Talking 'Bout Our Generations
How to survive family meals this Christmas
By Ruben Navarrette
Generations matter. Mucho.
In 2023, Americans are always ready to talk about, and sometimes fight over, our differences — based on race, religion, gender, class, ethnicity, geography, immigration status, education level, sexual orientation or a hundred other things. But we often get so wrapped up in all those identity telenovelas that we tend to overlook one of the most important human characteristics of all.
Much of how human beings view the world is shaped by when we were born, and what we witnessed and lived through as we came of age. What did we see? Was it Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Fall of Saigon in 1975, or the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001? Was it the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the moon landing in 1969, or the disastrous implosion of the Space Shutter Challenger in 1986?
While some characteristics have the potential to divide us, and maybe even tear us apart, what’s cool about being born at the same time is that we’ve marinated in the same shared experiences. The focus is on what makes us alike, not what makes us different.
I’m talking ‘bout our generations.
The nation’s 62 million Latinos — who now represent nearly 1 in 5 Americans — are not immune to this phenomenon. An 81-year-old Cuban American living in Miami, Florida might find that he has less in common with his 23-year-old grandson than he does with a 78-year-old white person living in Trenton, New Jersey.
Latinos are experts on generational interplay, the generation gap, and competing generations. In fact, it often seems like we’re in the forefront of defining — or redefining — the very concept of what it means to be part of a given generation. In 2020, roughly 1 in 4 (25.7%) children in the U.S. was Latino. That same year, the Latino population had a median age of 30, according to Census figures. For non-Latinos, the median age was 41.1. Numbers don’t lie. Put simply, Latinos are the future of America. At the same time, as Latinos, we revere our elderly. So much so that we often invite them to live with us, creating multi-generational housing arrangements. We’re not ready to cast them aside, or leave them behind.
Let’s define the five generations that will, this holiday season, in Latino households, gather around the table filled with turkey — or tamales, arroz con pollo, pupusas or mofongo.
The Silent Generation
Until 80-year-old Joe Biden came along, this aging cohort had never produced a U.S. president. They may have had a touch of an identity crisis because they grew up in the giant shadow of the so-called Greatest Generation, which survived the Great Depression and then won World War II.
Born from 1928 to 1945, the Silents followed events in Europe and the Pacific as children through news reel footage shown in local movie houses. They fought in the Korean conflict, welcomed the advent of television, went nuts for Elvis and rock “n” roll, watched the Soviet satellite Sputnik start the space race, and endured the humiliation of segregated schools, theaters, and swimming pools.
Today, they are between the ages of 78 and 95. Latino members of this generation likely include Cuban Americans who were in their teens or twenties during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and Mexican Americans who might have been present in Fresno in 1959 for the first convention of what would come to be known as the United Farm Workers union.
Representing some 69 million Americans who were conceived during the so-called “baby boom” that followed the end of World War II, the Boomers would — because of their size — go on to dominate and define countless aspects of American pop culture from fashion to music to political activism.
Born from 1946 to 1964, they braved the Cold War with the Russians, fought for civil rights for Latinos and Blacks, protested the Vietnam War, marched with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and suffered through the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
In 2023, this cohort is between the ages of 59 and 77. Those Latinos who trace their roots to Puerto Rico likely grew up speaking Spanish at home but learned English at school. Some of the Cubans may have been transported out of Cuba by Operation Peter Pan, the covert transport to the United States of more than 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban minors from 1960 to 1962.
Disparaged by the Boomers, our cohort of “latchkey” kids was pretty much left to raise ourselves because mom and dad both worked outside the home to afford a middle-class standard of living. After school, we let ourselves into the house with the key under the flower pot, cooked our own afterschool snack and flipped on the television to watch “The Brady Bunch.”
Born from 1965 to 1980, we X’ers got our first civics lesson when the Watergate hearings interrupted the cartoon hour, learned about the frailties of the U.S. government during the Iranian hostage crisis, cast our first votes for Ronald Reagan, watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 46,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean while were in college, and got to witness the election in 1992 of the one of the best natural politicians in modern memory: Bill Clinton.
