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date: 15 November 2019

Hispanic Americans.

The Oxford Companion to United States History

Juan Gomez-Quinones,

Paul S. Boyer

Hispanic Americans. 

In 2000, Hispanic, or Latino, Americans—persons of Latin American, Spanish, or Portuguese ancestry—in the United States numbered over 25 million, or about 10 percent of the population. This highly diverse group included recent immigrants and families whose U.S. roots extended back many generations. With more than 50 percent under the age of twenty-five, Latinos were among the nation's youngest population groups, and, with high levels of natural increase, the most rapidly growing minority group. Relatively concentrated geographically, approximately 90 percent of Latinos lived in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and Texas. Cities with major Latino concentrations included Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Chicago, and Houston. Most were Roman Catholic, but many belonged to fundamentalist or charismatic Protestant churches.

Colonial Era to World War II.

Hispanic colonists settled Florida, Louisiana, and New Mexico, and two of the oldest communities within present-day United States—St. Augustine, Florida (1565) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610)—have had Latino inhabitants from the beginning. Cities that have had Latino residents for more than two hundred years include San Antonio, Texas; New Orleans; and San Diego. Louisiana governor Bernardo de Galvez contributed money, arms, and supplies to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and Captain Jorge Farragut from the Spanish island of Minorca served with distinction in the U.S. Navy in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (and fathered the Civil War naval hero David Farragut). Commemorating New Spain's contributions to American independence, Mexicans contributed a thousand silver pesos to help construct the first Catholic church in New York City. Spanish-speaking residents of Florida, Louisiana, Mexico's northern territories, and Puerto Rico became U.S. citizens as these regions were absorbed over the course of the nineteenth century. With citizenship came political participation. Joseph Marion Hernandez was elected to Congress from Florida in 1822. Miguel A. Otero served as governor of New Mexico from 1897 to 1906.

As Americans settled these Hispanic regions they adopted Hispanic words, folkways, legal practices, mining and grazing laws, and agricultural and livestock methods. California retained women's community-property rights, derived from Hispanic law, when it became a state. California gold-rush miners utilized Mexican, Peruvian, and Chilean mining techniques and Mexican laborers experienced in silver- and coppermining. Arizona's Bisbee Copper Mines, linchpin of the Arizona-New Mexico mining industry, recruited a Latino labor force. Early western songs and stories often derived from those of Latino vaqueros (literally, “cowmen”). Hispanic architecture, well adapted to the arid Southwest, was highly influential.

One of the more interesting individual Hispanic Americans of an earlier era was California's Doña Arcadia Bandini (1827–1912). Twice widowed and an astute investor, Bandini left an estate conservatively estimated at $8 million. The state's wealthiest woman, she contributed generously to schools, parks, and hospitals.

Latinos have fought in every American war. During the Civil War, New Mexico and Arizona volunteers, including Mexican-American cavalry under Manuel Antonio Chavez and Rafael Chacon, resisted Confederate efforts to separate the western states from the Union. At Gettysburg, Lt. Colonel Federico Fernandez Cavada fought on the Union side, Colonel Santos Benavides for the Confederacy. Mexican Americans and other Latinos volunteered for service during the Spanish-American War. During World War I, many Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans volunteered or were drafted.

In the twentieth century, many Mexicans migrated northward. The restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s did not apply to Latin America, and many Latino immigrants arrived, becoming agricultural laborers in the Southwest and California, or unskilled urban workers, living in the barrios of Los Angeles and other cities. During the Depression of the 1930s these migrants, earlier welcomed as cheap labor, faced hostility and deportation. In the 1930s Latino migrant workers in California's agricultural fields went on strike for higher pay and better working conditions. Many joined the Confederación de Uniones de Campesinos y Obreros Mexicanos (Confederation of Unions of Mexican Workers and Farm Laborers).

Since World War II.

