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.

The “Last Message” of Malcolm X

On February 14, 1965, Malcolm X spoke at the Ford Auditorium in Detroit, Michigan. It was a keynote address for an awards event sponsored by a group called the Afro-American Broadcasting Company. Sidney Potier, Marian Anderson, Jackie Gleason, Motown Records and a few other business honorees were given awards. So was civil right legend and Detroit resident Rosa Parks.

Malcolm’s speech is often called his “Last Message” because it is the last major public address he ever gave. He was assassinated one week later, on February 21, 1965.

There are so many easy ways to take quotes or excerpts of Malcolm’s speeches and make both powerful and meaningful statements about our past and present. He is highly quotable, yes, but he was also powerfully prescient, sensationalistic, and charismatic. But he was also a human being who, like all of us, changed, learned, grew, and evolved. For those reasons, I prefer listening to his speeches in as full a way as possible. I also find it important to put them into context–into the particular time and place of his own life–in order to understand them.

This “last message” is a different Malcolm, at least measuring against the two-dimensional, anti-MLK image we typically have of him. It is not so much that he is different that the earlier Malcolm, although he is. The most powerful difference, for me, is his wisdom and maturity. Malcolm is speaking as an established leader, as one voice in a larger movement, and as a man committed to an international vision of justice.

In anticipation of a weekend of media coverage of the 50th anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, here’s that address from a week before, a window into the change agent Malcolm had become in 1965. What a loss that his living influence was cut short.

Latino SF @ USF (3-18-14)

I’ll be visiting the University of San Francisco this Tuesday to share a from my book, Latinos at the Golden Gate. If you’re interested in learning more about the history of Latinos in the city, I hope to see you there!


Latino SF @ SF State (3-19-14)

I’ll be giving a book talk at San Francisco State University this week! Details are on the below digital flier. If you want to learn more about the history of Latinos in San Francisco, then come on by!


“Serving the DREAM”

Pomona College will be hosting an event on DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”) this Friday, March 7 @ 10AM. Two representatives from USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal department responsible for the program) will be discussing this program, meant to serve undocumented youth, including the new renewal process. It’s a great chance for local schools, churches, and other organizations to connect to reliable information so they can better serve our families.


“Out of Many, Uno”

A piece I wrote was released today on the University of North Carolina Press (UNC) Blog.

In “Out of Many, Uno,” I draw some connections between the history of Latinos in San Francisco–the story of my book, Latinos at the Golden Gate (published by UNC Press)–and the larger, unfolding story of the 21st century United States.

While the political emergence of Latinos surprised many in the mainstream media, it’s been a closely watched process for those who study the nation’s second-largest racial/ethnic group. Mexican American and Puerto Rican voters have played decisive roles in particular local elections for generations. And, for the last decade, in a handful of states that have traditionally served as “gateways” for Latin American migrants to the United States—California, Texas, New York, and Florida in particular—a statewide candidate who ignores Latino voters does so at their own peril.

These local and regional patterns are now playing out at a national level. On a near daily basis we are peppered with evidence that the political establishment is refocusing its future efforts on attracting more Latino voters. In addition to tailoring their messages to Latino audiences (like this 2011 DNC video for the Obama campaign), they are also increasingly concerned about their image among Latino voters. As one conservative put it: “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”

As with most “new” things, however, the mainstream United States still has a lot to learn about this growing segment of its population. Perhaps the most common misconception that remains, even in this period of increasing attention, is the belief that there is naturally such as thing as a “Latino.”

To read the entire piece, visit the UNC Press Blog.