Latinos are one of the fastest-growing racial or ethnic groups in the U.S. But a new finding by the Pew Research Center suggests the Hispanic population may not get as big as demographers have predicted.
About one in 10 adults with Hispanic parents, grandparents or other ancestors do not identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to Pew. The report estimates this group includes close to five million people, many of whom say their background is "mixed" or their Hispanic roots are "too far back."
"It's not that they're hiding their Hispanic background," says Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew's director of Hispanic research who co-wrote the report. "But they just don't self-identify or feel that they should affiliate themselves with being Hispanic or identifying as Latino."
Pew's findings come from two national surveys conducted between 2015 and 2016 among more than 1,900 adults who said they are of Hispanic heritage.
Possible implications for the Latino population
Though adults with Hispanic ancestry who do not consider themselves Latino make up a minority within the Hispanic ancestry population in the U.S., Lopez says they could have major implications on Latino identity.
Pew's research has projected Latinos to make up close to a quarter of the U.S. population by 2065. (In 2015, they made up 18 percent of the population.) But there are two trends that are putting the brakes on the Latino population's growth: declining levels of immigration from Mexico and a high rate of marriages between Latinos and people who are not Latino.
If more people with Hispanic ancestry do not identify as Latino in the decades to come, Lopez says any projections about the future size of the Hispanic population would likely need to be adjusted downward. Many demographers have been coming up with estimates assuming that the current levels of people of Hispanic ancestry self-identifying as Latino will continue in the future.
"It's hard to tell where we will be 40 or 50 years from now when it comes to identity," Lopez warns.
The report stresses a key factor in determining whether a person with Hispanic ancestry would claim Latino identity: The further away they are from the immigrant experience, the more likely they do not identify as Hispanic. The surveys showed significant increases in the share of adults with Hispanic ancestors not identifying as Hispanic by the third generation of immigrant families, or among people born in the U.S. who have U.S.-born parents and at least one immigrant grandparent.
"They may not identify with all that's happening around an awareness of what Hispanic identity means, the politics associated with that and perhaps other aspects of Hispanic cultural identity such as going to church or being a part of a quinceañera," Lopez says. "Those things are just not part of their lives."
Survey participants were also asked about Spanish-language skills, often seen as an indicator of Latino identity. The findings suggest a complicated relationship between Spanish and Hispanic identity today. The majority of people with Hispanic ancestry say it is important that future generations of Latinos be able to speak Spanish, including 64 percent of non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry. But about seven in 10 self-identified Latinos say speaking Spanish is not necessary to be Hispanic.
For Jody Agius Vallejo, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who served as an early consultant for Pew's study, these findings underscore how fluid racial and ethnic identities can be among people with Hispanic ancestry.
Vallejo says alongside the trend of self-identified non-Hispanics with Hispanic ancestry, there may be a strengthening of Latino identification among other people with Latino roots under the current political climate.
"The young Latino second-generation is coming of age in a period of intense anti-immigrant sentiment and racist policies where their immigrant parents are criminalized and the Latino community is under attack," Vallejo says, referring to increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration. "Latinos in general are being sent the message that they are not white Americans."
One question the report does not address is how survey participants who have Hispanic ancestry and do not consider themselves Latino describe their racial and ethnicity identities. The survey did ask, "How would most people describe you, for example, if they walked past you on the street?"
The vast majority of self-identified non-Hispanics with Latino roots said most people would describe them not as Hispanic or Latino — with 59 percent reporting that they would be called white by passersby.