Now, we are between the ages 43 and 58. The Mexican Americans are part of the last generation of Americans to actually welcome immigrants, which helped create a national climate in which Reagan — a pro-business Republican — felt comfortable signing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 which awarding amnesty to more than two million of the undocumented.
Millennials were the first generation to graduate from high school after the year 2000. Often raised by Baby Boomer parents, who put decals on their minivans that cautioned other motorists that there was a “Baby On Board” and kept their children encased in bubble wrap because they worried that their miracle children might be poisoned by a peanut, many Millennials have a healthy self-image. They began to see themselves as special early on. Of course, so did just about everyone else in the generation. When schools started to ban red markers as harmful to a child’s self-esteem, and coaches began handing out participation trophies, many Millennials began to wonder if they weren’t so special after all. Born from 1981 to 1996, Millennials have had a life experience largely defined by Barack Obama, 9/11, George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and the acceptance of climate change as a historical fact.
Today, in 2023, they are between the ages of 27 and 42. Latino Millennials abandoned the old rules that said one had to culturally assimilate in order to succeed in the mainstream. They wore t-shirts emblazoned with the word “Latino,” telling the world what they were. They seemed to reject the idea that one had to choose one culture or the other and instead basked in both.
The teenagers and early 20-somethings of today. If you spend most of your day in a classroom, chances are you’re a Zoomer. You intuitively understand tech, don’t mind being alone, and struggle with loneliness. Sometimes, you’re not good at cultivate human relationships, and you have trouble looking people in the eye. You sometimes lack initiative, and you’re not decisive or assertive. But you follow orders, work hard and get tasks done. You’re smart, capable and efficient.
Born from 1997 to 2012, Gen Zeta spent much of their childhood in shutdown due to COVID-19. They have lived through one dramatic — and traumatic — event after another, usually traceable to older people or authority figures behaving badly. Many of them were impacted by the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin and a wave of school shootings. They are very fluent in social media, and totally at home on the Internet.
Gen Zeta is between the ages of 11 and 26. They doen’t worry about fitting into the mainstream. Why should they? They are the mainstream. Their music, food, customs, fashion, dance moves, sports heroes, favorite movie stars have all been adopted (some would say culturally appropriated) by White, Black, and Asian friends who think being Latino is legit.
Imagine all these different generations of Latinos gathering for the holidays, and how they are likely to interact with one another. Perhaps not too well when things get competitive.
In the 1960’s Boomers took a jab at the World War II generation by advising: “Don’t trust anyone under 30.” Today, Silents complain that Millennials — who are often in a hurry — want to be named vice president of the company after six months on the job. Meanwhile, Generation X is prone to feeling resentment toward Millennials for getting the kind of proper care and feeding that we didn’t get. And Gen Zeta is over it, dismissing the criticism of older generations with a sneering: “Whatever, Boomer!”
Since we’re firmly embedded in the mainstream, and acculturate with ease, Latinos are sure to experience all the same things that white people do. But our ride through the generational minefield will also have twists and turns that are unique to our community.
As we fight to preserve our culture, retain our language and maintain our identity, Latinos are likely to continue to confront both overt and subtle discrimination. And, in response, we might be inclined to be overly judgmental of younger or older Latinos.
There is always the temptation to look across the table and conclude that the members of another generation are doing something wrong.
Guess what? They’re not. They’re just doing things differently, approaching life in their own way and on their own terms. Just like other generations tried to do.
The key to bridging the generational divide — and unifying the Latino community — is better communication. We’re all so eager to be heard, but we should all be doing more listening. As we gather up the various generations that define us, we have a great deal to talk about and sort through.
As Latinos, there is a lot we can teach each other. There is even more we can learn from one another.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, writer of the Navarrette Nation newsletter at Substack, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, video contributor to Straight Arrow News, host of the podcast, “Ruben In The Center” and a popular speaker on the lecture circuit.