Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

8.1: History and Demographics

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    Latinx Subgroups

    Mexican Americans form the largest subgroup and also the oldest of Latinx subgroups. Prior to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War, the Southwest portion of the United States was Mexican and Spanish territory. As the United States began to expand westward under the guise of "Manifest Destiny" and the conquest of Indigenous ancestral lands, there were political, economic, and ideological pressures to acquire Mexican territories. With the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836, the Mexican-American War of 1846 and the Gadsen Purchase of 1853, the U.S. succeeded in acquiring most of the Southwest from Mexico. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed at the end of the war between Mexico and the U.S., guaranteed specific rights to all people of Mexican origin living in the U.S. including full American citizenship, retention of Spanish as a legitimate language, political rights, and the retention of land ownership. These rights were not honored by the U.S. and the Mexicans subsequently experienced a significant loss of land, social status, culture and language. They were treated as second-class citizens and a source of expendable labor.

    Mexican migration to the United States increased in the early 1900s in response to the need for agricultural labor. Mexican migration during this period was often circular; workers would stay for a few years and then go back to Mexico with more money than they could have made in their country of origin. The length of Mexico’s shared border with the United States has made immigration easier than for many other immigrant groups. There were also periods of anti-immigrant sentiment culminating in deportations and repatriations, such as during the Great Depression in the 1930's and Operation Wetback during the 1950's. After the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed national-origins quotas and allowed for family reunification, the percentage of immigrants from Mexico grew considerably.

    U.S. Hispanic population reached nearly 61 million in 2019
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): U.S. Hispanic population reached nearly 61 million in 2019. (Used with permission; U.S. Hispanic population surpassed 60 million in 2019, but growth has slowed. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2020))

    The socio-historical forces that forged the Puerto Rican population in the United States are different than those that created the Mexican-American community but were also influenced by U.S. imperialism and expansion. The end of the Spanish-American War of 1898 brought U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and the Jones Act of 1917 allowed them open access to the U.S. mainland prior to the island becoming a commonwealth in 1952. These changes in concert with neo-liberal policies such as Operation Bootstrap created economic conditions that pushed Puerto Ricans onto the mainland. By the 1940s, 70,000 Puerto Ricans had settled on the mainland and by the 1950s, nearly 20 percent of the Puerto Rican population now resided on the mainland. By 1970, the number had grown to 800,000 and to 2.4 million in the early 1990's. Today, there approximately 5.1 million Latinx of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States, representing the second-largest Latinx subgroup. About 30% of them were born in Puerto Rico. More recently, there has been an increase in migration to the state of Florida. According to the Pew Research Center, since the aftermath of Hurricane María, the Puerto Rican population in Florida has increased to one million, and 29% of mainland Puerto Ricans now live in Florida.

    Cuban Americans are the third-largest Latinx subgroup, and their history is quite different from that of Mexican Americans. The main wave of Cuban immigration to the United States started after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and reached its crest with the Mariel boatlift in 1980. Castro’s Cuban Revolution ushered in an era of communism that continues to this day. To avoid having their assets seized by the government, many wealthy and educated Cubans migrated north, generally to the Miami area. Prior to the revolution, fewer than 50,000 Cubans lived in the United States. By 1973, the numbers grew to 500,000 and 1 million by 1993. Today, there are approximately 2.3 million Latinx of Cuban origin in the United States and mostly concentrated in Florida (66%). There are important factors that have differentiated the Cuban experience from that of other Latinx groups. For instance, most Cubans came to the U.S. as political refugees and have received a positive reception from the U.S. government with the passage of the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 and the "Wet-foot, dry-foot" policy modification passed in the 1990s (later rescinded by President Obama in 2017). Second, the majority of first wave Cuban refugees were from the middle and upper classes, displaced by the Cuban revolution. With the support and aid provided by the U.S. government, many were able to apply their business skills and educational training in the United States. In Southern Florida, a much larger percentage of businesses and banks are owned by Cubans compared to other Latinx communities.

    The Latinx population reached 60.6 million in 2019, up from 50.7 million in 2010, accounting for 52% of the overall U.S. population growth over this period. However, the population growth rate of the Latinx population has slowed consistently over time. For example, between 1995 and 2000, the population growth was 4.8% while between 2015-2019 the population growth was 1.9%.

