Background Information for Teachers


How to define immigrants from Latin America?
Immigrants from Latin America come from more than 20 countries; they may speak Spanish, Portuguese or a wide array of indigenous languages including Quechua, Nahuatl, and Guaraní. Latin Americans are a multiracial and multicultural group: "The Hispanics have built their culture and identity precisely on their mixed Native American-European-African background, and that mixture can be the basis for reaching out to the world to the other peoples of the world" (Kanellos, 1998, p. 144). Latin American immigrants have diverse histories and are not easily classified as a group in terms of nationality, culture, ethnicity or race.

How then do we refer to this group of immigrants?
Two of the most common words used to describe immigrants from Latin America and their descendants are Hispanic and Latino. During the 1960's the United States Congress created the term Hispanic in order to count the Spanish-speaking citizens of the United States (Chabrán & Chabrán in the Latino Encyclopedia, 1996). The word Latino is a construct of the U.S Census Bureau, established to describe both U.S-born citizens of Hispanic origin and immigrants from Latin American and the Caribbean. The term has grown in popularity since its beginning in the mid-to late 1980's (Chabrán & Chabrán in the Latino Encyclopedia, 1996).

These definitions may over-simplify the personal experiences of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States. Many Latin American immigrants prefer to identify themselves in terms of their national origin rather than such pan-ethnic terms as Latino or Hispanic. According to Chabrán & Chabrán in the Latino Encyclopedia (1996) the term Hispanic ignores the great diversity of cultural backgrounds in the Spanish speaking population. Hispanic implies Spanish ancestry; its literal meaning is "pertaining to ancient Spain" but it does not account for the indigenous and/or African roots present in many Latino cultures. In contrast the term Latino encompasses many groups recognizing the cultural differences among them. Although this term has been more popular than Hispanic in areas where many diverse groups from Latin America live together, it does not totally reflect the many differences between Cuban-Americans and Mexican Americans, or between recently arrived immigrants from Brazil and El Salvador. For the purposes of this web-site, we will use the term Latino because it is the most inclusive definition. For example Brazilians would be considered Latinos and not Hispanic.

For a discussion about the theoretical and political significance of these terms see

Marta E. Gimenez, 1999, p.225.

Largest state concentrations of the Latino population in the United States.

Estimated from the Population Estimates program of the U.S. Census Bureau in 1998.





New York








New Jersey


Adapted from Population Estimates Program, Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington D.C. Population estimates for States by race and Hispanic origin: July 1998.

The biggest expansion of Latino presence will naturally be in the states that draw the most immigrants: also California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois and New Jersey. Immigrant communities are growing rapidly in Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Washington state.

The diversification of the Latino population in the United States its also increasing:

Juan Florez (2000), a professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center talks about the incremental growth and enormous diversification of the Latino population in the U.S. and in particular in New York City. While in the past "Latin New York" was associated mostly with Puerto Ricans, today the city includes Dominicans, Mexicans, Colombians and Ecuadorians among others.

Latin American immigrant groups to the U.S.

Not of Hispanic origin


Hispanic origin



Puerto Rican




Dominican (Dominican Republic)


Central American











Other Central American


South American







Other South American


Other Hispanic


Adapted from U.S Bureau of the Census. 1990 Census of population and Housing

How is the "new immigration" different from previous immigrations?
The new immigration is a term used by U.S. scholars of immigration to describe the immigration of Latin Americans, Caribbean and Asians to the United States in recent decades. The experience of Latinos in the past 30 years is "new" for many reasons. This period of immigration has been profoundly different from those that preceded it. Innovations in communication technology and transportation have played a major role in the new immigration, since it is easier and faster to come to the U.S. and maintain communications with the immigrant country of origin. Suárez-Orozco (1999) suggests that the new immigrants are entering a country which is economically, socially, and culturally unlike the country which absorbed previous waves of immigrants. Economically, the previous wave of immigrants arrived on the eve of the great industrial expansion in which immigrant workers and consumers played a key role. The kinds of jobs available in today’s economy to new immigrants, many of whom are low skilled and unskilled immigrants, do not hold much promise for upward mobility.

For many Latin Americans, immigration is not a one-time occurrence, but a process. Many Latinos live in a constant back and forth, often sending their wages to their families back home and visiting regularly. In this way, they have forged a social, cultural, and economic connection between their nations and the United States. This kind of repeated immigration is totally unprecedented in immigration history. Previous immigrant groups tended to started a totally new life once they arrived on the new continent. Latin American immigrants in the United States maintain an essential link with the rest of the Western hemisphere through media, banking, import-export, political participation and many other enterprises in the United States.

This transnationality is unlike anything we have seen in previous waves of immigration.

"With the old pattern of immigration to the United States, a break was made with the country or origin. The Irish, the Eastern Europeans, the Italians either came forever or they went back. Fully a third of the Italians coming to the United States returned home. But they didn't move back and forth, participating in two economies and two polities, the way many Latinos do today". (Suárez-Orozco & Sommer, 2000, p.4)

Changes in the ethnic composition of the U.S. society:
The new immigration has had a transforming effect on U.S. society and culture, altering dramatically the country's ethnic composition.

"The new immigrants (about 80 percent of them) tend to be nonwhites, non-English-speaking,
non-European emigrating from developing countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and
Asia (Edmonston and Passel 1994, 41). They are more socioculturally diverse than ever
before" (Suárez-Orozco, 1998, p.9)

According to the Bureau of the Census(1996) and National Research Council (1997),

the following charts reflect ethnic demographics of the U.S. for years 1945, 1995 and 2050

Spanish Language in the United States
As a result of continuous immigration over the last 30 years, as well as the historical back-and-forth migration of Mexican- Americans and Puerto Ricans and more recently of other national groups, Latinos have held on to Spanish over more generations than any other group in history. Ninety percent of U.S Latinos speak Spanish. In contrast, speakers of Italian dwindled by ninety-four percent from the second to the third generation.

There is no one explanation for why Latinos have maintained their language where other immigrant groups have not. The result however has been a distinctly new and hybrid culture which has impacted the United States as much as it has impacted Latinos: "soon the United States will have the second largest number of Spanish-speakers in the world".

The impact of this group’s preservation of their native tongue language is demonstrated by the growing Spanish and Portuguese (primarily in Massachusetts) language market and mass media. There are three national Spanish-language television networks and hundreds of Spanish language newspapers, periodicals, and radio stations.

The Impact of the New Immigration on the United States
Latin American immigrants are creating a new culture in the United States with an increasing political participation: "For the first time, Denver and San Antonio have had Latinos as Mayors, and Latinos have been elected to state legislatures throughout the Southwest, Florida, the Northeast and Illinois" (Kanellos 1998 p, 122)

Al Gore and George Bush are communicating directly with the Latino community by giving campaign speeches in Spanish. Quiroz and Kang (2000) state after an intensive market research of the Latino identity; "Hispanics now have an unprecedented level of influence on the music we listen to, the sports we watch and the food we eat" [and] have established themselves as a social, cultural, political and economic force" (p 28).

The impact of Latinos in the U.S. society is at all levels (cited in Suárez-Orozco 1999): "Latin American immigration is palpably changing the public space (see Ainslie, 1998;Gutiérrez, 1998), and social institutions-including schools (Trueba, 1996; Orfield, 1995),places of work (Waldinger, 1997), businesses (Cornelius, 1998) and places of worship (Eck, 1996)".

Major changes in immigration policy affecting Latin Americans during the second half of the twentieth century: (Immigration policy for Latin Americans differs from the one applied to European immigrants at the beginning of last century)

1965: Immigration and Nationality Act disregards the national origins quota system in favor of 170,000 persons from the Old World and 120,000 persons from the Western Hemisphere.

1966: Status of Cuban refugees adjusted to permanent resident alien

1968: Congress restricted visas for residents of the Western Hemisphere to 120,000 per year. Immigration and Naturalization Service introduced border crossing cards for Mexican citizens.

1976: A preference system was instituted reflecting the categories among which a specified number of immigrant visas are distributed each year and annual 20,000 limit per country, resulting in an increase in the number of undocumented immigrants.

1980: Refugee Act of 1980 – adjusted status of refugees to permanent resident after one year and established procedures for emergency refugee situations. Immigration Reform and Control Act - adjusted status of Cubans entering Mariel Harbor between 4/15/80 and 10/20/80, as well as Haitians entering without permission prior to 1/1/81, to permanent resident status.

1986: Immigration Reform Act of 1986-Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) – 3 million immigrants legalized their status. 75% of the immigrants naturalized were Mexican immigrants

1990: Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMCAT)- creation of a separate preference system to increase employment-based visa.

Historical moments of large scale immigrations from Mexico, a country who has the highest representation in the United States population, include:

The border between the United States and Mexico is among the longest and most heavily guarded international borders in the world (Suárez-Orozco, 1999). Indeed, it has been the focus of so much discussion, and controversy, that it is hard to imagine that the physical border, dotted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) checkpoints and walls, was only created as we know it in the mid-twentieth century.

Many Mexican-Americans can trace their ancestry not only to Spanish colonists who arrived in the United States Southwest in 1600s and 1700s , but also to the Mestizos who have Native American and Spanish blood and who settled in the lands from Florida to California. This group did not immigrate, but were granted American citizenship when Mexico was forced to cede the territory they lived on on after the Mexican-American war in 1848. Those territories were those that form the present states of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and California.

"Mexicans in the United States are at once immigrants and nonimmigrants: The original Mexican-origin population in the United States did not move to the United States; rather the
United States moved to them when Mexico lost an enormous portion of its
northern territories to the United States" .(Suárez-Orozco, 1998, p.415)

From 1880-1900, the Southwest experienced an economic boom following the establishment of the railroads in Mexico and the Southwest. 127,000 Mexicans were recruited to work with United States railroad companies (Kanellos, 1998).

In the early 20th century (1910-1919), employers in the Southwest and Midwest of the United States continued recruiting and transporting Mexican workers for a number of reasons: "Increased labor demand spurred by Chinese worker inclusion in 1882, Japanese worker exclusion in 1907, and a shortage of European immigrants during World War I encouraged Mexican immigration" .

In this period, Texas and California became a year round agricultural industry, requiring intense labor inputs. Mexican workers performed low skilled and low-paying tasks: building and maintaining railroads, working in Chicago stockyards, open hearth steel mills, and in agriculture.

It is important to note that while U.S. companies were hoping to pull immigrants into the U.S., the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was pushing Mexicans out by generating wide-scale violence, high levels of unemployment and low wages. Political and religious refugees from the entrepreneurial and educated classes became pillars of many Mexican -American communities in the United States .

The Great Depression decimated the job market in the United States in the late 20s, and as a result Mexican-Americans faced more competition for their low-paying jobs as well as widespread hostility:

President Herbert Hoover even blamed the Depression on the presence of Mexican Americans, providing another example of scapegoating of immigrants during difficult economic times. As a consequence, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) routinely rounded up Mexicans and repatriated them to Mexico, forcing them to take their American-born children, who were U.S. citizens, with them. Close to 500,000 Mexicans were repatriated during the Depression. (Chávez, 1998, p. 619).

This was the largest mass deportation of a group in U.S. history.

Many have argued that this perception of the Mexican-American community marginalized the group, keeping educational levels low and allowing for little economic mobility. The Bracero Program was established between 1942-1964, when the United States and Mexico made a number of labor agreements to bring Mexican workers to work on farms and railroads. This program became popularly known as the "Bracero Program", bracero meaning "arms" in Spanish" [and it] has advantages as a ready source of cheap labor, especially in agriculture. (Chávez, L. 1998). The Program was initiated as a result of a labor shortage in the United States due to World War II. The United States granted temporary working visas to approximately half a million Mexican agricultural workers annually in this period. It cemented an already recurring theme of recruitment and deportation. However, created a perception of Mexican immigrants as temporary workers. . During its peak in 1956, the program recruited 445, 197 workers (Reimers, 1992 as cited in Suárez-Orozco, 1999). In 1964 when the Congress refused to expand the program many Mexicans stayed, along with their family members: Since that time, both legal and undocumented migration from Mexico has grown steadily (Baker, Latapi, & Weintraub, 1998, p.87).

