The future of Hispanic identity
In an interview with ABC News this past weekend, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and a veteran of the Clinton White House, shared his thoughts on Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas who has been gaining prominence as a staunch, and sometimes strident, conservative voice. Though Richardson acknowledged that Cruz is “articulate,” he accused the Texas senator of having introduced “a measure of incivility in the political process.” When asked if Cruz “represents most Hispanics with his politics,” Richardson replied that because Cruz is anti-immigration, “I don’t think he should be defined as a Hispanic.”
Regardless of Richardson’s true meaning, he hit a nerve. Bill Richardson and Ted Cruz are both entitled to define themselves as Hispanics, as both have roots in Spanish-speaking countries. Yet both men, like a large and growing number of Hispanics, are of mixed parentage. Richardson is the son of a father who was half-Anglo-American and half-Mexican and a Mexican mother. Ted Cruz is the son of an Irish-American mother and a Cuban immigrant father. And so the Richardson-Cruz kerfuffle gives us an opportunity to think about the future of Hispanic identity.
As of the 2010 Census, Hispanics represented 16.3 percent of the total U.S. population. And in the decades to come, the Census Bureau projects that the Hispanic share of the U.S. population will increase dramatically, from just under one American in six to just under one in three.
But there is a small complication with these numbers. The Census Bureau relies on individuals to self-identify with a given ethnic category. We now know, however, that many individuals who could identify as Hispanic, by virtue of a parent or grandparent born in a Spanish-speaking country, choose not to do so. In recent years, Brian Duncan, an economist at the University of Colorado Denver, and Stephen Trejo, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin, have been studying this “ethnic attrition rate” among U.S. immigrants and their descendants. And their findings suggest that while a given generation of Americans might identify as Hispanic, there is a decent chance that their children will not.
To understand Duncan and Trejo’s findings, it helps to first understand that assimilation is a multi-generational process. The first immigrant generation, which consists of foreign-born individuals, is almost by definition less assimilated than those that follow. Members of the second, which consists of native-born individuals with at least one foreign-born parent, tend to have higher levels of English language proficiency and educational attainment than members of the first, and more friendships and relationships outside of their parents’ ethnic community. The third generation, which consists of native-born individuals with two native-born parents and at least one foreign-born grandparent, is commonly expected to be more assimilated still. Duncan and Trejo draw on data from the Current Population Survey, gathered between 1994 and 2000, to explore how Americans across immigrant generations describe their ethnic identity.
For example, while virtually all third-generation Mexican-Americans with three or four Mexican-born grandparents identify as being of Mexican descent, Duncan and Trejo observe that only 79 percent of those with two Mexican-born grandparents do the same. For those with only one Mexican-born grandparent, the share falls to 58 percent.
Only 17 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans have three or four Mexican-born grandparents, so the ethnic attrition rate is quite high: 30 percent of Americans with at least one Mexican-born grandparent do not identify as being of Mexican descent. It appears, according to Duncan and Trejo, that the educational attainment of Mexican-Americans who don’t identify as Mexican is higher than for those who do.
This suggests that when we measure life outcomes for third-generation Mexican-Americans, we might be biasing the results by relying on self-identification and thus failing to include large numbers of individuals with at least one Mexican-born grandparent.
Duncan and Trejo have studied a number of other ethnic groups as well, and they find that intermarriage has an enormous impact on ethnic identification for the descendants of all immigrants, not just those of Mexican origin. Among second-generation Indian-Americans, 63 percent have two Indian-born parents. Within this subgroup, 86 percent identify as Asian.
But within the subgroup of second-generation Indian-Americans with only one Indian-born parent, only 26 percent identify as Asian. Salvadoran-Americans have a much higher intermarriage rate, and so only 13 percent of second-generation Salvadoran-Americans have two Salvadoran-born parents and 76 percent of these Salvadoran-Americans identify as Hispanic. But Hispanic identification among second-generation Salvadoran-Americans with only one Salvadoran-born parent is a mere 14 percent.
And by the time we reach the third generation, ethnic attrition appears to skyrocket. Almost 80 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans have no more than two grandparents born in Mexico or Puerto Rico respectively. The same is true of 90 percent of third-generation Americans of Cuban, Dominican, Chinese, and Filipino ancestry. Given that ethnic attrition tends to rise as the number of grandparents born in the relevant source country falls, these numbers don’t bode well for Hispanic or Asian self-identification.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the children of second-generation Americans like Bill Richardson and Ted Cruz won’t define themselves as Hispanic. Ethnic attrition rates could fall over time. Hispanic identity is already gaining in prominence and prestige, and there is good reason to believe that this trend will continue. It is also possible, however, that Hispanic identity will lose its salience as the children and grandchildren of Richardson and Ted Cruz, the products of generations of intermarriage, grow culturally indistinguishable from Americans who embrace Anglo identity. Pretty soon we might find the idea of Bill Richardson suggesting that Ted Cruz isn’t Hispanic enough faintly ridiculous. Indeed, that day may have already come.
PHOTO: Children of immigrants look on as families, workers and supporters rally in front of the Federal building downtown to protest the United States Department of Homeland Security I-9 audits of their employment eligibility in San Diego, April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake