Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0120pimentel20.html

Looking at Latinos in spotlight of research
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 20, 2004 12:00 AM

A local research firm made a leap a while back.

What if, it said, it were to step out of a self-inflicted box to take a fresh look at Latinos.

The firm, like virtually everyone else in the state, had been looking at Latinos in select high-density census tracts, with a focus on them primarily as Spanish-speakers.

But what if it looked at self-identified Latinos statewide, regardless of  whether they spoke Spanish, English or both. In other words, what if it looked at Latinos as they are, not based so much on where they are.

It's an exercise the rest of us in Arizona should undertake. The results shake a whole rash of common assumptions, some of them pernicious. You know, how it's a poor, struggling population that mightily resists assimilation.

The Behavior Research Center's data present a more nuanced picture. The fact is that Arizona's Latinos are assimilating at rapid rates, speak English in numbers that should please everyone, are decidedly upwardly mobile and constitute a potent consumer force.

This, of course, is not the picture many Arizonans have in their minds about Latinos. And they can hardly be blamed, as Latino stories are generally told as part of the discussion on such flash points as immigration and dropout rates.

The center comes to the truer picture through its own research and other credible sources, such as the Census Bureau, the Labor Department and the Pew Hispanic Center.

Nationally, immigrants were, from 1970 to 2000, the single largest bloc of Latinos, at 45 percent. Between now and 2020, that will winnow to 25 percent. Their children, the second generation, then becomes the largest bloc at 47 percent.

This trend will be duplicated in Arizona. In fact, the transformation is already producing change that points at more acculturation than Latinos are generally given credit for.

For instance, there are two ways of looking at Latinos' language preferences in Arizona, which break down as 20 percent Spanish-dominant, 38 percent bilingual and 42 percent English dominant.

Yes, that means that 58 percent are Spanish speakers. But it also means that 80 percent are English speakers.

These state numbers, by the way, mean that we have fewer Arizonans who only speak Spanish and more bilingual and English-dominant Latinos than on the national level. This points to more acculturation for this border state than is generally supposed.

Breaking from the old model of looking at Latinos also revealed that, though a young population relative to the general population, it is not as young as supposed by those who would view us as shackled to our immigrant past. Thirty-one percent are younger than 35 but 45 percent older than 45.

Yes, 34 percent earn less than $24,000 yearly, but 42 percent earn more than $36,000.

The number of Latinos moving into white-collar jobs has been heading up at about the rate of 1 percent a year. In 1990 it was 15 percent, in 2003 it was 26 percent in Arizona.

Acculturation and upward mobility is apparently influencing family size as well, with 33 percent of families limiting themselves to one to two children and 44 percent to three to four.

And we buy a lot of stuff, from houses to cellphones. Arizona ranked seventh in the top 10 Latino markets in the United States at $20 billion in purchasing power, behind New Jersey and ahead of Colorado.

Not assimilated? Thirty percent watch NASCAR on television.

The center's Earl de Berge says the research points to the need to appreciate that the Latino market is as segmented as any other. Anyone wanting to make commercial or political inroads will need to understand each and every segment.

Advertising to reach them may have to be culturally relevant, speaking to Latino aspirations and social gains. It will have to say something good about who they are - from "I'm sexy" to "I'm smart," according to de Berge.

There are red flags in there for Democrats in particular. In 1990, 82  percent of Arizona Latinos were Democrats. That dropped to 66 percent in  2003, while GOP membership jumped from 12 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 2003.

Voter registration in 1990 was 40 percent. Last year, it was 62 percent.

This means that both parties need to start learning how to talk to Latinos - the Democrats to stanch the flow and Republicans to keep it going.

But mostly what the research points to is the need to resist the old stereotypes. Latinos have assimilated, the immigrants among us participating as well.

In other words, we cannot define Latinos solely according to their problems.

Reach Pimentel at ricardo.pimentel@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8210.  His column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.