(CNN) -- The Hispanic community is one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the United States. Its growing influence is changing the social, cultural and political landscape of the country.
Pamela Carvajal Drapalas of Yuma, Arizona, said her family has lived in Yuma for generations. She sent this photo of herself with her father and brother in 1961.
CNN.com asked readers to tell us what it means to be Hispanic in America today. Here is a selection of e-mails, some of which have been edited for length and clarity.
Alain Lantigua from Miami, Florida
It's hard to speak English in Hialeah, Florida. A full 89 percent of the population is Hispanic, mostly Cubans. The mayor has been a Cuban for the last 30 years, and the last time a non-Cuban was member of the city council was in the early nineties when an Italian, who everyone assumed was Cuban, retired. This is where I grew up; this is where I arrived almost 30 years ago from Cuba. It was a different place then, our little house was surrounded by Masters and McNamaras and other hard to pronounce names. They were not only friendly, our neighbors, they took us in. They welcomed us into their homes, took us out and showed us American culture.
Eventually, I guess, they got tired of struggling with an ever increasing migration of Hispanics setting up shop and changing the landscape and so they left little by little. By 1990, in Hialeah, only the old timers remained, too frail or entrenched to move. In Miami as a whole, either the very poor Anglos, those with no money to leave stayed, or those higher on the social scale, who were able to afford communities where the new immigrants couldn't live, stayed. Who can blame them for leaving?
While the young immigrants are motivated by TV, education and a broad array of friends to adopt the language and American culture, the old hold on to the known in this unknown land. They concentrate in small cities and town, set up businesses and basically move among their own circles, it's like they never left the old country, no need to speak any other language than their own. This is representative of my parents' generation, clearly in a place like Hialeah and even in the larger Miami.
I grew up on MTV, reruns of "I dream of Jeannie" and '80s Wall Street excess. I have embraced "American culture," whatever that means. In my iPod you will find the Beatles, Kenny Rogers, Missy Eliott and Juan Luis Guerra. Every year we celebrate Thanksgiving and I insist on stuffing and every Christmas Eve we roast a pig in the yard. I have traveled all over the U.S., to small cities and large, and the only hint of discrimination was one time in the Florida Keys, just 100 miles from home, a place that should know better. Maybe the guy was just having a bad day.
My kids are 10 years old. Spanish is a subject in school, like math, I don't think they like either one. At home we only speak English, when Spanish is spoken it usually signals some sort of punishment is coming. They attend public school in an upper-middle class neighborhood with kids from all different backgrounds, maybe 30 percent Anglo. They have all sorts of friends and they never discuss ethnicity, unless it's something cool like the Asian friend that's from Jamaica. I call this progress.
The aim, I think, is for Hispanics to adapt, fully, to the U.S. I know some will call this betraying your roots, but I didn't say to give up those little quirks that make us who we are, but rather to embrace the quirks of where we live. In a place like Miami, with people from all over the world, Hispanics that are so different that many times the only thing in common is that they have been forcefully grouped into a monolithic block, the idea of integration really takes hold. Only through integration will Americans become Americans.
Jennifer Mathieu Blessington from Houston, Texas
As we celebrate, Hispanic Heritage Month, I'd like to remind others that Hispanics come in all colors of the rainbow. My mother came to America from Cuba and my father came to America from Chile. They learned English as teenagers. For generations my family has spoken Spanish and embraced its heritage with food, dancing and holidays.
Our European ancestry means we have blue eyes and light skin. Sometimes people think that means we're not "real" Hispanics. I always remind them that Hispanics are an ethnic group whose members could be of any race and who come from many countries (Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Spain, Argentina, Mexico...and the list goes on).
I am proud to be a Cuban and Chilean-American and a Hispanic. Knowing Spanish is a useful thing, and I love the emphasis my culture puts on family. However, please remember that "Hispanic" is a very wide term that embraces people from many countries and walks of life. And we all have something to celebrate and be proud of!
Ray Hernandez from New York, New York There are many experiences that Latinos share. From the first time they flew on a plane to the hopelessness of not knowing the language. Each one of these experiences produces different emotions for all from sheer terror to total glee. But there is one experience that just spurs wonder, amazement and just plain fun. That experience is your first snowfall, especially for those of us whose first stop in America was in the East Coast. We all have the pictures of our first snowfall in our albums. No matter how the times change, that first snowfall affects all of us the same way, no matter the age.
Joe Garcia from Downey, California
Quite frankly, as a Hispanic, I feel this whole "Hispanic Heritage Month" is not only useless, but also pointless, and completely overrated. I don't need some politically correct yearly celebration to feel special about who I am or where I came from. If you ask me, whoever came up with this whole "Insert minority here heritage month" needs to be fired immediately.
