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Have We Failed Ourselves?

Latinos just can't get along

By Ruben Navarrette

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Sooner or later, Latinos will have to admit  — even if only privately to ourselves — that the numbers failed us. 

On second thought, maybe we failed ourselves. Even in 2022, the verdict isn’t in yet. 


Right now, here’s what we know for sure: A generation ago, Latinos bet the hacienda that — despite all the discrimination and disrespect we endured in this country — changing demographics would be our saving grace. It was taken as an article of faith that, as the U.S. Latino population continued to increase, so too would it grow in stature, power and influence. 


It was going to be a toda madre. There would come a moment, many of us assumed, when destiny couldn’t be denied. Latinos would be so numerous

and so deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream, that the ruling powers would have no choice but to treat us with respect. 

That’s our real American Dream. Not fancy degrees, big houses, luxury cars or fat bank accounts. It’s all about respeto. We keep waiting for our fellow Americans — and to put a finer point on it, our fellow (White) Americans — to give us the credit to which we’re entitled.  


While it’s true that demographics did change over the last 30 years — so dramatically in fact that Latinos/Latinas wound up king (and queen) of the mountain, emerging as the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority — we still haven’t received our big payout. 

There are more of us, and some of us are indeed living our best lives. But, for the vast majority of Latinos, our lives haven’t changed much over the last three decades. Certainly, our standing as a whole hasn’t improved much. We lag behind in just about every societal indicator — from educational attainment to professional advancement to wealth creation.  


In fact, the last time Latinos led the way in anything was during the apocalypse of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic — that is, from March 2020 to the present day — Latinos have been more likely than White people to contract COVID-19, be hospitalized and die from the virus.  


As I have traveled the country giving speeches over the last 20 years, the message I hear from middle-aged Latinos in the audience has been pretty consistent. From Hartford, Connecticut to Pueblo, Colorado, Latinos confess that they thought “we’d be further along at this point.” This has become the anthem of Latinos in Generation X — those born between 1965 and 1980, who are now between the ages of 42 and 57. 


I thought we’d be further along at this point. 


Me too. Now that you mention it.  


According to the 2020 Census, there are 62.1 Million Latinos in this country. That represents 18.7% of the U.S. population. 


We matter politically. We live in too-close-to-call battleground states that decide presidential elections — places like Nevada, Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Texas. 


We matter economically. According to the most recent study by the Latino Donor Collaborative, the total annual economic output of U.S. Latinos in 2019 reached $2.7 trillion. That means if U.S. Latinos were a separate country, they’d be tied for the seventh-largest GDP in the world.


We matter culturally. Latinos continue to leave their mark on every facet of life in America from fashion, food, and sports to business, politics and science to music, entertainment and media.  


Demographers estimate that, by 2040, Latinos could account for as much as 25% of the U.S. population. That’ll be about the same time that the United States begins to transition into a “majority minority” country in which those Americans who are White will be outnumbered by those who are non-White. 


That’s when things are really going to change. Or will they? That verdict isn’t in either. 


There are things at which Latinos excel: providing for our families, accepting responsibility, working hard, being loyal employees, starting businesses, making sacrifices, deferring gratification, putting others first, and — more often than not — acting with humility.  


But, the universe being a fair place, there are also plenty of areas where Latinos underperform. Things we’re not good at: supporting our own kind, listening to one another, knowing our worth, telling our own stories, compromising on issues about which we feel strongly, thinking critically, valuing different points of view, and putting an end — finally — to the ethnic purity tests that serve as the great Latino-American pastime.                                                                                                                          

These are serious times for America’s largest minority. After spending generations on the outside looking in, we are about to take stewardship of this country. Yet, in many ways, we are not serious people. 


For instance, we always save our most ferocious battles for each other. And we’ll fight to the death amongst ourselves over the silliest of things. 


Like what we call ourselves, or prefer to be called.  Nearly two-thirds of the Latino population in the United States is made up of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. That’s almost the whole enchilada. 


In the 1940’s, we were “Mexican.” By the 1950’s, we felt that — due to our heroism in World War II — we had earned the right to refer to ourselves as “Mexican-American.” In the 1960’s, we became “Chicano.” In the 1970’s and 1980’s, we were “Hispanic.” By the 1990’s and 2000’s, we had become “Latino.” 


And what are we today? The mas woke have decreed that we should now be “Latinx.” A catch-all, gender-neutral, LGBTQ-friendly term that was intended to make the Latino community more inclusive wound up dividing it even further. In 2020, Pew Research Center found that only 3% of Latinos use the term. It actually seems to be more popular with White liberals.


As if that weren’t enough, some are now opting for “Latine.” Supposedly, it’s easier to pronounce without the x, whether as “Lateen” or “Latin-ay.” No one has figured out which.


What must onlookers think? Who wants to invest in, or partner with, a community that is constantly manufacturing drama? You can see why some companies, foundations and organizations might hesitate. 


You’ve heard the story of the Latino crabs. We’re all in the same basket, but when one of us tries to climb out, the others pull him down. Is it envidia, the green-eyed monster of envy that has always plagued us? 


Whatever the reason, we stab each other in the back when we should be standing together, and complain when we should be applauding our own success.


An example was In the Heights, the movie version of the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, set in the Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights. Miranda is the universally-acclaimed author of Hamilton. Yet when it came out last summer, In the Heights was savaged on Latino Twitter for “colorism.” 


You just can’t please all of us, whatever our color.


Yes, Latinos are still a hot market. But when it comes to how we relate to each other, we’re also a hot mess.



Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, columnist for The Daily Beast, author of A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano, and host of the podcast, “Ruben In The Center.”

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