Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican American Hispanics:
Shared Language, Separate Lives
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Hispanic Americans include peoples from several nations across the world. From Spain, to Mexico, to South America, and Puerto Rico, to name just a few countries of origin, there are over 35 million Hispanic American citizens currently living in the United States. This represents over 13% of the population. Yet, the first misconception which must be erased is that these diverse peoples are all of one race, when it is rather a shared language, Spanish, which provides the tenuous connection among Hispanics. Indeed, far from being members of a race such as African, Caucasian, or Asian, "Hispanics and Latinos may be of any race (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008)." Further, according to the 2000 census, 48% of Hispanics selected White as their race, while 42% selected one other race and 10% selected multiple races. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008) Clearly, distinctions exist and by comparing and contrasting four unique groups; Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans these distinctions will be apparent.
Mexicans are the largest and most prominent group of Spanish speakers living in the United States. In addition to 45 million legal citizens, it is estimated that an additional seven million, a total of 2% of the U.S. population, are here illegally (Hoefer, Rytina, & Baker, 2008). Mexicans have settled in the United States since its inception and many became de facto citizens when formerly Mexican lands were incorporated into the United States. Mexicans bring a heritage of mixed ancestry as a result of the Conquest of Mexico by Spanish and other Caucasian invaders. Today, Mexican American culture has not strayed far from its roots. Mexicans' value system revolves around pride in family, which is ideally large and close knit, and respect for the deceased as celebrated every November 1st on ****El Dia des los Muertas, or the Day of the Dead. The primary religion practiced by this group is Roman Catholicism, the nominal religion of about 90% of Mexican Americans, although other faiths, including Protestant do have some Mexican American followers (Sanchez, 1993).
In the business and political arenas, Mexican Americans tend to be underrepresented despite their large numbers. More than half of Mexican immigrants do not speak English fluently according to census data and therefore have difficulty advancing in professional occupations. This lack of representation is also largely due to a lack of higher education: 87% of the Mexican American population does not hold a college degree, as compared to approximately 71% of the general population. The difference in wages between degree holders and high school graduates is significant, at $56,788 versus $31,071, and accounts for the reduced buying power and national prominence of this group. Polling data also paints a gloomy picture of Mexican American involvement in government: while the majority votes for Democratic candidates, the strength of their vote is limited by the fact that while Mexicans comprise 12.5 percent of the population, they account for only 3.5% of votes cast in national elections (Sailer, 2001).
Another well known but much smaller group of Spanish speaking Americans hails from Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth since 1898. Puerto Ricans comprise less than one percent of the population, with approximately 7 million residing in Puerto Rico and the continental U.S, particularly in the Northeast. English fluency is quite high and is the primary language of instruction, although Puerto Ricans also speak a unique dialect of Spanish and are often familiar with French based on their proximity to Afro-Carribean French immigrants (Every Culture, 2008). Indeed, the Puerto Rican ancestry includes a rich mixture of Afro-Carribean, Spanish, French, Chinese, Lebanese, and other Caucasian blood. Puerto Ricans share a strong Catholic faith with Mexicans, yet have also incorporated subtle elements of religious practice from neighboring cultures, including the use of icons, superstitious belief in omens such as the evil eye, and faith healing (Every Culture, 2008).
In the professional and political arenas, Puerto Ricans also make distinct contributions to the United States. While traditionally sugar farming was a major source of income for residents of Puerto Rico, industrialization and tourism have taken hold on the island, ******and many residents now subsist on a combination of odd jobs called chiripas, farming, and a limited amount of government aid (Every Culture, 2008). This method of making a living results in a high poverty rate, which tops 30%, and an average family income of $17,741, well below the U.S. average of $50,462 (Census, 2008). In the political sphere, Puerto Ricans are avid followers of politics but are hampered by the inability to vote in presidential elections, although Puerto Ricans living in the mainland have a very high turnout at elections.
