Hispanic Identity Fades Across Generations as Immigrant Connections Fall Away

More than 18% of Americans identify as Hispanic or Latino, the nation’s second largest racial or ethnic group. But two trends – a long-standing high intermarriage rate and a decade of declining Latin American immigration – are distancing some Americans with Hispanic ancestry from the life experiences of earlier generations, reducing the likelihood they call themselves Hispanic or Latino.

Among the estimated 42.7 million U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry in 2015, nine-in-ten (89%), or about 37.8 million, self-identify as Hispanic or Latino. But another 5 million (11%) do not consider themselves Hispanic or Latino, according to Pew Research Center estimates. The closer they are to their immigrant roots, the more likely Americans with Hispanic ancestry are to identify as Hispanic. Nearly all immigrant adults from Latin America or Spain (97%) say they are Hispanic. Similarly, second-generation adults with Hispanic ancestry (the U.S.-born children of at least one immigrant parent) have nearly as high a Hispanic self-identification rate (92%), according to Pew Research Center estimates.

By the third generation – a group made up of the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents and immigrant grandparents – the share that self-identifies as Hispanic falls to 77%. And by the fourth or higher generation (U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents and U.S.-born grandparents, or even more distant relatives), just half of U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry say they are Hispanic.1

Among adults who say they have Hispanic ancestors (a parent, grandparent, great grandparent or earlier ancestor) but do not self-identify as Hispanic, the vast majority – 81% – say they have never thought of themselves as Hispanic, according to a Pew Research Center survey of the group. When asked why this is the case in an open-ended follow-up question, the single most common response (27%) was that their Hispanic ancestry is too far back or their background is mixed.

These findings emerge from two Pew Research Center national surveys that explored attitudes and experiences about Hispanic identity among two populations. The first survey, conducted Oct. 21-Nov. 30, 2015, in English and Spanish, explored the attitudes and experiences of a nationally representative sample of 1,500 self-identified Hispanic adults. The second is a first-of-its-kind national survey of 401 U.S. adults who indicated they had Hispanic, Latino, Spanish or Latin American ancestry or heritage (in the form of parents, grandparents or other relatives) but did not consider themselves Hispanic. It was offered in English and Spanish from Nov. 11, 2015-Feb. 7, 2016, but all respondents took the survey in English. Both surveys were conducted by SSRS for Pew Research Center. Together, these two surveys provide a look at the identity experiences and views of U.S. adults who say they have Hispanic ancestry.

Declining immigration, high intermarriage rates

Immigration from Latin America played a central role in the U.S. Hispanic population’s growth and its identity during the 1980s and 1990s. But by the 2000s, U.S. births overtook the arrival of new immigrants as the main driver of Hispanic population dynamics. And the Great Recession,2 coupled with many other factors, significantly slowed the flow of new immigrants into the country, especially from Mexico. As a result, the U.S. Hispanic population is still growing, but at a rate nearly half of what it was over a decade ago as fewer immigrants arrive in the U.S. and the fertility rate among Hispanic women has declined.

Over the same period, the Latino intermarriage rate remained relatively high and changed little. In 2015, 25.1% of Latino newlyweds married a non-Latino spouse and 18.3% of all married Latinos were intermarried;3 in 1980, 26.4% of Latino newlyweds intermarried and 18.1% of all married Latinos had a non-Latino spouse, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of government data. In both 1980 and 2015, Latino intermarried rates were higher than those for blacks or whites.4 Intermarriage rates also vary within the Latino population: 39% of married U.S.-born adults had a non-Latino spouse while just 15% of married immigrant Latinos did.

As a result of high intermarriage rates, some of today’s Latinos have parents or grandparents of mixed heritage, with that share higher among later generations. According to the surveys, 18% of immigrants say that they have a non-Latino parent or grandparent in their family, a share that rises to 29% among the second generation and 65% among the third or higher generation, according to the Pew Research Center survey of self-identified Latino adults. And for those who say they have Latino ancestry but do not identify as Latino, fully 96% say they have some non-Latino heritage in their background.

A similar pattern is present among those who are married, according to the two surveys. Some 78% of all married Hispanics have a spouse who is also Hispanic, according to the survey of self-identified Hispanics. But that share declines across the generations. Nearly all married immigrant Hispanics (93%) have a Hispanic spouse, while 63% among second-generation married Hispanics and just 35% among married third-generation Hispanics have a Hispanic spouse. Meanwhile, only 15% of married U.S. adults who say they are not Hispanic but have Hispanic ancestry have a Hispanic spouse.