    The Latinx population also has the lowest median age among the four major racial/ethnic groups. The median age is 30 while median age for whites is 44, 38 for Asian Americans, and 35 for African Americans. The younger age composition has important sociological ramifications such as representation in the educational system, the composition and percentage of new voters, and future demographic growth.

    The Hispanic Population will reach 111 million by 2060.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Projected Hispanic Population Growth in the United States. (CC PDM 1.0; via U.S. Census Bureau)

    Country of Origin

    According to the Pew Research Center, figure 8.1.3 shows that in 2018 the Mexican-origin population accounted for 62% of the overall Latinx population in the United States. The second largest group, Puerto Ricans, has seen an increase in migration from the island to the mainland in the last few years and made up 9.7% of the U.S. Latinx population. The third-largest group is the Cuban-origin population, made up 4% of the U.S. Latinx population and the Salvadoran-origin population is close behind with 3.9%. The South American subgroup with the highest percentage is Colombian, making up 2.1% of the total Latinx population. The remainder of Central and South Americans countries on the list each make up less than 2 percent of the total population but represent a wide array of rich regional traditions and cultures.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Hispanic origin groups in the U.S., 2018. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2020))Hispanic origin groups in the U.S., 2018

    Immigration Status and Citizenship

    Overall, in 2018 approximately 80% of the Latinx population are U.S. citizens, including those living in Puerto Rico. Due to their unique historical colonial experience, virtually all Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Panamanians (89%) and Mexicans (80%) have among the highest citizenship rates, which Hondurans (53%) and Venezuelans (51%) have the lowest citizenship rates. According to Figure 8.1.4, the overall share of Latinx immigrants has dropped since 2007 and immigrants now make up 33% of the total Latinx population. As the largest group by far, the Mexican population is close to the mean and approximately 30% of its population are immigrants. Similarly, all other groups have experienced a drop in percentage of foreign-born in their respective groups. Cubans, Salvadorans, and Dominicans have a similar percentage of foreign-born with 56%, 56%, and 54%, respectively. Guatemalans, Colombians, and Hondurans all have a foreign-born rate of 61%.

    Immigrant share has fallen in largest Latino origin groups since 2007
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Immigration share has fallen in larges Latino origin groups since 2007. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2020))

    Identity and labels

    The labels that people of Latinx heritage use depends on the historical, regional, cultural, and political context. Labels can also be self-imposed, such as Chicano or Chicana, or imposed from without, such as Hispanic. Some ethnic labels, such as Californio, are specific to a region (California) and historical context (1800's). For example, Pío Pico was the last Mexican Governor of California and was part of the Californios, a term referring to the political, economic, and cultural elites of Mexican heritage living in California in the 19th century.

    Picture of Pio Pico (May 5, 1801 – September 11, 1894)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Pío Pico (1801 - 1894): The last Mexican Governor of California. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Joe Mud via Flickr)

    The term Chicano (or Chicana) gained popularity among people of Mexican origin during the 1960s in the midst of what is called the Chicano Movement. Young, radicalized Mexican Americans began to question the attempt of previous Latinx movements to assimilate into the Anglo-dominant America and became critical of the institutional discrimination and racism experienced by their community. There is some dispute among historians regarding the origins of the term Chicano, as it was commonly used as a slur in the early 1900s against recently arrived Mexican and working poor immigrants. The terms Chicano (and Xicano) may have been derived from the original pronunciation of the term for the Aztecs (Mexica). Regardless of its origin, the term Chicano (or Chicana) was reclaimed and embraced by politicize youth as a way to embrace their Indigenous heritage and roots ("Indigenismo"), reject Anglo-assimilation, recognize Mexicans as a twice colonized people, and take part in a larger social movement ("el movimiento") to challenge institutional discrimination and racism.

    Video \(\PageIndex{6}\): Chicano! Struggle in the Fields. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; CaliforniaMexicoCtr via YouTube)

    The Chicano Movement addressed different social problems and issues, a "movement of movements", as described by Chicano and Latino Studies Professor Jimmy Patino. As presented in Video 8.1.6 above, Chicano! Struggle in the Fields, the first was the fight for farm worker's rights, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta through the United Farm Workers (UFW). This became the heart of the Chicano Movement and sought to improve the working conditions of farm workers but eventually extended and their efforts led to everyone having more labor and educational rights.