Nevertheless the community has grown exponentially, becoming the largest immigrant group in the United States. Over 10 million Mexican citizens have immigrated to the United States since the 1970s. Under the 1986 Immigration Law, 75 percent of the immigrants naturalized were Mexican immigrants. "In 1990, there were more legal immigrants from Mexico than from all of Europe combined" (Suárez-Orozco, 1999, p.232). In 1997, there were seven million of Mexican immigrants residing in the United States. This does not include American citizens of Mexican ancestry.

"Mexicans in the United States shifted from agricultural and seasonal jobs to urban jobs with less demand variation. This shift had precedent. During World War II, Mexicans had performed many urban manufacturing jobs. The transition took place again in the 1970s and 1980s, prompted by the increasing availability of Mexican workers (an outcome of the Mexican crisis and adjustment) and by the rise in world competition"(Baker, Latapi, & Weintraub, 1998, p.90) .

In addition, the community of Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, and Mexican immigrants, has acquired significant political presence- particularly in the Southwest and California. "Chicanos is a name for Mexican immigrants to the United States; it comes from the word Mechicano, a Native American name for Mexico" (Ryan & Kanellos, 1995, p.60). Mexicans, as well as other Latin American immigrant groups "bring with them the Spanish language, values, and behavior that reinvigorate Mexican-culture in communities in the Southwest and throughout the United States" (Chávez, 1998, p. 623).


Latinos and Massachusetts
This information provides details on changes in the Latino population here in Massachusetts and more specifically, issues concerning education and students.

Information was taken from articles produced by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. This institute was established at the University of Massachusetts Boston through the initiative of Latino community activists and academicians in response to a need for improved understanding of Latino experiences and living conditions in Massachusetts. The task of the institute is to inform policy makers about issues vital to the Commonwealth’s growing Latino community and to provide this community with information and analysis necessary for effective participation in public policy development. For further information or other articles on Latino issues, visit their website at

Latino Population in Massachusetts
Over the past ten years, the Latino population has shown tremendous growth in the state of Massachusetts, estimated at 20% from 1990 to 1995 alone. By the year 2000, if the rate of growth continues, about 400,000 Latinos will live in the state. According to estimates for the year 2010, Massachusetts’ Latino population will exceed 500,000 and account for 8.4% of the state’s total population.

Diversity among Latinos in terms of national background has increased as well. Historically in Massachusetts, the Latino population was primarily Puerto Rican, accounting for over 75% in the 1970s. In 1990, Puerto Ricans comprised only 53% of Latinos in the state, with the remaining population consisting of Dominicans, Central Americans, South Americans, Mexicans, and Cubans.

Latino Population in Boston
The city with the largest number of Latino residents is Boston, with over 71,000 in 1995, or 12.2% of the total Boston population. Among individual Boston neighborhoods, including Roxbury, North Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain, the Latino populations are projected to increase by as much as 30% by 2005. The Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research estimates that by the year 2005, the Latino population in Boston will increase by 50% to account for 19% of the population.

Latino Students in Massachusetts
As of 1997, over 90,000 Latino students were enrolled in grades K-12 in Massachusetts public schools. This is 9.7% of the total number of students enrolled, and represents an increase of 81.5% from the number of students in 1987.

School Districts with the Highest Rates of Growth

In Latino Enrollment, 1987-1997


% Change


















Challenges in Education
Scores from the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test, a state-designated measure of student achievement in English, math, and science, reveal that in grades 4, 8, and 10, in all areas of the test, Latino students failed in higher percentages than any other racial group.

State policy currently dictates that beginning in 2003, all 10th grade students must pass every section of the MCAS to advance in their high school education. Had this policy been in effect in 1998, over 80% of 10th grade Latino students would have been unable to receive their diploma in the year 2000. Even in the current educational system, in which this policy has not yet been effected, Latino individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 have a higher percentage of non-enrollment (21.9%) and lower percentage with a high school diploma (44.8%) than those individuals of other races.

Occupation and Potential Consequences of Educational Policy
Currently, Latinos are primarily employed in service or manual labor positions, holding only 12.3% of managerial and professional jobs. The 5.9% rate of Latino unemployment is second highest among racial groups.