As described in Raul Morin's Among the Valiant (1963), as many as 400,000 Latinos fought in World War II, often with great distinction. Air Force hero José L. Holguin, a Los Angeles Mexican American, won the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, and the Silver Star for his exploits. Despite this record, Latinos became a focus of wartime hostility, most notoriously in the Los Angeles “zoot-suit riots” targeting Mexican-American youths. More than 200,000 Latinos proudly served in the military from 1945 to 2000, including many in Korea, Vietnam, and some 25,000 in the Persian Gulf War. Of some 100,000 Hispanics in the armed services in 2000, about 5,000 were women.

The post-World War II era brought continued growth of the Hispanic population through legal and illegal immigration and natural increase. Under the bracero program (1942–1965), Congress permitted the regular annual importation of Mexican farm laborers for seasonal work in the agricultural fields of California, Arizona, and Texas. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act set an annual ceiling of 120,000 on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, on a first-come, first-serve basis, with special provisions for reuniting families. Later legislation permitted the immigration of Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro's communist regime in Cuba, thousands of whom settled in Miami.

In many respects, the story of these years is one of achievement—economically, organizationally, politically, educationally, and culturally. In 1992, 85 percent of Latino men and 53 percent of Latina women were employed. Some 1.5 million belonged to labor unions. Latino business ownership surged in the 1990s, particularly in the Southwest, New York, Florida, Illinois, and Puerto Rico. By 2000 these enterprises had some 100,000 employees, and the total sales of the 500 largest Latino-owned businesses reached $20 billion. Many Latino businesspeople belonged to the United Hispanic Chamber of Commerce or some 200 state and local Latino chambers of commerce.

Latinas (Hispanic women) populated all sectors of the labor force in the 1990s. Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, was one of many Latinas active in labor unions. Like their male counterparts, many Latina workers held unskilled or entry-level jobs. In 1996, Latinas working full-time had median earnings of $17,500. But their ranks also included many managers and professionals. The number of Latinas in managerial positions grew from 110,000 in 1980 to 300,000 in 2000, twice the growth rate for Latino males. The number of Latina professionals in fields ranging from urban planning, personnel relations, and health care to teaching, counseling, and library science consistently exceeded that of male Latinos. In 2000, 10 percent of Latina women over age twenty-five were college graduates. Changing career and educational patterns among Latinas were among the most significant developments in the Hispanic community in these years.

The growing Latino community in the twentieth century generated numerous civic organizations. The largest, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), founded in the 1920s, had some 100,000 members in 200 chapters nationwide by 2000. LULAC's program included anti-discrimination and equal-rights campaigns and promotion of education. The American G.I. Forum (1948) addresses Latino veterans’ interests, encourages education and patriotism, and offers job-training services. The bipartisan National Association of Latino Elected Officials (1975) provides issue-analysis and promotes information exchange, training for public service, and advocacy on matters of importance to Latinos. The Southwest Voter Registration Project, founded in 1974 by Willie Velasquez of San Antonio, with a small staff and a network of volunteers, focuses on increasing the Latino vote and electing Latino candidates nationwide. Other advocacy organizations include the National Council of La Raza, the National Council of Hispanic Women, and the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility.

Twentieth-century Latinos continued to participate in politics and governance. Mexican-born Octaviano A. Larrazolo, governor of New Mexico in 1919–1923, in 1928 became the first Latino in the U.S. Senate when he was elected to complete the term of a deceased incumbent. In 2000, some 5,000 Hispanic Americans, including 1500 women, held elective office nationwide. Five Latinos have served as cabinet members, five as governors, and over 25 as members of Congress. In the 1990s over 100 Hispanic Americans served in state legislatures.

On the education front, Latinos comprised 12 percent of public-school students, and perhaps 4 percent of the teachers, in the 1990s. From 1982 to 1992, Latino college enrollment rose from 520,000 to 950,000. Some 40,000 Hispanic Americans graduated from college annually in the mid-1990s, and over 5,000 were college and university faculty members. The Spanish-born molecular biologist Severo Ochoa shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his discovery of RNA. Dr. Alfredo Baños, a theoretical physicist at UCLA, did significant work in nuclear technology.