These trends may have implications for the shape of Hispanic identity today. With so many U.S.-born Hispanics of Hispanic and non-Hispanic heritages, their views and experiences with Hispanic culture and identity vary depending on how close they are to their family’s immigrant experiences.

These trends also have implications for the future of Hispanic identity in the U.S. Lower immigration levels than in the past and continued high intermarriage rates may combine to produce a growing number of U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestors who may not identify as Hispanic or Latino. And even among those who do self-identify as Hispanic or Latino, those in the second and third or higher generations may see their identity as more tied to the U.S. than to the origins of their parents, a pattern observed in many previous5 Pew Research Center Latino surveys.

As a result, even estimates of the number of Americans who self-identify as Hispanic could be lower than currently projected. The latest population projections emphasize the size and speed of Hispanic population growth – according to Pew Research Center projections, the nation’s Hispanic population will be 24% of all Americans by 2065, compared with 18% in 2015. But these projections assume that many current trends, including Hispanic self-identity trends, will continue. If they change, growth in the population of self-identified Hispanics could slow even further and the nation’s own sense of its diversity could change as fewer than expected Americans of Hispanic ancestry self-identify as Hispanic.

What is Hispanic identity?

When it comes to describing themselves and what makes someone Hispanic, there is some consensus across self-identified Hispanics. However, not all Hispanics agree, with views often linked to immigrant generation.

The immigrant experience is an important part of the U.S. Hispanic experience. Roughly four-in-ten self-identified U.S. Hispanics (38%)6 are immigrants themselves, a share that rises to 53% among adult Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. Meanwhile, 62% of Hispanics are U.S. born, a share that falls to 48% among adult Hispanics.

Some U.S.-born Latinos have direct links to their family’s immigrant roots – 34% are the U.S.-born children of at least one immigrant parent, or part of the second generation. Others are more distant from those roots – 28% are the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born Latino parents, or of the third or higher generation.

Terms used most often to describe identity

The terms that self-identified Hispanics use to describe themselves can provide a direct look at their views of identity and the link to their countries of birth or family origin. Among all Hispanic adults, for example, half say they most often describe themselves by their family’s country of origin or heritage, using terms such as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican or Salvadoran. Another 23% say they most often call themselves American. The other 23% most often describe themselves as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” the pan-ethnic terms used to describe this group in the U.S., according to the survey of self-identified Hispanics.7

However, the use of these terms varies widely across immigrant generations and reflects the different experiences of each group of Hispanics.

Two-thirds (65%) of immigrant Latinos most often uses the name of their origin country to describe themselves, the highest share among the generations. That share falls to 36% among second-generation Latinos and to 26% among third or higher generation Latinos.

Meanwhile, the share that says they most often use the term “American” to describe themselves rises from 7% among immigrants to 56% among the third generation or higher, mirroring, in reverse, the use pattern for country of origin terms. Third or higher generation Latinos were born in the U.S. to U.S.-born parents, and these findings show that for this group, their ties to their U.S. national identity are strong.

Another measure of identity is how much Hispanics feel a common identity with other Americans. Overall, U.S. Hispanics are divided on this question: Half (50%) consider themselves to be a typical American while 44% say they are very different from a typical American. But this finding masks large differences across the generations. Some 36% of immigrant Hispanics consider themselves a typical American. That share rises to 63% among second-generation Hispanics and to 73% among third or higher generation Hispanics, reflecting their birth country (the U.S.) and their lifetime experiences.

Does speaking Spanish or having a Spanish last name make one Hispanic?

Speaking Spanish is a characteristic often linked to Latino identity. For example, some say that you cannot be Latino unless you happen to speak Spanish, or that someone is “more Latino” if they speak Spanish than someone who does not speak Spanish but is also of Latino heritage.

This came up during a debate in the 2016 presidential campaign, when Republican candidate U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio questioned whether Ted Cruz, another senator and GOP candidate, spoke Spanish.

Yet, when directly asked about the link between Latino identity and speaking Spanish, seven-in-ten (71%) Latino adults say speaking Spanish is not required to be considered Latino. Even among immigrant Latinos, a majority (58%) holds this view about Spanish and Latino identity. And among U.S.-born Latinos, higher shares say the same: 84% of second-generation Latinos and 92% of third or higher generation Latinos (the group farthest from their family’s immigrant roots) say speaking Spanish does not make someone Latino.

Another characteristic that for some is seen as important to Hispanic identity is having a Spanish last name. However, here too, the vast majority (84%) of self-identified Hispanics say it is not necessary to have a Spanish last name to be considered Hispanic, no matter their immigrant generation.

