I’ve been looking at several sites that feature Latino perspectives (www.vivirlatino.com and www.mylatinovoice.com) and many write about the great anticipation they had for Soledad O’Brien’s production on CNN: Latino in America. While many take time to thank her for her contribution to the dialogue, they are quick to suggest it just didn’t do our community justice and I agree. While it must be said that O’Brien’s efforts were indeed a means to create dialogue, it may have also affirmed some of the worst stereotypes about Latinos—most of us are immigrants, we are poor, we don’t speak English well, our kids are constantly getting pregnant, and education isn’t our biggest priority.
As much as O’Brien tried to blend the stories of successful Latinos with those who live in the inner-city, she didn’t bring together some of the most notable Latino scholars who are studying how much Latinos are engaging in American life and how much they contribute to our economy. She missed three incredible demographic trends that must be well understood in order to truly appreciate Latino diversity and understand the remarkable role we play in the future of America’s economic, social and political success.
First, we are a multi-ethnic community representing 22 different Spanish speaking countries and all with varying levels of acculturation and because of our nation’s shared border with Mexico, there will always be an influx of people who are not acculturated to the US culture. These are indeed the Spanish speakers among us who reflect their own native countries the most in language and traditions. When some compare the immigrant experience of the Irish, Polish and German families of the past, it is key to understand that those families could not go home so easily. There was no internet, no easy access to long distance calls and moving here meant being cut off from their homeland in significant and profound ways. In contrast, by the time I was just 12 years old, my immigrant family had traveled and returned to Mexico at least 7 times and each time we were reinvigorated with our cultural roots and relished the time we could be in our extended family. Even so, my parents valued education and my brothers and I all spoke English and Spanish fluently by the time we completed our first year of schooling in the US and though my parents struggled they learned English, too.
Second, Latinos in the US have a healthy and growing middle class. Median income for Latinos is now close to $39,000. Those of us in our 40’s and 50’s who took advantage of educational opportunity programs or veteran benefits or who simply developed a strong trade skill are not just surviving. We are living that America dream so many of O’Brien’s guests seemed unable to attain. Our spending power as a whole is approaching $1.2Trillion in 2011. Yes, that’s Trillion with a “T”. We have shaped the way grocery stores stock certain food items. We’ve inspired how fast food outlets feed us. Our love of music, family, celebrations, and art is creating a business for celebrating quinceñeras, weddings, and baptisms like nothing seen before. The fastest growing entrepreneurial group in the US is Latinas. We remain in many ways the untapped opportunity for retailers, automakers, housing developments, and financial services—who desperately need to learn how to attract the Latino consumer.
Third, Latinos as a whole are 10 – 12 years younger on average than the Caucasian population of the US. This has huge implications for the American economy and this was sorely missed when O’Brien brought us the stories on the poor and uneducated. As whites continue to retire in significant numbers, we are the future labor force that will fuel the economic engine of the US. By 2050, half of the working age adults in the US will be Latino. If ever there is an argument to indeed make sure Latinos feel included in our society and encouraged to succeed in school and have access to safe neighborhoods—this is it: The future of American enterprise rests on engaging successful Latinos to create, innovate, and promote new visions of the American Dream. Let’s hope that future documentaries on Latinos take time to reflect carefully on nothing less than that.