Latinos’ late-twentieth-century cultural contributions were too extensive to treat adequately in a brief essay. By 2000 the United States had some 250 Spanish language radio and television stations and over 1,000 Spanish or Spanish-English periodicals. Latinos were major players in the recording industry and were increasingly visible in films and on television. Indeed, Latino participation in films began with such silent-era performers as Myrtle Gonzales and Beatriz Michelena. In the later 1920s and 1930s came Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Ramon Novarro. Mid-century Hispanic stars included Rita Hayworth, Fernando Lamas, Desi Arnez, Rita Moreno, Anthony Quinn, and Ricardo Montalban. The late twentieth century brought stardom to Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Raul Julia, Rosie Perez, and many others.

Latinos’ cultural visibility increased markedly after the 1960s, as many intellectual and creative activities intended for Latino audiences demonstrated broader appeal. Latino poets, playwrights, novelists, musicians, and dancers won a large following. A Latino ethnic theater movement provided experience for young performers. In music, the traditional Latin styles enjoyed continued popularity. Hispanic dance—folkloric, modern, and classical—attracted enthusiastic audiences. The long-established Hispanic mural tradition remained vital, including work not only in the classical Mexican tradition of public murals but also by iconoclastic individual artists adopting a full range of contemporary styles.

The national pastime for millions of Latinos was baseball. The long roster of Hispanic stars in the major leagues, beginning with the Cuban third baseman Esteban Bellan in 1871, includes Roberto and Sandy Alomar, Jose Canseco, hitter Juan Gonzalez (Most Valuable Player in 1996), homerun champion Sammy Sosa, and pitcher Pedro Martinez, the 1999 Cy Young Award winner. The most beloved Latino player was the Pittsburg Pirates’ great Puerto Rican right fielder Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash in 1972 at thirty-eight while on a humanitarian mission to aid Nicaraguan earthquake victims.

The late-twentieth-century Hispanic-American experience included not only noteworthy achievement and economic and cultural progress, impressive as these were, but also poverty and social problems. While many Latinos continued to work as migrant laborers, great numbers also lived in the nation's inner cities plagued by unemployment, social disorganization, illicit drugs, gang activity, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In the mid-1990s some thirty percent of Hispanics lived below the poverty line and a third of Latino children lived with a single parent, typically the mother. Lack of education, prejudice and discrimination, and a changing economy that required technical training and offered little to unskilled workers all contributed to the problem. Latinos in the United States illegally, perhaps 12 million in the early 1990s, faced special difficulties, working long hours for low wages and lacking health coverage or job benefits. But even at the lower economic ranks, family, community, and church ties remained strong, and Latino organizations and leaders mobilized to alleviate the problems of the poor. Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers Union, led organizational campaigns and boycotts to improve the lot of migrant workers from the 1950s to his death in 1993.

In 2003, as the nation's Hispanic population reached 39 million-nearly four times the 1970 total-the Census Bureau reported that Hispanics had supplanted African Americans as the nation's largest minority. By 2050, demographers predicted, Hispanics would comprise one'quarter of the U.S. population.

A vibrant and diverse group that has been a significant part of American history, the Latino community was clearly poised to play an increasingly important role in the nation's social, economic, political, and cultural life as the twenty-first century unfolded.

See also Adams-Onís Treaty; Agriculture: Since 1920; Immigration Law; Korean War; Labor Markets, Labor Movements; Louisiana Purchase; Mexican War; Migratory Agricultural Workers; Mexican War; Pueblo Revolt; Race and Ethnicity; Roman Catholicism; Spanish Settlements in North America; Strikes and Industrial Conflict; Vietnam War.


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Earl Shorris, Latinos, A Biography of the People, 1992.Find this resource:

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James D. Cockcroft, The Hispanic Struggle for Social Justice: The Hispanic Experience in the Americas, 1994. The Hispanic Almanac: From Columbus to Corporate America, 1994.Find this resource:

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Nick Kanellos and Cristelia Perez, Chronology of Hispanic American History, 1995.Find this resource:

Geoffrey Fox, Hispanic Nation: Culture, Politics, and the Construction of Identity, 1996.Find this resource:

Roberto Suro, Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America, 1998.Find this resource:

Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City, 2000.Find this resource:

Juan Gomez-Quinones; Updated by Paul S. Boyer