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The Making of a People

HISPANICS AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA, pp. 16-65, Marta Tienda and Faith Mitchell, eds, National Academies Press, 2006

46 Pages Posted: 3 Jul 2011  

Rubén G. Rumbaut

University of California, Irvine - Department of Sociology

Date Written: 2006


By 2010 the Hispanic or Latino population of the United States had surpassed 50 million people. Only Mexico is larger among Spanish-speaking countries today. The rapid growth of the Hispanic population - which had been estimated at only 4 million in 1950 - has been stunning. While Hispanic Americans now account for one out of every six persons in the United States, their impact - social, cultural, political and economic - is much more profound because of their concentration in particular states and localities, and because they will account for more than half of total U.S. population growth for the next several decades. The making of this population needs to be understood from three vantage points. Hispanics are at once a new and an old population, made up both of recently arrived newcomers and of old timers with deeper roots in American soil than any other ethnic groups except for the indigenous peoples of the continent. Its growth has been driven both by immigration from the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America - above all from Mexico - and by high rates of natural increase. And the label itself - “Hispanic” or “Latino” - is new, an instance of a pan-ethnic category created by official edict three decades ago. The score of ethnic groups subsumed under this label were not “Hispanics” or “Latinos” in their countries of origin; rather, they only became so in the United States. That catchall label has a particular meaning only in the U.S. context in which it was constructed and is applied, and where its meaning continues to evolve. This chapter reviews each of these three aspects - the classificatory, the historical, and the contemporary. I begin with a discussion of the origin of the category itself, and its use in official ethnic and racial classification. I then examine the historical origins of the Hispanic presence in the United States, and trace the roots of its three oldest and largest groups. Finally, I highlight a set of salient characteristics and contexts that distinguish the contemporary Hispanic population as a whole from non-Hispanics, and the major Hispanic ethnic groups from each other - history and language, as well as place, race, national origins, immigration, generation, citizenship, and social status. While “Hispanics” as a whole are not a homogeneous entity, the tens of millions of persons so classified do share a common label which symbolizes a minority group status in the United States, a label developed and legitimized by the state, diffused in daily and institutional practice, and finally internalized (and racialized) as a prominent part of the American mosaic. That this outcome is, to a considerable extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy, does not make it any less real.

Keywords: Hispanics, Latinos, pan-ethnic labels, immigration and incorporation histories, national origins, language, race, social and legal status, citizenship, natural increase

Suggested Citation

Rumbaut, Rubén G., The Making of a People (2006). HISPANICS AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICA, pp. 16-65, Marta Tienda and Faith Mitchell, eds, National Academies Press, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Rubén G. Rumbaut (Contact Author)

University of California, Irvine - Department of Sociology ( email )

3151 Social Sciences Plaza A
Irvine, CA 92697-5100
United States

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