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Diversity on Campus

Hispanics are the Largest National Minority Everywhere but College They are young, urban and diverse. Hispanics are also the most populous minority group in the country, though they make up only 7 percent of the student population at many universities and college. Megh Duwadi reports from Dartmouth.

They are young, urban and diverse. And as of this summer, Hispanics are also the most populous minority group in the country. Edging past the nation's African-Americans, Latinos have reached a total of 38.8 million, or 13 percent of the total population, the United States Census Bureau recently revealed. Still, within this group little uniformity exists, making it difficult to draw broad conclusions on what exactly it means to be Hispanic in America. Two-thirds are of Mexican origin, but the remaining percentage comes from a variety of backgrounds. More than one-half live in the suburbs, but sizeable populations remain in urban areas throughout the country.

Becoming more diverse than less…

While more than 60 percent were born in the United States, immigration -- both documented and illegal -- is a large contributor to the population boom. And although many non-Hispanics perceive Latinos as lacking schooling, high-school graduates range from a high of 71 percent among Cubans to a low of 51 percent among Mexicans. "It's a very diverse population and becoming more so rather than less, interms of differences between those who are native and foreign-born, national origin and regional differences," Pew Hispanic Center director Roberto Suro said. A high birthrate, especially compared to other ethnic groups, has also played a role in the surge in the nation's Hispanic population, which has more than doubled since 1980. Initially, Hispanics were not predicted to surpass blacks until 2014, although they were labeled as the majority among minority groups in 23 states as early as 2000. In the past three years, their numbers have increased by nearly 10 percent. "This is an important event in this country an event that we know is the result of the growth of a vibrant and diverse population that is vital to America's future," Census Bureau director Louis Kincannon said.

Salsa, not ketchup, now ranks as the country's favorite condiment

Indeed, mainstream American society has felt the influence of this steady and significant growth, from the continually increasing popularity of Spanish language classes to changes in teen-age fashion styles and popular culture. Salsa, not ketchup, now ranks as the country's favorite condiment, according to industry reports. In every region of the nation, fast-food chain McDonald's offers its Tex-Mex-inspired breakfast burrito. And Latino performers, from the Venezuelan Shakira to Puerto Rico's Ricky Martin to the Bronx's Jennifer Lopez, are now top 40 staples. Missing from the scene has been political power. One in three Hispanics in the United States is under 18; many others cannot vote because they are not citizens. For these reasons, "it's important to remember that for Latinos, numbers will not for quite some time transfer into political clout," Suro said. "The important factor is that there are more than twice as many African-American voters than they are Hispanics -- the political power is going to follow very gradually." For the meantime, in town halls and on Capitol Hill, large numbers of Hispanics are politically voiceless. The situation affects all sectors of the population, but especially those immigrants who work menial jobs many Americans avoid, such as painting homes, washing cars and cleaning dishes. Education, above all, remains an issue of particular concern for this growing group. The Hispanic population is dependent on public schools, Suro said, especially since it is so disproportionately young. "The children of immigrants are fully absorbing English" they learn in the classroom, he added. "The vast majority of them are full English speakers by the time they're adults."

At Dartmouth, A Different World

Hispanics, though they comprise the nation's largest minority group, make up only 7 percent of the College's student body -- a number dramatically and disproportionately lower than the nationwide figure of 13 percent would suggest, but significantly higher than the 35-to-40 student-per-class era of the mid-1990s.

Not enough representation at college, especially at elite ones

"We still don't feel they are represented enough at colleges, especially at elite ones," said Latino/Latina student advisor Alexander Hernandez-Siegel. Among Dartmouth's peer Ivy League institutions, the proportion of Hispanic students is comparable among undergraduate populations. A large part of the lag in numbers has to do with name recognition among Latinos, Hernandez-Siegel said, although he noted that under the leadership of College President James Wright, however, the atmosphere of inclusiveness at Dartmouth has significantly improved. A Latino recruitment committee exists to aid admissions efforts by strategizing on how to attract a more diverse population and to answer students' and parents' questions, he added. "We're very family-oriented," Hernandez-Siegel said. "Parents don't want their kids to go away."