    The second part of the movement was related to land rights of Mexican people and the reclamation of lands, led by the lawyer and activist Reies Lopez Tijerina. Tijerina challenged the unlawful transfer of land that took place after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 through formal court challenges, protests, and even staged an armed raid to reclaim territory in New Mexico.

    Video \(\PageIndex{7}\): Chicano! Taking Back the Schools. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; CaliforniaMexicoCtr via YouTube)

    The third branch of the Chicano Movement was the rise of student activism and self-empowerment, as conveyed in Video 8.1.7 above, Chicano! Taking Back the Schools. For example, Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales, an activist and former boxer, organized the National Youth and Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado in 1969. This became a powerful organizing effort and brought in Chicanos from around the country to meet, take part in cultural workshops and events, and politicize and organize their own schools and communities. They drafted El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán (Spiritual Plan of Aztlán), to acknowledge the Indigenous ancestry and homeland of the Aztec people and also to map out a plan for Chicano nationalism and self-determination. In 1969, Chicano and Chicana students met at an historic conference at UC Santa Barbara to draft El Plan de Santa Barbara based on the identity and philosophy of Chicanismo to propose a larger plan to advocate for self-determination and empowerment, Chicano nationalism, and the central role of higher education in achieving liberation at the community level. The result of the conference was the establishment of the student organization, M.E.Ch.A (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), and became the blueprint for the establishment of Chicano and Chicana Studies programs and departments throughout the UC System. Featured in the Chicano! Taking Back the Schools video above, another example of the student movement was the East Los Angeles Walkouts that took place in 1968, where thousands of Chicano students took part in non-violent protests by walking out of their schools to protest unequal educational opportunities, a lack of Chicano-themed course and curriculum, and a lack of Chicano and bilingual teachers. (Noriega et al, 2010)

    Picture of artwork at the Chicano Park Parque Chicano in Barrio Logan, San Diego, California
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Chicano Park/Parque Chicano in Barrio Logan, San Diego, California founded in 1970. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Nathan Gibbs via Flickr)

    Panethnic Terms

    A panethnic label is used as an "umbrella" term to categorize a set of ethnic subgroups with a shared culture, language, and history. The following are panethnic terms that are used to describe, generally, people of Latin American descent.

    According to the UCLA sociologist G. Cristina Mora, the term Hispanic first officially appeared in the 1980 Census to categorize people from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, but excluding Brazilians. Prior to this census, those of Latin American descent were referred to as "Spanish-speaking", "having Spanish origin" or "white" which was frustrating to advocates and activists at the time, including the National Council of La Raza, who were lobbying for more resources and programs in Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. Although the term Hispanic emerged as an more official term and adopted by many, the term has its detractors because it tends to emphasize Spanish culture at the expense of Indigenous culture, it is an English word, perceived as an imposed label, and associated with the more assimilated who are hoping to de-emphasize their Latinx culture. According to Mora (2019):

    "Resistance to the idea of Hispanic emerged at a time when academics and started applying a much more critical lens to colonial history. There was a pushback and a sense that words matter - that by elevating "Hispanic" one is obscuring a history of colonialism, slavery, genocide, the Spanish legacy across the Americas. So "Latino" developed as an alternative, albeit an imperfect one" (Schelenz and Freeling, 2019, p. 1).

    According to historian Ramon Gutierrez, the term Latino or Latina has its roots in the abbreviated version of Latino Americano that emerged after the independence movements of several countries in the early 1800s. It re-emerged in the late 1900s and can be found in memoirs and political literature in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was promulgated as a preferred substitute for the more official term Hispanic. It is considered a more inclusive term and has also been used to "center" the experiences of other subgroups such as Afro Latinos and Muslim Latinos, whose experiences are oftentimes left out of the discourse and research (Gutierrez and Almaguer, 2016). According to a 2013 Pew Center survey, only about 20% of respondents described themselves as either Hispanic or Latino. Slightly more than half of respondents (54%) prefer to use their family's country of origin (such as Mexican, Cuban, Guatemalan) to identify themselves and just over 20% used "American" to describe themselves (Lopez, 2013).

