Both Democrats and GOP Still Have Much to Learn About Latinos

The diverse, growing demographic will be the key to future success for either political party.

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Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and is co-author of Latinos: Remaking America.

A post-election data storm of Sandy-like proportions will inspire dozens of doctoral dissertations, scholarly articles, and learned essays. In the meantime, the data that are getting some of the most attention have to do with the role of the Latino vote in President Barack Obama's convincing victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

There are three good reasons for trying to make sense of Latinos. First, Latinos voted in larger numbers than ever before—casting one in 10 votes on election night. Second, Latinos rewarded President Obama with real gusto—71 percent of them voting for the president. Third, Latinos mattered in a number of the contests that mattered most—the battle ground states of Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Latinos are re-discovered on every election night.

Over 50 million strong and rapidly growing, Latinos are nevertheless misunderstood and stereotyped. If the Republican Party hopes to once again connect with our fastest growing demographic—such as when George W. Bush won over 40 percent of their vote—myths, clichés, and wishful thinking need to be replaced by the hard work of understanding this perplexing demographic. Likewise if Democrats hope to make their current love affair with Latinos last, they too would be wise to think more deeply about them.

Latinos are an ambiguous demographic and as such persistent myths surround them. Latinos are not a race; they are white, Black, indigenous, and every mix thereof. Latinos do not all speak Spanish—research shows that by the second and third generation the vast majority lose Spanish and move entirely into English dominance. Latinos are new Americans and old Americans: approximately a third of all Latinos are immigrants—the rest are U.S. born. Some Latinos have ancient roots on American soil. As I used to tell my Harvard College students, Spanish was spoken in what is now the United States before the College was founded in 1636. Above all, Latinos are 100 percent made in the U.S.A.—there are no Latinos in Latin America, only Cubans, Dominicans, and Mexicans.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Obama Right to Grant Young Illegal Immigrants Work Permits?]

The most important Spanish word anyone interested in understanding Latinos should learn is mañana—but not the mañana of lazy stereotypes. Latinos are America's tomorrow. In less than a generation they will reach over 70 million folk and by 2050 there will be approximately 128 million U.S. Latinos. For the first time in U.S. history the children of Latinos account for nearly all growth in the child population. The data show that between 2000 and 2010 the number of Latino and Asian children skyrocketed by more than 5.5 million while the number of white American (non-Hispanic) babies declined by over four million. Immigrant-origin children will account for 1 in 3 children under the age of 18 by 2020. As of 2011, 23.7 percent of school-age children in the United States were the children of Latino and other immigrants with the majority (77 percent ) being second-generation citizen children and the rest (23 percent) foreign-born. Approximately 10.7 percent of all public school students are classified as English Language Learners—with Spanish leading the way. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that between 1979 and 2008, the percentage of children who spoke a second language home, again with Spanish leading the way, increased from 9 percent to 21 percent.

Memo to future campaigns: From today until the midpoint of the 21st Century, Latinos will account for an unprecedented 60 percent of our population growth.

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If the current rediscovery of Latinos is to mean anything, we need to move beyond clichés and lazy stereotypes. In the post-election data euphoria, the nexus between Latinos and immigration has been overdone. Yes, Latinos care about immigration reform but they care even more about the economy, jobs, and the future of their children. Research shows that Latinos want their children to learn English and thrive in schools but they also want to save Spanish from the fate of immigrant languages (such as German, Italian, and Japanese) in a country once called "the cemetery for languages." Latinos want better schools but the evidence shows that the high-stakes testing regime of the era of accountability is doing enormous damage to this generation of English language learners. Above all, Latinos who invented "familism," the cultural complex making the extended family the economic, social, and moral bedrock of existence, value the integrity of the family in an era when 3.4 million immigrants—the vast majority of them Latinos—have been deported during the Bush (two million over eight years) and Obama (so far 1.4 million) administrations. Before Republicans and Democrats out ran each other to embrace America's mañana they would be wise to do first their homework.