Just about any celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15–October 15) will highlight the diversity among Hispanics.
They come from different parts of the Spanish-speaking world, have settled in various areas of the United States, have distinctive customs and come in all shapes and colors.
But an often overlooked difference among Hispanics relates to how many generations back they trace their roots in U.S. history.
Hispanics are not just immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrants. They are also Americans with deep family histories in the United States. This is especially true of the Mexican-origin population, the largest Hispanic subgroup and one that has been continually replenished by immigrant newcomers for a century.
‘Latino in America’
Truly knowing what it means to be a person of Mexican origin requires understanding the experiences of the nearly 3 in 10 (8.5 million) Mexican-Americans who were born in the United States to U.S.-born parents.
These later-generation Mexican-Americans’ experience in the United States, though rooted in a distant past, is nonetheless deeply affected by current and uninterrupted immigration from their ancestral homeland.
In some ways, Mexican-Americans have lived what amounts to a classic tale of assimilation.
They speak English (and no Spanish in the majority of cases), intermarry in large numbers, live in ethnically mixed neighborhoods, work in just about every imaginable profession, are honored on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, occupy important political positions and are highly patriotic. But ongoing Mexican immigration puts a twist on this classic assimilation tale, making “Mexicanness” relevant to later-generation Mexican-Americans in both problematic and enjoyable ways.
Surnames that end in “ski” or start with “O'” are woven into the fabric of American ethnic surnames. But “García,” “Fernandez” and “Martínez” remain bright threads that, combined with dark skin color, can make Mexican-Americans and other Hispanics seem foreign in the eyes of others.
Ask the later-generation descendants of earlier waves of Mexican immigrants, and they’ll tell you that “Where are you from . . . no, where are you really from?” are questions that they have to field all too often. And even if it’s clear that they are Mexican-Americans, they still get quizzed about how well they speak Spanish. Assumptions about them being foreign turn from annoying to downright scary when law enforcement personnel suspect them of being illegal immigrants.
Corporations, retailers, political parties and churches are all trying to grab a slice of the “Hispanic market,” the overwhelming majority of which is Mexican. Retail marketing campaigns, sprinkles of the Spanish language in political speeches and Mexican-themed media are generally aimed at the immigrant audience. All of this attention adds cachet to Mexican ancestry that even later-generation individuals enjoy.