeans and Asians from entering the country, many industrialists and growers welcomed Mexican immigrants as cheap labor for a growing economy. By the mid-1920s their growing presence, the country’s economic instability, and the xenophobic attitudes of whites compelled the U.S. government to evict Mexicans from the country. For example, approximately 500,000 Mexicans—roughly one-third of the Mexicans enumerated in the 1930 U.S. census—were repatriated to Mexico during the Great Depression. Within ten years the United States and the Mexican government colluded to establish the Bracero Program to deal with U.S. labor shortages associated with World War II; because of its wide popularity among U.S. employers, the Bracero Program was extended nearly two decades beyond the conclusion of the war. The program allowed United States employers to actively recruit and import Mexican contract labor to meet their needs. In all, approximately 4.7 million Mexicans came to the United States under this program. Since the 1970s, there has been a significant increase in Mexican immigrants and settlers. The entrance of U.S. capital into Mexico—in the form of the Border Industrialization Program and the North American Free Trade Agreement—have altered social and economic structures in Mexico that have helped to create the movement of workers (some of these displaced) to the United States. The combination of "old-timers" (those whose roots extend back multiple generations) and "newcomers" (those who have come to the United States in the recent past) has created a diverse Mexican-origin population, as described by Rogelio Saenz in his census report Latinos and the Changing Face of America (2004).

Puerto Ricans Puerto Ricans share a colonized past with Mexico. Indeed, the island of Puerto Rico has been marked by colonial exploitation beginning with its colonization by Spain and continuing into the present as a Commonwealth of the United States. The history of Puerto Rico is similar to that of other Latin American countries that have been under the sovereignty of colonial nation-states. The native people of the island were first colonized in 1493 by the Spanish. When this population declined as a result of forced labor and disease, according to the writers Joe R. Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin in their book Racial and Ethnic Relations (1999), slaves were brought in to fill the labor gap until 1873, when slavery was abolished. Rule over Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as result of the Spanish-American War and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Puerto Ricans received U.S. citizenship with the passage of the Jones Act of 1917 and gained self-governance in 1952. However, although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, island residents are not allowed to vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they are required to enlist in military service to the United States.

Puerto Rico functioned economically in an agricultural system until the late 1940s when a rapid program of industrialization, known as Operation Bootstrap, was introduced by then Governor Luis Munoz Marin. Operation Bootstrap allowed locally tax-exempt U.S. corporations to develop industries on the island, which placed an economic burden on the Puerto Ricans who were required to finance the necessary infrastructure through high personal taxes. Although Puerto Rican migration to the U.S. mainland existed prior to the rapid-industrialization projects, massive unemployment in the 1970s resulted in the migration of approximately one-third of the island’s population to the United States (Feagin and Feagin 1999).

Due to their U.S. citizenship status, Puerto Ricans tend to migrate in a circular pattern. Over the years many have settled in the United States. Puerto Ricans have subsequently had a major impact on mainstream American culture, especially in cities such as New York, where ethnic enclaves have existed since the 1920s.

Cubans The island of Cuba became a U.S. protectorate in early 1900, and in the middle of the twentieth century, through revolution, it became a socialist state. U.S. interest in Cuba arose out of economic investments by U.S. businesses. The United States became the major market for Cuban goods and a provider of essential supplies needed to sustain the island’s economic system. The political instability on the island began in the 1930s and lasted through the 1950s; student-led protests, along with instability within the Cuban polity, threatened the economic, social, and political interests of capitalist Cuban elites, U.S. investors, and as a result the governments of both countries. Socioeconomic disparities led to the establishment of a socialist state with Fidel Castro in power beginning in 1959. Castro’s rise to power resulted in large-scale emigration of the middle and upper classes, who sought asylum in the United States. As advantaged political refugees fleeing what was labeled as a communist state by those who were adversely affected by Castro’s rise to power, Cuban refugees were offered numerous resettlement benefits by the United States.

Other refugees accepted into the United States in 1980, however, were not provided resettlement programs. This group, referred to as Marielitos (after the Cuban port from which they left, Mariel Bay), were drawn from the lower classes and were largely black. While the group included some criminals, the media exaggeratedly portrayed Marielitos as "undesirables," write Alejandro Portes and Robert L. Bach in their book Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States (1985, p. 87). The group was confronted with a negative reaction from the American mainstream and their own communities, notes Juan Gonzalez in his book Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America (2000).

