The Limits of Numbers

It’s official now: Latinos outnumber whites in the state of California, making us the largest ethnic group in the Golden State.

The switch happebed sometime last year but the numbers only became official last week. With 14.99 million Latinos in California, there are more of us than there are so-called “non-Hispanic whites,” who number about 14.92 million.

It’s a gradual change but one that will continue throughout the foreseeable future. Aside from immigration, whites in California are old and dying and not reproducing much while Latinos are younger and reproducing at higher rates. We are the future source of the natural birth rate, too. There are twice as many Latinos under 18 (4.8 million) than whites (2.4 million) ensuring that we will make up the majority of the next generation of native-born Californians.

More than 80% of the Latino population in the state is ethnically Mexican, meaning our collective story is rooted to this just one country, whether we are a US-born “Mexican American” or a foreign-born mexicano. That means that sometime in the next few decades it is likely that the ethnic Mexican population alone will outnumber whites in California.

Our youth–coupled with a long legacy of segregation and political disenfranchisement–means that our demographic ascendency doesn’t necessarily translate into political power. That, too, will likely come, but it will take more time, political organizing, and, perhaps, a willingness for the emerging “white minority” to relinquish some of its hold over the reigns of power. If not, every year that passes will make the Californian political system look more and more like some kind of 21st century apartheid state, albeit one that projects a kind of benevolence.

All these changes are important and, in my eyes, good. But there are limits to our demographic ascendancy.

How many Californians will go through their day never once speaking to a Latino? How many live in communities where Latinos are nearly invisible? How many work in places that make this demographic reality look false? How many are educated in classrooms that do not reflect this emerging majority? How many will be surrounded by Latinos–will have their lawns cut, food cooked, and houses cleaned by Latinos–but never have a conversation with even one?

I am Chicano (Mexican American). I live in a Mexican-majority city, in a Mexican-majority neighborhood, next to my Mexican American neighbors. My kids attend a Mexican-majority school. When we go to any store, we see and engage with other Mexicans/Chicanos.

When I go to work, I am one of two US-born, Mexican Americans on the faculty of my college.  The Latino share of our student population is a national-leader for liberal arts colleges but is still only about 1 in 6. Unless they speak with the gardening or housekeeping staff, most of my colleagues can go their entire day on campus never speaking to a member of the emerging majority of this state.

What’s worse, this is hardly a unique condition.

We are the the largest ethnic group in California but we remain segregated, marginalized, and disproportionately confined to the invisible corners of mainstream society. The reality of the demographics should be–it must be–a wake up call for us all that the meaningful reality of a multiethnic, multiracial society is still before us.

And there is work to be done.

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