Not all Americans with Hispanic ancestry self-identify as Hispanic

Racial and ethnic identity in the U.S. since the 1960s has been based on self-reports: You are what you say you are. This is how race and ethnicity is measured in government surveys, as well as in surveys by Pew Research Center and other research groups. As a result, there are some Americans who say they have Hispanic ancestry but do not consider themselves Hispanic.

Overall, this group represents 2% of the national adult population, amounting to 5 million adults, according to the Center’s estimates. Or, looked at another way, among the 42.7 million U.S. adults who say they have Hispanic ancestry, 11% do not identify as Hispanic.

This group also has distant immigrant roots. Some 38% are fourth or higher generation, i.e., the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents, U.S.-born grandparents and likely other U.S. born ancestors. Another 23% are third generation (the U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents), 17% are second generation (the U.S.-born children of at least one immigrant parent), and just 12% are immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center survey of self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry.

For adults with Hispanic ancestry who do not self-identify as Hispanic, 81% say they have never considered themselves Hispanic or Latino. The reasons for this are many and are often linked to mixed backgrounds, limited contact with Hispanic relatives and few Hispanic cultural links, according to a follow-up open-ended question. For example, some 27% said they do not consider themselves Hispanic because they have a mixed Hispanic and non-Hispanic background or that their Hispanic ancestry is too distant. Another 16% said they do not consider themselves Hispanic despite their Hispanic ancestry because of their upbringing or that they have little contact with their Hispanic relatives; 15% said the reason they say they are not Hispanic is because they do not speak Spanish or have no link to Hispanic culture; 12% said they do not look Hispanic or they identify as another race; and 9% said they were born in the U.S. and consider themselves American.

Latino cultural traditions, Spanish use and connections to family’s origin country

The conversations parents have with their children and the cultural cues they provide while their children are growing up can have a large impact on their children’s identity in adulthood. However, the number of Hispanic cultural activities experienced by Americans with Hispanic ancestry declines across the generations, mirroring the finding that Hispanic self-identity also fades across generations.

Parents and their pride in their Latino origins

Immigrant and second-generation self-identified Hispanics (57% and 50% respectively) are most likely to say their parents talked often about their pride in their country of origin roots. But by the third generation, only 33% say their parents talked often about their pride in their roots while growing up.

For self-identified non-Hispanics, the majority of whom are of the third or higher immigrant generation, just 15% say they often heard their parents talk often about their pride in their ancestor’s country of origin.

Attending Hispanic cultural celebrations in childhood

Across immigrant generations, reports of childhood experiences with Hispanic cultural celebrations, such as posadas or quinceañeras, decline for Americans with Hispanic ancestry the farther they are from their immigrant roots.

Among immigrant self-identified Hispanics, 59% say that when they were growing up, their parents took them to Hispanic cultural celebrations often, reflecting that the majority of this group grew up outside the U.S.

Second-generation self-identified Hispanics were about as likely to say this happened during their childhood. Half (49%) report that when they were growing up, their immigrant parents took them often to Hispanic cultural celebrations. A smaller share (35%) of third or higher generation self-identified Hispanics report the same about their childhoods.

By comparison, among Americans who say they have a Latino ancestry, but do not self-identify as Latino, just 9% report that when they were growing up, their parents took them to Latino cultural celebrations. Meanwhile, 60% say this never happened.

Parents encouraged Spanish

Another important way that parents can encourage their children’s Hispanic self-identity is through their use of language. However, the two surveys reveal that the childhood experiences with Spanish fade quickly across the generations, even though there is wide support for the language among Hispanics.

Fully 85% of foreign-born self-identified Hispanics say that when they were growing up, their parents often encouraged them to speak Spanish. But that share falls to 68% among the U.S.-born second generation and to just 26% of the third or higher generation Hispanics.

By contrast, just 9% of self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry say their parents often encouraged them to speak Spanish, again reflecting the distance this group has from its immigrant roots.

Spanish use declines across the generations even as Latinos say it is important to speak it

About 40 million people in the U.S. say they speak Spanish in their home today, making Spanish the second most spoken language in the U.S. But while the number of Spanish speakers nationally is rising, among self-identified Hispanics the share who speak it at home is in decline.

The two Pew Research Center surveys explored how respondents rated their own ability to speak and read Spanish and to speak and read English.

Among self-identified Hispanics, 61% of immigrants are Spanish dominant, meaning they are more proficient in speaking and reading in Spanish than they are in English. By comparison, only 6% of the second generation is Spanish dominant and essentially none of the third generation is Spanish dominant, according to the Center’s estimates.

