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.