The new policy on MCAS passage as a graduation prerequisite promises harmful ramifications for the future of Latino students. If the percentage of Latinos who complete high school decreases as a result of the policy, as it most likely will, it will have an incredible impact on the Latino workforce. Without a high school diploma, there can be little hope of bridging the existing gap. The already meager percentages of Latinos in professional positions will drop, and unemployment figures will rise.

Suggested recommendations for Educators
The most effective teachers of Latino students hold the same high expectations of them as they hold for other students, believing in their competency and challenging them with an intellectually stimulating curriculum. Thus they avoid the creation or reinforcement of a student’s low self-expectations. Other recommendations:

  • Keep in contact with parents to discuss students’ progress. This step encourages parents to become more involved in and enthusiastic about the academic achievement of their children.
  • Make lessons that are hands-on, concrete, and personalized.
  • Use actual excerpts from literary texts rather than watered-down summaries.
  • Provide immediate feedback that allows students to recognize and correct their errors.
  • Instead of orienting teaching toward standardized testing, utilize methods of instruction that involve critical thinking and active learning, such as class discussions essays, research projects, and laboratory experimentation.

Of the utmost importance in encouraging Latino students toward academic excellence is the creation of a multicultural curriculum that recognizes the Latino presence in the public school system. In a school system with a significant percentage of Latinos, there is currently a lack of classes, which acknowledge the Latino impact on America and the world, such as Latin American history, Spanish language literature, and bilingual education.



Baker, S. G., Latapi, A. E., & Weintraub, S. (1998). U.S. Immigration Policies and Trends: The Growing Importance of Migration from Mexico. In M. Suárez-Orozco (Ed.), Crossings: Mexican Immigration in Interdisciplinary Perspectives . Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies/Harvard University Press.

Bureau of the Census. (1996). Population Projections of the United States by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1995 to 2050. Washington DC: Goverment Printing Office.

Charán, R. & Charán, R. (Eds.). (1996). The Latino Encyclopedia. (Vol. 3). New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.

Chávez, L, (1998). Mexicans. In Levinson, D, and Ember, M, (Eds.) American Immigrant Cultures: Builders of a Nation. (Vol 2), 625-635.

Flores, J. (2000). New York, Diaspora City. DRCLAS News, Spring, 8-11.

Gimenez, M. E. (1999). Latinos/Hispanic: Who needs a name? In A. Darder, R. D. Torres, & H. Gutiérrez (Eds.), Latinos and Education: A Critical Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kanellos, N. (1998). Thirty Million Strong: Reclaiming the Hispanic Image in American Culture. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

National Research Council. (1997). The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press.

Quiroz, L., & Kang, R. (2000). Connecting with U.S. Hispanics: Understanding Hispanic Identity and the Importance of Culturally Relevant Media. DRCLAS News, Spring, 28-29.

Paludine, D, (1998) Land of the Free: A Journey to the American Dream. New York: Gramercy Books.

Ryan, B., & Kanellos, N. (Eds.). (1995). Hispanic American Almanac. United States: UXL Gale Research Inc.

Suárez-Orozco, M. (Ed.). (1998). Crossings: Mexican immigration in interdisciplinary perspectives. Cambridge: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and Harvard University Press.

Suárez-Orozco, M. (1999). Latin American Immigration to the United States. In V. Bulmer-Thomas & J. Dunkerly (Eds.), The United States and Latin America: The New Agenda (pp. 2-5). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suárez-Orozco, M., & Sommer, D. (2000). Becoming Latinos. DRCLAS News, Spring, 2-5.

U.S. Census Bureau. (1990). Population and Housing: Hispanic Origin - Universe: Persons. Washington D.C.:

U.S. Census Bureau. (1998). Population Estimates for States by race and Hispanic origin: July 1, 1998. Washington D.C.:

U.S. Department of Justice. (1997). 1996 Statistical yearbook of the immigration and naturalization service : U.S. Department of Justice: Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Latinos in Massachusetts: An Update. Andrés Torres and Lisa Chavez, November 1998.

Latino Students and the Massachusetts Public Schools. Miren Uriarte and Lisa Chavez, March 2000.

Creating Possibilities for Success for Latino Children in Massachusetts Public Schools. Ralph Rivera and Sonia Nieto, 1994.

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