Cuban Americans follow Puerto Ricans as the most populous of the Hispanic groups in the United States, with a population of approximately 1.2 million residents, centered in Florida and with additional concentrations in Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, and California (Firmat, 2008). Many Cuban Americans first immigrated as refugees from Cuba in the 1960s in response to its 1959 takeover by Fidel Castro (Firmat, 2008). Cuban Americans have an extremely strong family structure, reinforced by the difficulties of leaving behind family as refugees; large, intergenerational family structures are common, marriage outside the culture is uncommon, and family celebrations such as Quinces, the traditional 'coming out' party for 15 year old girls are lavish and well attended (Firmat, 2008).
Politics and professions are both critical elements of Cuban Americans lives. The interest in politics stems partly from the disenfranchisement experienced with the forceful seizure of property and political freedoms by Castro, and the perceived ability to lobby for change in the United States. Cuban Americans, in addition to being very politically active as a rule particularly pro-Republican, are also among the very most well educated and financially successful of Hispanic groups. This is particularly true of American born Cubans who boast degree rates of 39% and median incomes of $50,000, higher even than non-Hispanic whites. This is partly due to the fact that while many Hispanic immigrants came to the United States to achieve economic prosperity, Cuban Americans who were already well educated and successful in their homeland formed the majority of permanent immigrants to the U.S (Cuellar, 2005) characteristics which also influence these immigrants’ U.S. born children and grandchildren.
While Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans represent the ‘big three’ of Hispanic residents of the United States, there are many other populations with significant contributions to the culture of the United States. One of these groups is Dominicans, hailing from the island of Hispaniola, which is also in close proximity to Cuba and Puerto Rico (Buffington, 2008). Dominicans actually have a similar population as Cubans, approximately 1.2 million in the U.S. according to 2006 census figures. These residents tend to be centered around Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, and are the most racially diverse of any of the Hispanic groups with 30% describing themselves as Black and almost 40% choosing ‘Other’ on census surveys (U.S. Census Bureau, 2008). Dominicans are predominantly Catholic and also boast a large extended family structure, with a uniquely significant number practicing common law rather than legally binding marriages, particularly among lower income Dominican Americans (Buffington, 2008).
Dominican Americans have a unique perspective on the American political process as they are one of few populations which are allowed to vote both in the United States and the Dominican Republic (Castro, 2004). Due to tumultuous political developments in their home country however, large numbers immigrated to the United States throughout the latter half of the 20th century and do not participate in U.S. elections, retaining their primary political interests and often, investments, in the Dominican Republic. In terms of labor, many Dominicans have very poor English skills, coupled with low expectations for job fulfillment, and often accept low paying, unrewarding work (Buffington, 2008).
Based on this analysis of four unique cultures, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican, it is clear all of the cultures have commonalities and distinctions. The primary similarity is a pair of related values: church and family. Each of the four groups has extremely deep Catholic roots which include approximately 90% of their individual collective populations, although the evidence of Afro-Cuban spirituality is evident in Puerto Rican and Dominican practice of the faith. The family-centric nature of these communities is also evident in their focus on family, ancestry, and prevalence of two parent households and extended family units, although Dominicans in particular have a higher rate of common-law rather than church sanctioned marriages. There are however, many unique qualities among these groups. While three of the groups lean towards Democratic candidates and values, the economically and educationally superior Cubans tend to vote Republican, in line with other relatively wealthy U.S. subgroups. In contrast, Mexican and Puerto Rican immigrants have been largely unsuccessful in financial ventures and employment, and evidence a large portion of their populations living below the poverty line. Finally, while three of the groups are centered in the Northeastern United States, the Mexican population is much more dispersed throughout the country, but unfortunately, also much less politically active, despite the size of the Mexican American population. So while some values are almost identical, cultural expressions vary, as do educational, economic, and political involvement and success. It is clear that speaking Spanish does not make a race, and that each culture must be respected and recognized for its own valuable contributions to the United States.
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