Close Ties, But Only For Some

Once here, however, only a fraction of Latino students establish strong ethnic community bonds, joining groups with largely overlapping memberships to explore their cultures -- oftentimes recreating familiar, Spanish-centered environments in the process. Others choose not to emphasize their ethnic identity, participating in lesser degrees or not at all in campus cultural organizations. "I feel that the great majority of Latinos here on campus are not creating a real Latino community," Mexico-born Leandro Gonzalez '05 said. "Around 70 students per class are Latino, and honestly, when I look around, I don't see even half of that." Now active in M.E.Ch.A., an organization for Chicano students to promote cultural heritage, Gonzalez said that upon arriving at college, he felt that he had lost a sense of his ethnic identity, a phenomenon he attributed to an assimilationist tendency that exists at Dartmouth.

Many different cultures exist within the Latino community

"There are a lot of different cultures within the Latino community, but I don 't see that being promoted as much as it needs to be," Gonzalez said. "Being a Latino means that you should try and attempt to help create a bigger and broader Dartmouth community and also to promote Latino culture." Through programs put on by the medley of Hispanic student organizations at the College, Latinos can make other students aware of their presence, he added. While participation has generally been anemic, signs of improvement have been made with time.

Addressing Different Needs

When two Latina students in the Class of 2003 didn't find a social outlet that fit their needs, they decided along with two underclassmen to transplant one from the outside. After two years of research, the women -- now numbering only two after Commencement -- formed a Dartmouth chapter of Sigma Lambda Upsilon, Inc., or Senoritas Latinas Unidas, a national ethnically-affiliated sorority. "The Latino community here isn't very united," President Betty Baez-Melo '05 said. "This was something that would empower Latinas, while at the same time helping out the entire community."

Racial — not cultural — links to background

When such community-outreach efforts are made, however, expected turnout remains consistently low, a factor Baez-Melo attributes to many of Dartmouth's Hispanic students feeling only a sense of racial -- not cultural -- links to their backgrounds. But for those who seek them out, an abundance of resources exist, she added. The Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies House, for example, is a place that mimics the Spanish-speaking households many students left behind when coming to Dartmouth. "It can make you feel at home," said Baez-Melo, who grew up speaking Spanish to her family while having a group of friends from a multitude of heritages. "When you meet someone with a similar cultural background, it's like an instant connection, or at least a conversation starter."

A Different Road

"I've never been around large groups of Hispanics except when I'm with my family," Rosie Rodriguez '05 said. "I'm just used to that -- I've always had a mix of friends, and I didn't want to be the token Spanish person." Rodriguez, who is not affiliated with any ethnically oriented groups on campus or elsewhere, added that the diversity of Hispanic origins makes it impossible for her to adequately instruct others about Latino roots. Also, such organizations don't add to general understanding, she said. "I know about my own Cuban culture, but Spanish cultures are so varied that you can't generalize everything," Rodriguez said. In Census figures, 1.1 million Americans considered themselves black and Hispanic; 34.5 million white and Hispanic; and the rest as other groups and Hispanic.

Reprinted courtesy: The Dartmouth via U-WIRE, 2002

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Bialystok, Ellen, and Kenji Hakuta.In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. New York: Basic Books. 1994.
  • Genesee, Fred.  Learning through Two Languages: Studies of Immersion and Bilingual Education. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1987.
  • Hakuta, Kenji. The Mirror of Language: The Debate on Bilingualism. New York: Basic Books, 1986.
  • Krashen, Stephen, R. Sarcella, and M. Long (eds.)  Child-Adult Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA:Newbury House, 1982.
  • Zentella, Ana Celia.  Growing up Bilingual: Puerto Rican Children in New York. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

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