Influencing America

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In the blockbuster comedy Anchorman, a local TV news team led by Will Farrell has a West Side Story-style showdown with a rival news crew in an empty parking lot. Suddenly maracas and mariachi horns announce the arrival of yet another posse. As the Spanish language news team storms in waving machetes and whips, somebody remarks, "Well, it looks like we got ourselves a bi-lingual bloodfest."

The scene is played strictly for laughs, but the social awareness it draws upon is no joke. In Anchorman, as in real life, Spanish language TV is a force to be reckoned with, and its inclusion in a mainstream comedy film is a clear signal of its arrival as a player in American media. It is also a subtle reminder that the United States is in the midst of a socio-cultural shift that goes far beyond the fact that Univision, Telemundo, and other foreign language networks like them, have entered the national consciousness.

Only a decade ago it seemed that Hispanics in the United States would be doomed to perpetual marginalization. Latinos lagged behind whites, African Americans and Asians in income, buying power, education and health. Their image in the media—if it appeared at all—was generally relegated to gardeners, maids and barrio gangsters. When sales of salsa overtook ketchup in the early 1990s only Heinz seemed to care. Then came Ricky Martin and his bilingual anthem to "Living La Vida Loca." The song redefined urban pop and Latinos, almost overnight, became cool.

But it was the economic and demographic bombshell ticking under the pop culture surface that would bring the deepest change. When the 2000 U.S. census made it clear that Hispanics were poised to become the nation's largest minority, Latinos were thrust into the zeitgeist-visible, indelible, inevitable. The news that the buying power of Hispanics is overtaking that of African Americans and is growing faster than non-Hispanics has sparked a scramble by corporations to understand this huge lucrative market in its midst. The new color of money is brown, black, red, yellow and white. The U.S. consumer economy, in other words, is multicultural-and Latinos, for the first time, are leading the way.

Latinos have not just joined the mainstream; they are helping to define it. The prospect of a Latino U.S. President before the end of the century no longer seems farfetched. In fact, in a survey of Latinos for TIME, 54% of respondents said they believed "a Latino or Hispanic will be nominated for president or vice-president in 2012."

Which is not to say that Latinos no longer face prejudice and enormous social and economic hurdles. Nearly a quarter of all Latinos live in poverty; the high school drop out rate for Latino youths between the ages of 16 and 19 is 21%—more than triple that of non-Hispanic whites. Neo-nativists like Pat Buchanan and Samuel Huntington still argue that the "tsunami" of non-English speakers from Latin America will destroy everything that America stands for. Never mind that most Hispanics are religious, family-centric, enterprising and patriotic. In the TIME poll, 72% said they considered moral issues such as abortion and issues of faith important or very important. This year the government announced that undocumented workers were pouring billions into Social Security and Medicare for benefits that they would never be allowed to claim. Of the 27,000 troops serving in the US armed forces who are not US citizens, a large percentage are from Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

But the greatest argument against inflammatory xenophobes may come from economic trends that will shape the future of Mexico-U.S. relations. Experts point out that Mexico's population growth rate has plunged by more than 50 % during the last five decades, which will probably lead to rising incomes and demand for workers inside of Mexico. Already the percentage of first-generation immigrants in the total US Hispanic population is expected to drop from 40 % in 2000 to closer to a third by 2020, a decline of nearly 20 %. In other words, the forces that have driven emigration from Mexico-and the social pressures they have spawned in the US-may be on the verge of reversing themselves.

Latinos are comprised of many races and nationalities, speak several languages and span the socio-economic spectrum. They can be undocumented immigrants or descendents of families that were on American soil before founding of the republic. Their diversity binds them to each other and to all other Americans. The dreams of the old and new immigrants overlap and mirror each other, offering up myriad reflections of a mutually imagined America. When Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of the New World, he described the natives as "young...well made with fine shapes and faces...Some paint themselves with black...others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find." Columbus could have hardly foreseen that more than five hundred years later his description of Americans as a multicolored tribe inventing their identity from a dazzling palette of countless hues would ring uncannily true.

Guy Garcia is the author of "Skin Deep" and "The New Mainstream: How the Multicultural Consumer is Transforming American Business".