November 14, 2003

Youth Wave Transforming Latino Population

Juan Esparza Loera and Daniel Rodríguez
Vida en el Valle

FRESNO, Calif. — The scene at the Rainbow Ballroom on a crisp fall evening three years ago wasn’t unlike that offered at other popular nightspots in Fresno.

Couples whispered at tables barely lit by fluorescent lights. Packs of young men hovered near the stage, casually speaking English while awaiting the arrival of the featured musical acts. English was the language of choice for the crowd of more than 1,000 who packed into the downtown dance hall for a night of music and dancing.

Once the acts — rockeros like Jaguares, Julieta Venegas, Jumbo, Lysa Flores and La Gusana Ciega — jumped onstage, the concert-goers sang in unison to the Spanish-language songs.

A week later at the same dance hall, Spanish is the only language heard as an equally young crowd waits for a concert featuring a collection of accordion-packing norteño groups.

Welcome to the San Joaquín Valley of today.

It’s a valley that is embracing a Latino accent thanks to the huge growth of a Latino population that is overwhelmingly young.

Thus, when Latino politicians say the future is in the hands of the children, they couldn’t be more correct.

It is the Latino youth that demographers are keeping an eye on as that segment of the population matures. Already, Latinos represent about 60 percent of the kindergarten enrollment in Fresno, Tulare, Madera and Kings counties that make up the Central Valley, the state’s agricultural heartland. Ten years ago, that percentage was less than 50 percent.

That wave, which has been rapidly increasing in the past 10 years, sets the stage for further impacts on the Central Valley’s education, health, governmental, environmental and economic climate. The California Department of Finance estimates that Latinos will make up more than 1.6 million of the population — or 55.3 percent of the overall population — in the same counties in less than four decades when today’s kindergarten students will be approaching middle age.

The Latino youth wave has been fueled by documented and undocumented immigration and high birth rates.

The overwhelming need for Latino students is education, say experts. National studies show that Latinos make up three-quarters of all students enrolled in Limited English Proficient programs, although not all Latino students have limited English proficiency.

Additionally, fewer Latinos than other students have access to a computer at home (18 percent compared to 52 percent of whites), there are fewer Latino teachers in comparison to Latino enrollment (4 percent Latino instructors to 15 percent Latino enrollment) and Latinos under age 5 are less likely to be enrolled in early childhood education programs than other groups (20 percent compared to 42 percent of whites).

Despite the shortcomings, there are success stories that are often written by motivated students.

“Education is important to me because my mom had no education, neither have my brothers,” said Roosevelt High School graduate Fabiola Quiñonez in 2001. “I see the life we have had. It hasn’t been all that glorious. I want to give a better life to me and my kids.

The rise of second-generation Latinos — those born in the United States with at least one foreign-born parent — will continue to shape the landscape for decades, says demographer Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center.

“Hispanic births in the United States are outpacing immigration as the key source of growth,” says Suro, in a national study released earlier this month. “Over the next 20 years, this will produce an important shift in the makeup of the Hispanic population.”

That impact, Suro says, will have a big impact on public schools and the work force. He estimates that one in seven of the new students enrolling in U.S. schools over the next 20 years will be second-generation Latino. And, the number of Latino workers will increase faster than the non-Latino labor force.

The second-generation Latino will also tend to be more bilingual than first-generation Latinos (47 percent compared to 24 percent).

Most Latino parents, when asked, will say that in addition to education, they want their children to remember their roots, whether it’s dance, music or traditions. That spurred the creation of Centro Bellas Artes and Arte Américas in the late 1980s, and numerous Mexican folkloric dance groups at area schools.

Ask local people about the future for Latinos in the Valley and you get difference responses.

Mark Lozada, director of the Central Valley Opportunity Center in Madera County: “There are many opportunities for us to develop, but we don’t take advantage of them. There are numerous programs to help Latinos prepare themselves, but the people either are afraid or too lazy to become informed.”

Rufino Domínguez, binational coordinator of the Frente In-dígena Oaxaqueño Binacional: “The arrival of immigrants won’t slow down. We will continue to come because of the lack of opportunities in México. I believe that in a very short time, we’ll become citizens and that will translate into more participation.”

Orange Cove Mayor Víctor López: “I see a change. Many people in the state already know that they must work with us, that they must make decisions with us in mind. Slavery has ended. We are now very different and they see us differently. But we must be more united, more educated and more prepared. I believe that in that way we can move mountains if we want to.”

Tulare County Supervisor Lali Moheno: “One thing is certain: The population will continue to grow and we must get educated, get prepared. If the population grows, needs grow. During an economic crisis like the one we have right now in California, the most affected are the poor. And many of those poor are Latino.”

The final word comes from Suro of the Pew Hispanic Center.

“Regardless of whether immigration flows from Latin America increase, decrease or stay the same, a great change in the composition of the Hispanic population is underway,” says Suro.

Much is still to be determined about the children emerging from immigrant households, he says.

“Their cultural and political identities are likely to respond to their parents’ experiences and to contemporary influences that are different from those that shaped past Latino generations,” says Suro.

“One prediction about second-generation Latinos, however, seems safe: Given their numbers, their future will be a matter of national interest.”

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