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My 59-year-old father has a better appreciation than I do for the gains made by Hispanics in America over the last half century. Having grown up in the 1940s and ’50s, when most doors were closed for people like him, he now gets giddy whenever he sees a brown face in a high place.
I don’t get it. Raised by my parents to believe that skin color was no liability and that the talented and the persistent could accomplish anything, I grew up envisioning a world without barriers. The same things that make my father grin with pride — the Hispanic gubernatorial candidate or Rhodes Scholar or author or heavyweight champion — I take for granted.
Just as I took for granted the predictions years ago of a prominent Latino leader that Hispanics in America would, one day, be plentiful and prominent.
The man who made that promise is not surprised that the nation’s 35.3 million Hispanics are tied with African-Americans in U.S. population and outnumbering them in the nation’s four largest states: California, New York, Texas, and Florida. Nor can he contain his glee at the news that Mexican immigrants are fueling growth in Arizona and Colorado and popping up unexpectedly in Alabama, Nebraska, and Massachusetts.
Former U.S. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros had a simple message for the 600 people from the Dallas business community who joined him at a breakfast event last week. They came to pay their respects to one of Texas’ favorite sons and to hear his take on the ramifications of the surging U.S. Hispanic population.
Cisneros’ message: “I told you so.”
Twenty years ago, while serving as mayor of San Antonio, Cisneros used to say that the 1980s would be the “Decade of the Hispanic.”
Now, time has caught up.
Is this the real Decade of the Hispanic? Sure. But, with all due respect to Cisneros, a new generation wonders: Why settle for a measly decade? How about the century?
By 2050, Hispanics will make up more than a quarter of all Americans and, in some states, as much as half the population.
Calling the Dallas speech a “celebration” — of census data and of one community’s recognition of the importance of its Hispanic citizenry — Cisneros launched into a discussion of the numbers and why Americans should feel good about them. Hispanics are revitalizing U.S. cities, buying homes, paying taxes, spicing up American culture, and pumping $452 billion in annual spending power into the U.S. economy.
Of course, even the eternally optimistic Cisneros knows that not everyone is feeling good. He shared a funny story about another speech he gave years ago on Wall Street. After talking about population projections and how Hispanics would change America, a woman stood up during the question-and-answer session and asked him in desperation: “Well, can’t anybody do something?”
Cisneros, who was baffled how what so excited him could horrify others, told the woman: “No ma’am, not really.”
That’s because the Hispanics are already here. Their average age is 25, compared to the national average of 33. About 40 percent of them are not yet 18. Now that 69 million baby boomers are gearing up to retire and treat the Social Security trust fund like a giant ATM machine, that figure puts a fine point on the consequences of the poor education now being afforded Hispanic students in their neighborhood schools and the poor employment prospects that await most of them upon graduation. What the woman on Wall Street and other Americans need to understand is that this is the crisis about which we must do something.
Henry Cisneros wants America to know that it has nothing to fear from the Hispanic community — and much to gain. If the country is wise enough and brave enough, it will take the steps to assure that Hispanics do not become a permanent underclass, allowing them to fulfill their destiny and become what Cisneros called the “savior” of America’s politics, economics, and values.
Either way, America’s destiny is set. More barriers will be broken and more history made as U.S. Hispanics do what they’ve always done — work hard, persevere, and distinguish themselves through their achievements.
And my father will keep right on grinning.