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Journal of Hispanic Policy

Topic / Social Innovation and Philanthropy

Anatomy of a Community’s Coming of Age

When I founded the Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy in the mid-1980s, Hispanic America was a largely unknown and underappreciated force on the American political landscape. Some demographers were beginning to note that our growth trajectory across the nation was potentially game changing, but the vast majority of American policy makers, opinion leaders, and the broader public were mostly ignorant of our impending national significance.

At that time, Latinos (then only 6 percent of the national population, compared to more than 16 percent now) were mainly concentrated in a handful of cities and states and largely seen as a population of non-English speaking immigrants. Positive media representations of Latinos were almost non-existent and there were few policy leaders with a Hispanic background or expertise in national policy making circles. In effect, the U.S. Latino community was neither positioned as nor seen to be a major factor in American public life.

Now, a generation later, the nation is waking up to the reality that, looking to the future, as Latinos go, so goes our nation. Indeed, after a long wait dating back to the founding of the United States and its extension westward, our community has finally come of age.

One part of the equation is the Latino population’s rapid growth in recent years and the projection of even greater numerical increases and geographic dispersion of our population in the years to come. By 2050 Latinos are expected to make up fully one quarter of the national population.

As important as our raw numbers are, however, so is our community’s growing prevalence in virtually all corners of the nation, especially in the states most influential in presidential elections—California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

As recently failed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney learned, and the nation with him, it is no longer possible for any presidential hopeful of either party to be elected without winning the majority of these states; and it is no longer possible to win any of these key electoral states without the support of a majority of Latino voters. As we also saw in 2012, this trend is increasingly characteristic of major senatorial and statewide campaigns for office.

In essence, within a single generation, Latinos have gone from being a forgotten and marginalized minority to an essential swing voting bloc in the nation’s most important elections.

Hispanic Americans still have a long way to go to achieve political, economic, and social equality. To be sure, Hispanic school completion rates are still too low and Latino health and economic mobility indices remain disturbing in the early 21st century. Anti-immigrant sentiment and related hate crimes directed mainly at Latinos also remain significant concerns. Political representation of Latinos in policy-making fields, though increasing steadily, continues to be too low. Despite these lingering realities, no one can doubt that Latinos are suddenly a large factor in our national life and that we are making remarkable progress.

The implications of these developments are huge. They mean that, one day soon, America will elect a Latino president. They mean that, one day in the not-too-distant future, more and more influential states across the land will elect Hispanic governors, U.S. senators, mayors, and other high-ranking policy officials. As all of these changes occur, Latino men and women will have the opportunity for the first time in U.S. history to affect the major policies that will define the American future.