    The term Latinx has been used since the early 2000s and is meant to replace Latino and Latina as a gender-neutral alternative and to also acknowledge the experiences of LGBTQ people who are of Latin American descent. Although a recent Pew Center (2020) study found that only a quarter have heard of the term and only 3% use it in their daily lives, the label is growing in popularity and usage, especially among young, college educated women (Noe-Bustamante, Mora, & Lopez, 2020).

    Video \(\PageIndex{9}\): What is Latinx? (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; NBC News via YouTube)

    Race and Racial Identity

    Gutierrez and Almaguer (2016) point out that that Lainx populations have a very long history of racial classification that goes back to the Spanish colonial period, which lasted hundreds of years in Latin America. The racial mixing (referred to as mestizaje) that occurred included Spanish troops, indigenous populations, and imported African slaves and led to the development of a color and class stratification system, sometimes referred to as a racial caste system. In those societies where indigenous people were used as the primary colonial labor force, indigenous ancestry was devalued and stigmatized, mostly in Mexico, Central America, and Peru. In those societies where the indigenous population was decimated and replaced by African slaves, such as the Caribbean islands, blackness was devalued. Terms such as mestizo, moreno, mulato and trigueño began to be used in the 16th century and are still used today. What resulted was a system where "either white and black, or white and Indian, were at opposite ends of this racial hierarchy, and a large set of intermediate brown categories that complexly stratified the population were deemed to occupy the middle" (Gutierrez & Almaguer, 2016, p. 154). It is evident that people who have migrated to the United States bring with them this complicated history of racial classification and identity. (See also Chapter 1.4 for an earlier discussion of multiracial individuals, including mestizo, mulatto, etc.).

    An example of a "casta" painting, popular during the Spanish Colonial period depicting the many different racial groups. The three scenes also depicted the racial hierarchy and racialized stereotypes of racial groups and mixed populations.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): This is an example of a "casta" painting, popular during the Spanish Colonial period depicting the many different racial groups. The middle painting is titled "De Español y Negra, Mulato" or "From Spanish and Black, a mulatto". The scenes also depicted the racial hierarchy and racialized stereotypes of racial groups and mixed populations. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; Steven Zucker via Flickr)

    This long history of racial classification has also resulted in a form of colorism within the Latinx population, defined by Chavez-Dueñas, Adames, & Organista (2014) as "a form of discrimination imposed upon Latinos/as by members of their own ethnic group." (Chavez-Dueñas et al., p. 4). This internalized hierarchy that devalues indigenous and African ancestry and a preference for whiteness or traditionally European features is reflected at the institutional level in terms of people in power, socioeconomic status, and depictions of people in media (i.e. movies, news broadcasters, telenovelas, etc.). At the micro level, Chavez-Dueñas (2014) found the following comments frequently used by Latinx family members to describe friends or relatives to be a clear reflection of colorism and an internalized racial hierarchy :

    - Hay que mejorar la raza o cásate con un blanco. [We need to improve the race by marrying a white person.]

    - Ahi que bonita es su niña, as tan güerita/blanquita! [Oh! How pretty your daughter is, she is so white/light skinned!]

    - Oh, nació negrito/prietito pero aun asi lo queremos. [Oh, he was born black/dark but we still love him all the same.]

    - Pobrecito, tiene el cabello tan malo. [Poor little thing, her hair is so bad/coarse.]

    - Eres tan Indio. [You are so Indian. (connoting negative stereotypes about indigenous people)] (Chavez-Dueñas et al., 2014, p. 17).

