Hispanics in the US: A new generation

Hispanic demonstrators, 2006 Second-generation Hispanics are diving into the US melting pot

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This year's US census is expected to confirm that Hispanics are now the largest minority in the country, thanks to rapid growth since the last census 10 years ago.

It's a headline that underlines their influence on the US society of the future.

Hispanics, or Latinos, are responsible for about half of US population growth since 2000. In three states with high Latino populations, whites are already a minority and it's widely predicted they will be a minority in the overall population by mid-century.

No wonder some commentators are concerned by what they see as the relative failure of Latinos to assimilate into US society.

But the picture inside the US melting pot is changing, as generations change.

The growth of the Latino population has been fuelled largely by the rise of a new second generation - the US-born children of a vast immigration tide from Mexico, Central and South America that started in the 1970s.

These children - who now make up half of the overall Latino population - have quite different prospects in life than their parents did, experts say.

Classroom of the future
Pupils at Bell High School in Los Angeles What awaits these children after school?

As this second generation is still very young - the median age is 14, the best way to find out how they are doing is in the classroom.

Concern about the Hispanic community often centres on its high school drop-out rate, which, at 17.2%, is higher than for any other ethnic group in the US.

But this high rate is mostly driven by the first generation, of whom 32.9% drop out.

The rate goes down to 8.5% for the second generation - still higher than for white or Asian school students, but less than for African Americans.

High school drop-out rate

Second-generation Hispanic students nonetheless face many difficulties at school. Their parents - particularly in the case of Mexican families - are far less likely to be college-educated than those of Asian second-generation immigrants, so are less equipped to help children with their studies.

Tony M. Brown, director of the Hola organisation in Los Angeles which provides academic support to children and teenagers, says: "There is no support for these children in homework and reinforcement of what they're learning in school when they go home, not in English."

In some cases, parents also object to their children going to colleges far from home or would prefer them to stay in the family business.

"There's a disconnection between what America is requiring these kids to have as skill set, and what parents feel their kids should have based on their cultural background," Mr Brown adds.

Sometimes, even if they have family support to go into higher education, the complicated world of applications and test scores can be daunting, because their parents haven't been through the experience and cannot guide them.

"I knew that I wanted to go to college, but I didn't know the steps," says Jessica Hernandez, a student in her second year at Holy Cross University in Massachusetts.

"My mum thought I had to get good grades and that was it. That college education was going to fall from the sky. I didn't know how to fill the applications other than the basic information. I had to get a mentor."

Roughly the same proportion of second-generation Hispanics and (non-Hispanic) whites enrol in college, according to the Pew Hispanic Center - but only half as many of them go on to complete a bachelor's degree.

Assimilation vs equality
Street vendors at a street in Los Angeles Immigrants come from very diverse origins, says Ruben Rumbaut

Once this generation of Latinos finishes its education, its success will be measured in economic terms.

"The second generation, born and raised in the US, historically has been the one that advances, in some cases significantly in economic mobility," says Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.

But these economically mobile Latinos may still lag behind other population groups.

"One of the challenges is that, as a group, Latino immigrants have very low levels of education and relatively low incomes. And about half of them are undocumented.

"This means that, even if the second generation progresses beyond their parents, they still lag behind the rest of the population because they are starting from such low levels," says Mr Passel.

For Ruben Rumbaut, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who has been studying the second generation of immigrants for years, the question of assimilation is really a question of inequality.

"Immigrants come to this country from a vast variety of origins. The most highly educated and the least educated group in the US are immigrants, and we can see that divide between Asians in Hispanics in the first and second generation by every socioeconomic measure you can think of.

"They are also coming into a society that is growing increasingly unequal, so they are both cause and effect of this widening inequality problem", he concludes.

Recession blues

The recession may also be hitting immigrant families harder than some other groups, with foreign-born workers often the first to feel the effects of a tough economic climate.

Hispanics and recession

Miriam, a teenager at a high school in East Los Angeles, says her dad is lucky enough to be working seven days a week, but her uncle who had been working for 30 years at a factory is now only working two days, with five children to support.

Her friend Adriana, who wants to become an engineer or an actress, says she doesn't have the money to go to college and has found it very difficult to get a job.

According to the Pew Research Center, the income gap between those with a college degree and those without has steadily increased since the 1970s - and getting into college may be becoming even more important for today's young people.

"Years ago you could work with your hands and doing labour, but we are entering more of an information or knowledge society. Opportunities are knowledge-based," says Jeremy Passel.

But college is not the only route to success.

According to Jody Agius Vallejo, a USC professor who has been studying the ways Hispanics enter the middle class, many take the classic US path - starting a business.

And Hispanic-owned businesses, she says, are growing at a rate three times faster than the US average.

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