When I moved to New York back in the 2000s one of the things that struck me was how ubiquitous Spanish language was throughout the city. Signs in the subway and public offices; “para Español” option whenever I would try to reach a customer service; conversations on trains and buses… For good reason: Hispanics make up 27% of the city’s population.
My immersion in Spanish-speaking territory went one step further when I moved to Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan, a few years later. My new neighborhood’s demographics felt unusual, even by New York standards: first and second generation immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Orthodox Jews, and liberal white families.
America’s Hispanic community is anything but homogeneous. So many countries of origin; so many different socioeconomic backgrounds; so many different accents and ways of speaking Spanish. I learned that first hand in NYC. From conversations with my worldly South American colleagues when I was a banker; from talking with my brave and focused housekeeper from Guatemala; from working with young people with strong work ethic from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico at Simply Gourmand; from striking a friendship with the warmhearted old Cuban lady who lived next door – and keeping it after moving to Cleveland.
Still, Hispanics have enough in common to be reckoned with as a solid block in the U.S. population. They share the same language. They tend to favor Democratic candidates and are therefore a key group in all national electoral strategies and many local ones, not least in the upcoming midterms. They dwarf all other ethnic minorities, including non-Hispanic blacks. According to census data, they account for 18% of the U.S. population, or 59 million people. They are projected to make up 30% of the U.S. population by 2050.
Latin America, to which the vast majority of U.S. Hispanics are closely connected, is a tremendous aggregate. Nowhere else in the world is there such a large group of contiguous countries sharing the same language. From Ushaia, Chile to Tijuana, Mexico, and beyond the U.S. border, Spanish speakers can communicate seamlessly. That’s 477 million people, including native Spanish speakers who live in the U.S.A., nearly double the non-Spanish-speaking U.S. population. A magnitude that is somehow overlooked by most Americans.
Apart from the attention of politicians and pollsters and the efforts made by many Americans to speak some Spanish it seems to me that there is little interest for the identities and backgrounds of Hispanics in this country. Come to think of it, America’s curiosity for Latin America is proportionate neither to its demographic size nor to its geographic proximity. This is well encapsulated in the first words of a foot note in the vibrant novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz:
“For those of you who missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history: […]”
Latin America has often been ignored or taken for granted, not only by the U.S.A. Meanwhile, Hispanics have become an essential multicultural part of America’s fabric. A part that cannot be dismissed by anyone trying to really understand where this country is headed. A ser continuado…