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Latinos Now Top Minority

Census Bureau estimates group's U.S. population at 38.8 million, ahead of blacks for the first time. Demographers see even more growth ahead.

June 19, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Census Bureau on Wednesday formally declared Latinos to be the nation's largest minority group, a much-anticipated milestone that demographers said is a sign of more rapid growth in years ahead.

"The official population estimates now indicate that the Hispanic community is the nation's largest minority community," Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon told a convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens, meeting in Florida.

"This is an important event in this country -- an event that we know is the result of the growth of a vibrant and diverse population that is vital to America's future," he said.

Figures released in Washington placed the Latino population at 38.8 million in July 2002, an increase of nearly 10% from the 2000 census. The bureau estimated the African American population at 38.3 million. Each group accounts for a little more than 13% of the overall U.S. population.

In California, Latinos have long been the largest ethnic minority. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, in 1990 they made up 25.4% of the state's population; Asian Americans were at 9.2% and African Americans 7.1%. By 2000, Latinos had grown to 32.4% of the state population; Asian Americans had increased to 10.9%, while African Americans declined to 6.7%.

In an indication of strong growth, Latinos accounted for half the increase of 6.9 million in total U.S. population since April 2000, Kincannon said.

The estimates also showed that the Asian population grew at almost as rapid a rate as Latinos. Asian Americans now number 11.6 million, or 4% of the U.S. total.

The Census Bureau considers Latinos an ethnic group whose members can be of any race or skin color. The racial identification issue created confusion this year when the Census Bureau released population estimates for 2001 that some said showed Latinos had numerically surpassed blacks. But when people who claimed more than one racial ancestry were counted, the number of African Americans was larger.

Others asserted that the turning point came in 2000, when more than 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the island should have been counted in mainland totals since they are U.S. citizens.

And some experts point to studies and data showing that Latinos underreport African ancestry and question whether numerical comparisons with the black population are valid.

The Census Bureau refrained from making a pronouncement until now.

The number of Latinos could reach 60 million by 2020, said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute, a public policy center in Washington. The increase is driven both by a surge in immigration and by births in what is a relatively young population.

"If current trends continue as far as immigration and fertility, Hispanics could account for 15.5% of the population in 2010 and 18% in 2020," said Passel, who estimates that the Latino population is growing by about 3 percentage points each decade.

Many of the changes that come with the growth in the Latino population are already evident, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at Claremont College.

"In foodstuffs, salsa and ketchup are neck and neck," Pachon said. "Big corporations that sell consumer goods are trying to figure out ways to reach this community. Political candidates [are] taking Spanish lessons and learning how to say 'Necesito su voto' -- 'I need your vote.' "

The all-Democratic Congressional Hispanic Caucus hailed the news -- and blasted the Bush administration for cuts in government programs that serve Latinos.

"With presidential and congressional slashes to the budgets that support our community's essential programs, our outlook is bleak," said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas), the caucus chairman.

Others noted polls that show Latinos are politically up for grabs, with a traditional preference for Democrats but a willingness to listen to Republicans.

"There are going to be over 6 million Latino voters in the 2004 election, and this administration has made no secret of reaching out to Latinos," Pachon said. "It's politics, American-style. When a group reaches a certain critical stage, the political parties start going after it."

One possible source of awkwardness for Republicans: the cooling in the once-fraternal relationship between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox after Mexico opposed the Iraq war.

A detailed census report on the Latino population, also released Wednesday, showed that 60% are born in this country. About two-thirds claim Mexico as their ancestral home.

People of Central and South American origin compose about 14% of Latinos, those of Puerto Rican origin account for 9%, and those with Cuban ancestry almost 4%.

Latinos may be having a more subtle influence on social changes. A Census Bureau study released this week showed that the number of children with stay-at-home mothers had increased by 13% in less than a decade. Experts attributed some of that increase to the growing number of Latina mothers.

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