While a small share of U.S.-born Latinos are Spanish dominant, a larger share is bilingual. Among second-generation self-identified Latinos – i.e., the U.S.-born children of immigrant parents – about half (51%) are bilingual. Among third or higher generation self-identified Latinos, that share is 24%.

Meanwhile, English dominance rises across the generations. Among foreign-born self-identified Hispanics, only 7% say they mostly use English. This share rises to 43% in the second generation, and 75% in the third or higher generation.

The language profile of self-identified non-Hispanics who have Hispanic ancestry is different. Fully 90% say they are English dominant and just 10% are bilingual.

Despite a decline in Spanish use across generations, there is widespread support for its use in the future. Overall, 88% of self-identified Hispanics and 64% of self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry say it is important that future generations of Hispanics living in the U.S. speak Spanish.

Connections to family’s country of origin fade across generations

Among self-identified Hispanics, connections with ancestral national origins decline as immigrant roots become more distant. Eight-in-ten immigrants (82%) who identify as Hispanics say they feel very or somewhat connected with their country of origin. About seven-in-ten (69%) second-generation Hispanics – the children of at least one immigrant parent – say the same. However, by the third generation, only 44% feel very or somewhat connected to their family’s country of origin.

Connections to the home country decline even further among non-Hispanic adults with Hispanic ancestry. Only about a third of them (34%) say they feel very or somewhat connected to their family’s country of origin, while two-thirds (65%) say they feel not very or not connected at all to these countries.

The Hispanic experience today

The contemporary experiences linked to the Hispanic background of self-identified Hispanics and non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry vary across generations in much the way their childhood and cultural experiences do.

Does having a Hispanic heritage create advantages or disadvantages in life?

The two Pew Research Center surveys asked respondents whether their Hispanic heritage has made a difference in their life. Overall, Hispanic heritage has had the greatest impact on the lives of second-generation Hispanics, half of whom (52%) say their Hispanic background has been an advantage in their lives. By contrast, just 28% of immigrant Hispanics and 24% of third or higher generation Hispanics say the same.

By contrast, just 11% of self-identified non-Hispanics say their Hispanic background has been mostly an advantage for them while 86% say it has not made a difference in their lives.

Majority of non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry think others see them as white

How do adults with Hispanic ancestry think strangers walking past them on the street would describe their background?

Among self-identified Hispanics, 78% of immigrants say strangers on the street would think they were Hispanic or Latino. That share falls to two-thirds among second-generation Hispanics and 46% among third or higher generation Hispanics.

The share falls even further, to just 7%, among U.S. adults with Hispanic ancestry who do not self-identify as Hispanic. Meanwhile, 59% say passersby on the street would describe them as white, and not Hispanic or Latino.

Experience with discrimination

The two surveys explored experiences with discrimination related to being Hispanic. And just as with other measures, experiences with discrimination are less frequent among higher generations of adults with Hispanic ancestry. Even so, 39% of self-identified Hispanics say they have felt discriminated against because of their Hispanic or Latino background.

Some 42% of self-identified Latino immigrants say they have experienced discrimination often (8%) or sometimes (34%) because of their Latino background. A similar share (38%) of second-generation Latinos say the same. Meanwhile 29% of third or higher generation Latinos say they have experienced the same level of discrimination.

By contrast, few self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry (7%) say they have experienced discrimination while 87% say they have never been discriminated against because of their Hispanic background.

How many Hispanic friends?

The composition of networks of friends varies widely across immigrant generations. Most (77%) immigrant Latinos say all or most of their friends are Latinos. But this share drops to 55% among second-generation self-identified Latinos and only 37% among third or higher generation self-identified Latinos.

Among self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry, 16% say all or most of their friends are Hispanic.

Living in Hispanic neighborhoods

The nation’s Hispanic population has become more dispersed in the past few decades and has grown to 58 million. As a result, in 500 of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties, Hispanics make up at least 15.0% of the local population. Yet, Hispanics are often living in neighborhoods that are largely Hispanic, especially in the South and in the West. The two surveys asked self-identified Hispanics and self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry about their neighborhoods.

Four-in-ten (39%) self-identified Hispanics say that “all” (10%) or “most” (30%) of their neighbors are Hispanics. By comparison, just 17% of self-identified non-Hispanics say the same, showing that non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry are more dispersed across the country than their Hispanic counterparts.

Among self-identified Latinos, the foreign born and the second generation are most likely to say that all or most of their neighbors share their heritage. Some 41% of both groups say this. The share that lives in largely Latino neighborhoods falls to 30% among third or higher generation self-identified Latinos.

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