Joe Ramos from Fresno, California
I am currently a college student living in California, and I can honestly say I have had an interesting time handling my status as being Hispanic for a variety of reasons. Initially, being able to identify myself was an issue, because my mom was white and my dad Hispanic. They divorced when I was young. Each side of my family led completely different lifestyles as well. How could I define myself, then, as anything other than a mutt? Even my SAT test scantron had a section for white, or Hispanic not of white origin. What about being both? Additionally, perhaps in a strange sense of irony, my sister and I each took different physical features that represented the two backgrounds. I have more of my mother's attributes and my sister much more closely resembles my father. The difference is significant enough that, when going to my father's gym as a guest under his name, the front desk asked me several questions about my family, specifically if I truly was the son of the man in front of me.
Time would pass as my sister and I progressed through school, and a trend began to appear between the two of us. My sister was genuinely interested in her culture, learning Spanish, and enjoyed the company of "Chicanos" (is that the term still used?) and referred to herself as a "Latina." In contrast, whether by choice or not, it was almost exactly the opposite for me. The majority of my friends were white. Though some Spanish was known to me through my upbringing, I opted to study German in high school rather than become fluent in Spanish. That was about a year and a half ago. By now, I have become used to people assuming I am white, and those who know me jokingly have called me "beans on crackers." I have personally never experienced any real prejudice based on my race, but my sister has told me stories that would shock me. Ultimately, I learned that race in America now matters little; it is how you are perceived by others that can and does affect you. Can we fight racism and prejudice as the injustices they are? Certainly, but you cannot stop another person from thinking of you or judging you based on what they see. You can however hold your head high and live your life, and that is exactly what I plan to do.
Al Martinez from Miami, Florida
I was born in Houston, Texas, into a Colombian family. I was raised partly here in the U.S. and partly in Colombia, and consider myself a very Americanized Hispanic. I am proud of my ethnic and cultural heritage, but firmly believe that Hispanics in the U.S. should also ascribe to mainstream American culture and values without losing pride for their Hispanic roots. I now live in Miami, Florida, and it's sad to see how the majority of Hispanics here -- even those who are U.S.-born and raised -- consider themselves anything but American. They do not pledge allegiance to the flag, they express loyalty to their parents' country of origin and not this one. My message to Hispanics in the U.S. is assimilate into the American culture without losing track of our beautiful Hispanic heritage.
Carolyn Osborne from Hampton, Virginia
I am a female Mexican-American. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 22 years. My husband of going on 26 years also served in the USAF for almost 21 years. We are both retired from the Air Force and working in corporate America. We also have 6 children -- one has graduated from college, one is a senior in college and the other four are in college. We have been very blessed as a Latino and my husband being of African decent. We served proudly in what we think is the greatest military branch of service in the world and have been blessed with great opportunities to accomplish all that we have set out to do.
Celia Garcia from Jackson, Mississippi
I was born in what was a small town in Texas, the daughter of migrant parents. I grew up picking cotton for 50 cents a pound, hoeing weeds, picking tomatoes and cutting broccoli for $4 a day. We migrated to different states harvesting crops, working from 10 to 12 hours daily. We would leave school the end of April and come back the end of November when the crops were all harvested. We worked for the bare minimum and made enough money to survive buying only the staples: rice, beans, flour, etc. It was always the grower who profited from our labor.
I grew up feeling demeaned because starting school in late November meant we were way behind in school work. All the students looked down on us and made fun of us. ... I never graduated from high school as I was made to quit school in the 8th grade to work. I did manage to get out of the migrant field, and as an adult, get my GED, go to the local community college and get my bachelors degree in business administration while raising my two children whose father never paid a penny towards their support. I have been discriminated against in the job field simply because I was Hispanic, but I never let that stop me from trying again and again. I am now getting ready to retire from the state of Michigan, where I have worked with the migrant population here for 22 years.
I was never quite accepted as an American by Americans and I was never accepted as a Mexican by Mexican people because I knew nothing about Mexico or their culture. I am still very proud to be an American, will always be an American and nothing else. I had an uncle killed in World War II, my brother served in Vietnam, another in Germany, my nephew is a Marine and I could go on naming all of my family that has helped keep this country free but you get the idea. In conclusion, I have had bad experiences, but also very good experiences growing up in the USA as a Hispanic. ... Yes, I love America, maybe it's because it is the only country I know.
Elena Rodriguez from Ventura, California
I have blonde hair and blue eyes, and never once did I feel accepted by the Hispanic community. I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for four years and I was made to feel like an outcast everywhere I went because my skin looks white but my name is Spanish. Even at the drive through the employees working would ID me because they thought I was using a stolen credit card, and their explanation was because they've "never seen a blonde Rodriguez before." To the Hispanic community in the U.S., just so you know, not everyone has dark skin and brown hair. Some of us are just as Hispanic as you. I hate to say it, but I've never felt racism as badly as I have from the New Mexican people who think that they can judge someone by the way that they look. So please don't be so quick to think that other people are doing it to you, because I really believe that it's making you bitter.
