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Posted April 27, 2010

Understanding the Hispanic Presence

Eugene Hemrick

On April 19, the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America in conjunction with university departments and institutes involved with Hispanic work hosted the conference, The Hispanic Presence in the Washington [D.C.]Metropolitan Region.

As I listened to the presenters, I couldn’t help but recall all the Hispanics I see on a daily basis. Across the street from St. Joseph on Capitol Hill Church, which I serve, is the U.S. Senate parking lot. Most of its car attendants are Hispanic. Walking over to the Union Station to catch the Metro, I pass teams of Hispanic landscapers tending the lawns of the Thurgood D. Marshall Judiciary Building. And it never fails, when driving to work, that I see young Hispanic construction workers carrying their lunch boxes or repairing streets. Even though this is a daily occurrence, I often feel we are like ships passing in the night.

My thoughts also drifted back to a meeting I had at Fordham University with the renowned sociologist Fr. Joseph Fitzpatrick, S.J. “Gene,” he said to me, “the Hispanics aren’t on our doorstep, they are in our home!” He was very concerned about their future, and especially that of the second and third generations: would they or would they not become secularized and lose their Catholic faith?

Many of the attendees of the conference were social scientists, researchers, or involved with Hispanic organizations. Its purpose can be summarized by two proverbs in the Old Testament: “Wisdom is the principal thing, get wisdom and with all thy getting get understanding.” By wisdom is a house constructed, by understanding is it established.

I believe it is true to say that the conference’s aim was to ascertain a better understanding of the Hispanic culture in order to be more at home with each other. As one of the presenters put it, “We are going to look at the macro and then move into the micro, first draw the big picture and then we delve into its details and study its ‘alma,’ soul.”

Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center started the conference by informing us that Pew is primarily concerned with getting nothing but the facts: no conclusions from analysis, no political agenda, just demographics and attitudes.

His remarks reminded me of my early research days when I realized we didn’t have the background demographics needed for getting the big picture. So often researchers want to know what is in the heads of the people they study before counting those heads to see how many exist and how they differ. What are some of the facts about Hispanics?

The city Los Angeles ranks first in largest Hispanic populations, then comes New York, Riverside, California, and Chicago. Surprisingly Washington, D.C. ranks twelve.

I was surprised to see where D.C. ranked until I remembered my trips to the nearby Prince George’s mall in neighboring Maryland. When I first came to Washington thirty-four years ago, Hispanic presence was minimal, now it is the majority. And then I recalled a mall close to where I work in Takoma Park, Maryland that is totally Hispanic. How prophetic were the words of Fr. Fitzpatrick, “They are in our home.” How true is ascertaining the facts first! Demographics are extremely important because they identify changing trends and create reality checks. All of sudden our eyes are opened to the fact Hispanics are much more part of our life than we have imagined.

At the conference it was pointed out that using the words Hispanic or even Latino/a isn’t quite politically correct. For one thing, these titles connote a melting pot concept. [Be as this is, I will continue to use it in this article.] Why is there a debate about the use of titles? Because in Washington, D.C., the majority of Hispanics are from El Salvador. In Florida, especially in the Miami area, Cubans are in the majority, and in New York, Puerto Ricans are the majority. Each nationality has its own unique customs, language idioms, and traditions. And too, countries pride themselves on their uniqueness, no country likes being lumped together with another.

Years ago I will never forget a conference on Hispanics in which the Guatemalans made it very clear they did not want to be lumped together with Central and South Americans. We were exhorted to think in terms of distinctions when dealing with anyone who speaks Spanish and to learn about and speak to the uniqueness of a country. This may sound trivial, but it is key to creating strong ties with a particular culture or losing them.

The median age of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S. is much lower than the median age of all Americans. This fact in itself says they are an upcoming population and will not die out. Rather, their growth in numbers will increase immensely.

One of the pressing issues facing the Spanish-speaking population is education. Thirty-nine percent of Spanish-speaking persons never receive a high school diploma. [This is close to the national norm]. Spanish-speaking people also earn less than the general population. In the Washington, D.C. area, 8.9% are below the poverty level. Seventy-four percent of the white population are homeowners, while only 52.9 of the Hispanic population are homeowners.

Moving from this macro picture to a micro picture, we need to ask, “How does a Hispanic immigrant population survive?”

Since the 1990s, organizations assisting Hispanics have doubled. More than half of them are church organizations in which food pantries, training centers for jobs, and other human services are provided.

In the study Strangers and Aliens No Longer conducted in the 80s, we learned of pro bono medical and legal assistance given to immigrants, as well as political organizing that helped to give them a voice in government. Upon further investigation, we learned of numerous other services that ranged from marriage counseling, community organizing and learning English to baby sitting that freed impoverished mothers to earn a living.

As I listened to other services that are provided, I couldn’t but help remember my Italian mother speak of Jane Addams and how the institution she established in Chicago helped her learn sewing, practice good hygiene, and grow into well-mannered ladies. My mother would also take me to Columbus Hospital where a beautiful statute of Mother Francis Cabrini stood. Mother Cabrini, like Jane Addams, provided the stepping stones needed for enculturating immigrants into American customs and raising their standard of life.

What especially intrigued me was a remark by the presenter Carol De Vita , Senior Associate of the Urban Institute, who spoke of encouraging immigrants to enable themselves. Many years ago in Puerto Rico, community organizers established the program, Operation Bootstrap, a self-enabling program. It is one thing to hand out food and clothing, yet another thing to get people to grow their own food, make their own cloths, and to create co-opts in which they literally pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Along this line of thinking, I was especially intrigued in hearing of businesses that create Hispanic shopping areas, for example, Spanish restaurants and shops that contain Hispanic flavor, and where Spanish is the primary language.

A touchy area for Hispanics is racial profiling that is often caused by illegal immigrants who make the news. Interestingly, the D.C. police do not collaborate with federal agents in regard to illegal immigrants, whereas as other jurisdictions not only collaborate, but place numerous restrictions on Hispanics. In some conservative areas, people have tried to band the use of the Spanish language and to demand only English be spoken.

Much more than the above was included in the macro and micro understanding of Hispanics at the conference. To obtain much of the research conducted on Hispanics, I recommend going to the Pew Hispanic Center website, http://pewhispanic.org/ , The Urban Institute, www.urban.org, The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, www.jknirp.com & The Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies http://ipr.cua.edu/

As I put my notebook aside after the conference and reflected on it, I asked myself, “What did you most get out of the two hour discussion on the Hispanic presence in the D.C. metropolitan region? ,” It is seeing organizations apply the proverb, “By wisdom is a house built, by understanding is it established.”

The Hispanic population is not only in “our homes,” it is a major part of today’s American culture that cannot but grow. Establishing bonds and a welcoming family spirit are essential to the strength of our country, our church and our neighborhoods. Thanks to organizations studying Hispanics, establishing Hispanic centers, providing social services, encouraging economic self sufficiency, contributing advocates for immigrants, providing conduits with government, and connecting with other similar organizations, bonds are being forged and understanding deepened that echo the Book of Proverbs. This wisdom and understanding are the greatest defense against ignorance that often leads to racism, misunderstandings, and a divided house. In Mass, we pray for unity repeatedly. It is the same unity Christ prayed his Apostles possess just before his death. It is the unity we laud in the Trinity and it is the unity lauded in the motto, “In unity there is strength” that is found on state flags and within our U.S. Capitol.