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Commentary: Mixed messages on Hispanics

  • Story Highlights
  • Hispanics are estimated to represent one in four Americans by 2050
  • Hispanic Century is here, influencing everything from politics to pop culture
  • But public television may be one place where it's hard to find Hispanics
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) gives all Americans the chance to gain insight into the nation's largest minority.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Hispanics aren't going anywhere. In many cases, we were in the United States first.

You might as well give it a try. There are more than 44 million Hispanics in the United States, and the Census Bureau estimates that -- by 2050 -- we'll represent one in four Americans.

And despite efforts by nativists to keep out both legal and illegal immigrants in a desperate attempt to turn back the demographic clock, Hispanics aren't going anywhere. Why should we? In many cases, we were here first.

In Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, you'll find families whose roots go back five or six generations. These people never crossed a border, and yet many of them are treated as if they came across last week because of skin color or the language they speak.

Ah, language. The great divider. More than three-fourths of Hispanics speak English or both English and Spanish, and less than a quarter speak only Spanish. Yet some Americans see a Spanish-language billboard and assume that Hispanics aren't assimilating. Or they accuse Hispanics of sending mixed messages by claiming to value English while maintaining Spanish. And they're convinced that the reason we have bilingual-this and bilingual-that is because Hispanics are demanding the accommodation.

They're not. If only there wa$ $ome way to explain what the$e outreach effort$ are really about.

The Hispanic Century is upon us -- and influencing everything from food to fashion, politics to pop culture.

In fact, one of the few places where it may be hard to find Hispanics is public television.

This week, PBS aired the first installment of "The War," a 14-hour documentary on World War II by Ken Burns. While most of his colleagues use color, Burns tells stories in black and white. Literally. He took care to include the experience of African-Americans but overlooked the contributions of more than 500,000 Hispanics to the war effort. That includes more than a dozen Medals of Honor recipients. When Hispanic groups pressured the film's corporate sponsors, Burns sprinkled in 28 minutes of new interviews and photographs to tell the stories of two Hispanics and one Native American.

In an earlier commentary, I blasted Burns for his blunder. Then a reader wrote an angry e-mail blasting me. He insisted that Burns didn't have to make a special effort to tell the stories of Hispanic veterans because they were, after all, Americans.

Awesome. Most Hispanic World War II veterans are gone now, but I'm sure they would have loved hearing those words. They were first-rate heroes who were treated like second-class citizens. And all they wanted was to be considered Americans.

I might have found the reader's comments more persuasive if he'd been consistent. In his e-mail, he insisted that, because my Spanish isn't very good and my family has been in the United States for a while, "lots of people probably mistake you for an American." He even described me as "white." That was nice of him. But in an earlier e-mail, he wrote that I was "still a Mexican."

Huh? Speaking of mixed messages.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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