Yolanda Alvarez from Seattle, Washington
For me, to be Hispanic in the United States today has been both a feeling of pride and a feeling of not belonging. Even though I was born and raised in the United States I feel as though I have to be truly Mexican and learn perfect Spanish to be accepted in my community and truly American (United States) to be accepted within the community here. I will be made fun of if I don't speak Spanish right in Mexico and the same would go if I don't speak English correctly. I thank God and my parents for truly blessing me with the ability to speak and write fluently in Spanish.
Roberto Ortiz from Wilson, North Carolina
I was born in Puerto Rico and came to North Carolina 10 years ago with my three children and wife. I wanted to offer my children a better life and top education. What I found was sadness, frustration and challenges that would make me the man that I am now. I love the U.S., but at the same time some people, not all, in the U.S. break my heart with their indifference, abuses and anger. So many people would like to see us, the Latino community, assimilate the U.S. culture. (What culture can they be talking about?)
By assimilation do they want me to stop being who I truly am and become someone that I'm not? By assimilation do they want me to put my head down and accept whatever I'm told without my opinion being of any value? By assimilation should I become what you want and who you want me to be? I don't understand, please someone explain it to me like if I was just five years old ... (taken from very good movie, sorry).
I believe that I should be asked to integrate not assimilate into anything. With my integration I will be part of a wonderful bed of flowers, of many different colors and beauty, with my own beauty collaborating towards a bigger picture. If I'm to assimilate I would just be one more of many with nothing to offer and nothing to contribute. I am Latino, I am proud of my heritage and my deep cultural roots that one day would love to share with the world. Please do not ask me to assimilate and become someone I'm not, ask me to integrate and enhance what already exists.
Micaela DaCosta from Columbia, Missouri
A lot of people seem to forget, or don't even know that there are black Latinos. Our ancestors came from Africa on the slave ships but instead of coming to North America, our ancestors docked in Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba or Brazil -- every country of Latin America. White people want to know how in the world we speak Spanish, and black people think we're showing off. Latino people refuse to recognize us as "real" Latinos. What's it like being Hispanic in America? We'll let you know.
Lorenzo Espinox from El Paso, Texas
I have noticed that from a commercial point of view, we are invisible. You can see all kinds of commercials made that portray whites, blacks and Orientals. Hardly ever do I see brown people buying an expensive car, being a doctor, or being portrayed as a high- or medium-end consumer. This sends a strong message that everybody can notice. ...
Television does not present any Hispanic heroes. We are not portrayed as successful people who have smarts and lots of initiative, imagination, creativity, and hunger for advancement. Instead we continue to be presented like drug addicts, gang members, thieves and other low-life criminals. This hurts us because our little kids do not see "people like them" as good and helping individuals others can count on to solve problems.
Cristina Adams from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Being Latin in the U.S. today means that you're supposed to be brown skinned, according to the sales people in Bloomingdale's. I was in the store browsing in the lingerie department and I overheard two sales ladies telling a joke in Spanish. I laughed when I heard the punch line. They looked up, astonished. "How do you know Spanish?" they asked. As it happens, I'm half Cuban and Spanish is my first language. 'But you're white!' came the response. "And? What's your point?" I said. Been to Latin America lately? It's chock full of white, brown and black people as well as many of Asian descent. Since when did so-called brown-skinned people have a monopoly on being Latin? (In Latin America, we are Latin. For some reason, in this country, we're Hispanic. Please explain.)
Joseph Sabin from O'Fallon, Illinois
I am of Hispanic background and my heritage was never used to request special treatment embodied in many of the special programs implemented by the government to promote supposedly disadvantaged people of minority heritages.
The news media should stop making a big deal of various heritage months, weeks or days. We are all Americans regardless where the roots of our parents or grandparents are located.
These celebrations only promote further divide for Americans. We are all Americans, if we are not, then let these people return to the land of your roots. If we are going to continue to celebrate African, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific cultural heritages etc., then let's celebrate all other heritages as well that helped build this great nation into what it is today.
Aldo Figallo from Charlotte, North Carolina
I am an Italian in Peru, a Hispanic in America, and an American in Italy. I immigrated to the U.S, at 4 months of age in 1971 from Lima, Peru. I grew up in western Pennsylvania with my family. At that time, in most cases we were the first Hispanics in our community and or schools. The few Latin families that we knew were mostly trying to assimilate into American society and so learning the language was stressed.
My mother told me a story that once she first came to the U.S. that it was odd to see people eating with their hands and it was difficult to get used to.
I was sent to special education once in grade school because I could not pronounce some words correctly. Eventually, the special education teacher realized that English was my second language and it was normal for me to have some difficulty, and I was sent back to regular class and took phonics at home.
My parents left us at home with an older couple while they were away for a couple of days when we were young teenagers. They kept feeding us chili, tacos and such. One day, the lady asked us what was in a burrito, and finally one of my siblings said "You know we are not Mexican don't you?" We understood that she was trying her best. ...
I remember filling out surveys all through my life, where you would have to distinguish your race/ethnicity. I remember noticing the options list growing: Hispanic/Chicano to include Latino, Latin American, Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Central American, etc ... It was a nice change. E-mail to a friend
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