Still, the favorable economic and human-resource assistance that the early waves of Cubans received helped some to achieve upward mobility in the United States. Cuban enclave enterprises have been highly successful in Miami and have helped integrate Cuban immigrants, according to Portes and Bach (1985).

Nicaraguans Significant immigration to the United States by Nicaraguans is often recognized as beginning in the late 1970s at the end of the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Immigrants were escaping a repressive government whose actions had impoverished the majority of the population, destabilized the economy, and started a U.S.-supported revolution. Nicaraguan immigration was characterized by three subsequent waves.

The initial arrivals were limited in number and composed of upper-class or elite families—industrialists, large landowners, and top businessmen—escaping the Sandinista takeover of the country. Many had the financial means and education required to establish themselves in the United States. Their arrival and presence was therefore much less noticeable than subsequent arrivals.

The second phase of Nicaraguan migration occurred in the early 1980s and consisted of political asylum-seeking urban, middle-class professionals and business personnel escaping a dysfunctional economy destabilized by political turmoil. Some used prior degrees and skills to find jobs, but the majority of immigrants were reduced to labor occupations until they could better accommodate themselves. State assistance was provided for them as long they had legal documentation. Improper documentation resulted in deportation procedures.

The third wave of immigrants began in the mid-1980s and consisted of laborers and peasants escaping the Contra war and a disrupted economy. Many resorted to the informal economy in order to earn subsistence wages. These arrivals initiated a recognizable flow that alarmed many Americans, who urged the U.S. government to respond.

Unlike the Cuban experience, but much like that of other Central and South Americans, Nicaraguans were hardly welcomed to the United States or given much opportunity for permanent settlement. By the late 1980s the Reagan administration’s support for the Contra military was overtly stopped, and the flood of refugees to the United States seeking asylum increased exponentially. In an effort to stop the flow of refugees, the United States detained and incarcerated all new arrivals while their cases for asylum were processed. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services classified most as illegal aliens and initiated deportation. Established Nicaraguans attempted to intercede, but U.S.-supported political changes in Nicaragua compelled democratic changes and prompted refugees to return. In contrast to other refugee groups, Nicaraguans were offered no resettlement programs, note Portes and Alex Stepick in City on the Edge: The Transformation of Miami (1993).


Latinos have comparable, yet distinct immigration experiences. Foreign policies and territorial ambitions coupled with the United States’ need for cheap labor established the initial ties between Latin America and the United States, paving the way for immigration and setting the stage for Latino identity in the United States, as described by Jose Calderon in his contribution to Latin American Perspectives (1992). Latino Americans who settled in the United States are represented in all socioeconomic classes and at various stages of assimilation or acculturation. Latino subgroups have established distinct communities around the country. Ethnic enclaves attract newcomers that reinvigorate immigrant culture, and each successive generation blends with mainstream American culture, shaping a new identity for Latinos.

There is a significant amount of stratification within the Latino population, notes Saenz (2004). Cubans and South Americans tend to have the highest levels of socioeconomic achievement in the United States, while Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and, to some extent, Central Americans are positioned at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Nonetheless, due to their increasing numbers, Latinos have begun to achieve some degree of political success. Furthermore, because they are situated in urban areas and in the most populous states, they are a group that politicians must acknowledge. However, other forces tend to limit the political power of Latinos: They are a young population (with many not old enough to vote), many Latinos cannot vote because they are not U.S. citizens, and they are noticeably divided across national origin and class lines.

The presence of a diverse and growing Latino population may diminish Anglo cultural dominance and introduce a sense of multiculturalism to U.S. society. As Latinos retain and assert their own ethnic identities, they add cultural distinction to their respective geographical centers across the United States.

As a consumer group, Latinos have been recognized by marketing agencies and corporations who previously had failed to target this large group and their buying potential, observes Arlene Davila in Latinos, Inc.: The Marketing and Making of a People (2001). In this regard, the influence of Latinos in the labor market and their presence as a consumer force impact economics in the United States and abroad.

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