Mary Dejevsky: How the Hispanics are changing America

Hispanics make up a majority in some districts, and are set to overtake blacks as the largest minority nationally
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The Independent Online

So accustomed are we to imagining the future of Europe in the United States of today that we fail to notice how often the scenes being played out before us foreshadow not our future but America's own. The protests by illegal immigrants that paralysed businesses across the United States on May Day offer a graphic example. Their resonance was limited in Europe, where the workers were marching as usual. But they herald nothing less than a revolution in the United States and in its image of itself.

Take the image first. The US regards itself proudly as a land of immigrants with a strong sense of its own identity that offers a model of racial and cultural immigration. And in many respects, that pride is justified. The US has absorbed wave after wave of European and Asian immigration to its own, and the newcomers', credit. Friction there has been, but it rarely outlives the first generation.

But the US can only perpetuate this flattering view of itself as the melting pot by exempting many of its blacks - who remain second-class citizens despite the civil rights movement - and by consigning much of the surviving Indian (native American) peoples to tribal reservations. The US has been exceptionally good at integrating those who accept its precepts; considerably less good at getting along with those who might have an equal, or better, claim to the same land.

The Hispanic population falls awkwardly between these two groups. Many Hispanic immigrants have wholeheartedly embraced the United States and all it stands for. They have been welcomed, as previous generations of new arrivals, for their hard work and willingness to do the jobs that US citizens of longer standing prefer not to do. Over the past two decades, however, a new note of defiance has crept into the conversation of Hispanics. As their numbers increase, they have started to ask why they should adapt themselves so thoroughly to the ways of their new country, not least because Hispanics had title to much of this land before it became part of the United States.

In the south-west of the US, there is already a sense of a new Hispanic age. Something similar holds for the south of Florida. The everyday language is increasingly Spanish. And so - to the discomfort of non-Hispanic Americans - are the mores.

One of my earliest acquaintances with the new Hispanic face of the United States came in southern Florida, in districts where - I suddenly became aware - English was barely understood. In a supermarket, I watched as customers paid barely disguised back-handers to the staff behind the delicatessen counter to secure the best cuts of roast chicken at the price of the worst. The last time I had seen anything similarly flagrant was in the bad old Soviet Union.

The US is hardly a corruption-free zone - think Chicago, Detroit and the recent Washington lobbyists' scandal, which ended the career of the influential congressman, Tom "the hammer" Delay. But what I witnessed in the Florida supermarket was the sort of petty, everyday "flexibility" that is taken for granted and denotes a whole other way of life. Until then, perhaps innocently, I had tended to view the US through a north-eastern prism, as still imbued with its Puritan origins. So - wishfully - do many Americans.

Perhaps the US was always more culturally variegated than this, and, if it wasn't, it certainly is now. But for the first time, the question is posed, as it never seriously was with previous migrations, of who will be absorbed by whom. Hispanics already constitute a majority in some districts. Nationally, they are well on the way to overtaking blacks as the largest minority, if they have not already done so. By 2060 - this is a conservative estimate - Hispanics will account for almost 30 per cent of the population, and a majority in much of the south-west. If there is a melting pot, chilli peppers are replacing Thanksgiving turkey as the dominant flavour.

And while the white US majority likes to think of the country as a land of opportunity for all, this is not today's reality. The frontier with Mexico is shielded with fences that dwarf anything Israel has built against the perceived threat from Palestinian bombers. Add to this the crude suspicion with which US border guards interrogate new arrivals, and the armed vigilantes who roam the border areas that the US federal authorities lack officers to patrol. Is this the land that promised refuge to Europe's poor and persecuted?

As the sharply divided response to the proposed curbs on new immigration show, today's America is ambivalent about immigration. Employers, from executives with factories to run to householders with acres of lawns to be mown, see no reason to limit migration - and certainly not to curb the numbers already there. Many of them were out supporting the "illegals" in their mass protest on Monday.

Some of those on the other side are simply xenophobic; many are white Americans who fear the loss of their numerical majority. Whatever their motivation, however, in one respect, they are right. This migration will change the character of the US forever. Where they are wrong is in believing - or hoping - the onward march of Hispanic America can be reversed. If even the "illegals" are now numerous enough and bold enough to parade through US cities, demanding their rights, any effort to legislate is futile. The revolution has already begun.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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