Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Census Bureau data collection was disrupted in 2020. This Spotlight focuses on 2019 data.
The diverse peoples who define Hispanics in the United States owe their heritage to many countries. Nevertheless, several essential characteristics distinguish them from non-Hispanics: language, religion, ethnic self-identification, country of origin and immigration history, generation, citizenship, and social status.
Origins of the Hispanic Population
Unlike the immigration histories of national groups from Asia, Africa, or Europe, which typically began with massive migrations driven by famine or political turmoil, the Hispanic population grew slowly and mostly through natural increase. But by the early 1900s, the growing economy of America’s West and revolutionary upheaval in Mexico inspired the first great Hispanic century migration, as railroad lines shuttled workers from rural Mexico to copper mines in Arizona and Colorado and steel mills and slaughterhouses in Chicago and Detroit.
During World War II, the United States reversed that trend by negotiating guest worker programs with Mexico and several Caribbean countries and colonies. As a result, the Hispanic population in the United States boomed from 7 million in 1940 to nearly 22 million by 1970.
Today, about six of every ten Hispanic Americans are Mexican, and nearly one-third are Puerto Rican. Together, they make up the nation’s largest Hispanic group. Those with other Hispanic ancestry – including those from Cuba, Salvadorans, and Dominicans – account for the rest of the group’s size.
As of 2020, nearly four out of five Latinos living in the United States are U.S. citizens – comprising those born in the United States and its territories, those born abroad to American parents, and immigrants who have become naturalized citizens. However, non-citizen status is standard for many Hispanic origin groups – and the share of Hispanics who are not citizens has risen over time.
Origins of the Mexican Population
The Mexican population represents the oldest and largest group of Hispanics, according to Hispanic ancestry DNA results. It is one of the few to have remained in the United States since the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceded much of the Southwest to the United States. It is now the most populous Latino group in 40 states (including the District of Columbia).
Most of today’s Mexican Americans are first or second-generation immigrants whose migration into the country was motivated by economic opportunities, family support, and political instability at home. They are embedded in complex and extensive transnational networks of family ties and other connections with Mexico and have a strong sense of belonging to this country.
These connections make them more likely to invest their labor and time in the U.S. and seek educational and professional opportunities. They also are more likely to send remittances home.
In contrast, the majority of the other Hispanic groups—Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, and those tracing their origins to the other six countries in Central America and South America plus Spain—are newer arrivals to this country. Immigration policies and patterns of migration have mainly shaped them.
Generally, these groups are younger and have lower fertility rates than the Mexican population. Nevertheless, they are increasing and will soon be the dominant Hispanic group in some states.
Origins of the Puerto Rican Population
As the first Hispanic group to be a majority in America, Puerto Ricans have a unique role in the evolution of Latino-American culture. Their history in America began with Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the island home to the Taino people. The island quickly became a strategic military outpost for Spain, helping it to defend the rest of its New World colonies from hostile attacks. But discontent with colonial rule grew, and by the nineteenth century, Puerto Ricans began migrating to the mainland in significant numbers.
Stateside Puerto Ricans are primarily adherents of Christianity, with most being Roman Catholics. A small percentage practice Santeria, a syncretic religious faith based on Yoruba and Catholicism. Some assimilated stateside Puerto Ricans also cohere in communities that still honor their ancestors’ language and cultural traditions, including Spanish.
Puerto Ricans live mainly in the United States in metropolitan areas such as New York and Philadelphia. Over the past few decades, they have shown the most growth of any Hispanic group in the Northeast, with Pennsylvania showing a solid rate of increase. The population in New York has been stagnant since 1970, while the people in lower Massachusetts and Rhode Island have grown significantly.
Like other Hispanic groups, Puerto Ricans in America are diverse racially and ethnically, with the population spread across all white races and several blacks. While many Puerto Ricans in New York City live below the poverty line, especially those living in the East Harlem and Loisaida neighborhoods, more affluent Puerto Ricans have moved to suburban areas in Connecticut and Westchester County, as well as on Long Island.
Origins of the Cuban Population
A century after the first wave of Latin American immigrants settled in America, a second wave of Cubans arrived during the early 1960s. Like earlier waves of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, these migrants concentrated in some geographic regions. Their demographic profiles differed from those of other Hispanic groups, however. Compared to Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, they were more likely to be first-generation immigrants and to be male. They were also more likely to report that they considered the United States their homeland, as opposed to their country of origin or ancestral land.
These demographic trends have shaped the modern Hispanic population in different ways. For example, whereas the first generation of Mexicans has generally had higher fertility rates than black and white native-born Americans, the average immigrant woman from the Cuban community in the United States had 2.7 children in her lifetime — comparable to the fertility rate of the most recent generations of both the black and white native-born populations in America.
As a result of these demographic trends, the composition of the Hispanic population has shifted significantly over time. The second generation of Hispanics is much more similar to the demographic profile of the native-born population in the United States. This is particularly true for children born to Hispanic mothers. On the other hand, a larger share of the third generation of Hispanics is closer to the demographic characteristics of the foreign-born population. This is most visible in the demographic profile of Puerto Ricans and, to some extent, among the children of Cubans who live in America.