    In the United States, Latinx people are not designated on the U.S. Census as a "racial group" but instead are considered an ethnic group with a shared cultural backgrounds, who can be of any "race". The 2010 Census form first asks respondents if the person in question is of Hispanics, Latin or Spanish origin and asks to specific a Latinx subgroup is the answer is "yes" to this question. Then, the following question asks for the person's race but only provides the following potential responses:

    2010 Census Race Question
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): 2010 Census Race Question. (CC PDM 1.0; via U.S. Census Bureau)

    Given the limited responses to the race question, it is not surprising that in 2010 more than half (53%) of the Latinx respondents selected the "White" racial category on the Census form. Interestingly, there were differences across the subgroups. Cubans (85.4%) and South Americans (65.9%) were among the highest and Guatemalans (38.5%) and Salvadorans (40.2%) were among the lowest to select the "White" racial category. Approximately 53% of both Mexicans and Puerto Ricans selected the "White" racial category. Some 37% of Latinx respondents selected "some other race" and a majority in this group selected their nationality as their specified "race." A small percentage of Latinx respondents (6%) identified themselves as multiracial and even smaller percentages as American Indian (1.4%) or Black (2.5%) (Gutierrez & Almaguer, 2016). After the results of the 2010 Census were published, news organizations such as the New York Times wrote stories with headlines that read "More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White" and concluded that the results provided evidence that the Latinx population may "assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white" (Cohn, 2014). So, is this the end of the story? Are Latinx people simply the next "Italians" and are assimilating into white America?

    Other research actually reflects a more complex Latinx racial and ethnic identity. For example, in their survey of Latinx adults, Parker, Horowitz, Morin, & Lopez (2015) found that 67% of respondents considered their "Hispanic" background to be both a racial and ethnic background, contrary to the assumption made in the Census question and other standard race survey questions. In this same survey, a much higher percentage of Latinx adults described themselves as being of mixed race (34%), Indigenous (25%), and Afro-Latino (24%) then was captured in the 2010 Census. Part of this was the contextualization of the questions in the current survey. For example, respondents were asked if they consider themselves "Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean or, for example, Afro-Mexican." Respondents were also asked if they had ancestry that included specific indigenous peoples of the Americas, such as Mayan, Taino, Quechua, etc. As for being of mixed race ancestry, more culturally relevant terms such as mestizo or mulatto were utilized in this survey. The results provide a rich and more complex picture regarding the self-identity and racial classification of the Latinx population.

    Large Minorities of Hispanics Self-Identify as Mixed Race, Indigenous or Afro-Latino
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Large Minorities of Hispanics Self-Identify as Mixed Race, Indigenous or Afro-Latino. (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.)

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited

    • Cohn, N. (2014, May 21). More Hispanics declaring themselves White. NY Times.
    • Chavez-Dueñas, N.Y., Adames, H.Y., & Organista, K.C. (2014). Skin-Color Prejudice and Within-Group Racial Discrimination: Historical and Current Impact on Latino/a Populations. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. Vol. 36(1), pp. 3-26.
    • Gonzalez-Barrera, A. & Krogstad, J.M. (2019 June, 2019). What we know about [undocumented] immigration from Mexico. Pew Research Center.
    • Gutierrez, R. & Almaguer, T. (2016). Race, racializations, and Latino popuations in the United States in Gutierrez, R. and Almaguer, T. (Eds.) The New Latino Studies Reader: A 21st Century Perspective. Oakland, Ca: UC Press
    • Lopez, M. (2013). Hispanic Identity. Pew Research Center. October 22, 2013
    • Noriega, C., Avila, E., Davalos, K., Sandoval, C., & Perez-Torres, R. (2010). The Chicano Studies Reader: An Anthology of Aztlan, 1970 - 2000. Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press
    • Schelenz, R. & Freeling, N. (2019, October 10). What's in a name? How the concepts of Hispanic and Latino identity emerged. UC News.
    • Noe-Bustamante, L., Lopez, M.H., & Krogstad, J.M. (2020, July 27) U.S. Hispanic population surpassed 60 million in 2019, but growth has slowed. Pew Research Center.
    • Noe-Bustamane, L., Mora, L, & Lopez, M. (2020). About One-in-Four U.S. Hispanics Have Heard of Latinx, but Just 3% use it. Pew Research Center, August 11, 2020
    • Parker, K., Horowitz, J., Morin, R. & Lopez, M. (2015) Chapter 7: The Many Dimensions of Hispanic Racial Identity. Pew Research Center: Multiracial in America, June 11, 2015.
    • Schelenz, R. (2019, October). What's in a name? how the concepts of hispanic and latino identity emerged. interview of sociologist dr. g. cristina mora. University of California News.