SSA professor who co-edited forthcoming book on Hispanics in United States discusses contentBy Jennifer Vanasco
Issues of race and ethnicity in American society have always been a major intellectual concern for Pastora San Juan Cafferty, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, who herself emigrated from Cuba when she was 8 years old. A forthcoming book she edited with David Engstrom, Hispanics in the United States: An Agenda for the 21st Century, explores the deep connection between the integration of Hispanics in American society and public policy. Recently, she spoke about her work with Chronicle writer Jennifer Vanasco.
In the introduction to your book, you say it is Hispanics who will define America in the 21st century. Why?
The numbersthey will be 25 percent of the population by mid-centurymake Hispanics an important factor. But it goes beyond that. Hispanics are a fascinating panethnic group, a very diverse population racially, ethnically and nationally. I believe that the way we incorporate this diversity into our national consciousness will say a great deal, not about Hispanics necessarily, but about our whole system of political and social justice. For example, we are a country that is rapidly moving toward a multiracial populationthe greatest increase in births is in multiracial births. Hispanics are a multiracial population. So much of what Hispanics are is what the rest of the American population will also look like.
Its interesting you should say that. I think many people have this image of Hispanics as being a homogeneous population. Why is that the dominant impression?
The Spanish language defines that population for uswe referred to Hispanics as Spanish-speaking until very recently. I think theres a natural reason for it. Nationalities become ethnicities when they migrate, and because America has such a complex ethnic makeup, we tend to group migrations in panethnicitiesjust like we do the Asians, you know? We have done the same thing with Hispanics. We think that all Hispanics are alikewhen in fact, Hispanics are racially very diverse. If they migrated from the Caribbean, they may be Hispanics of European descent, or of European with African, or just of African descent. From North America, from Mexico, theres a very strong Native American component of descent as well as European. They are also nationally diverse. These countries they come from have such different histories, such different national identities; these countries have even been at war with each other over the years.
So the panethnicity category is only for the benefit of nonimmigrants?
No, for political purposes, immigrant groups adopt this standard of panethnicity because the numbers are larger and defining common political interests becomes very advantageous. The logical breakdown along national origins becomes less important than to define themselves vis a vis the majority group.
What are the primary issues that will be affecting Hispanics in the next century?
The Hispanic population is the youngest population we have by far. Because of the age of the population, health care for infants and children becomes very important. And obviously, education and education policy are terribly important issues, perhaps the most important for this population. Unfortunately, they are the least educated of all Americans. Related to that are labor market issues. If you control for education, Hispanics do very well in the American labor market. However, Hispanics are the only ethnic group in America who are losing ground educationallyand even when theyre not losing ground, the gap is not closing as quickly as it is with Caucasians and black Americans.
These issues are all-important issues for the American population as a wholewere concerned about education, were concerned about health care, were concerned about labor market participation. In fact, because Hispanics are the youngest group in our society, and given our labor market and social security structure, Hispanics will be disproportionately supporting the rest of us in the next century. So were all better off if Hispanics fare well educationally and in the labor market.
In the book, you say that the changing context of American society has had a large impact on the Hispanic population. What do you mean?
We are a nation of immigrants, of continuing immigration. Educational failure has been the distinguishing mark of almost every immigrant populationa lot of it is related to poverty, a lot of it is related to urban school problems. But dropping out of school prior to World War II meant very little, because a fourth-grade education or a sixth-grade education was acceptable to enter the work force. The average American did not finish high school. Today, entry-level jobs require a high school degree or a GED. College has become a requirement for many jobs. Even though immigrants today have the same or better educational skills than immigrants of a century ago, those skills do not today equal labor market participation.
How does this book differ from other research on Hispanics?
This book was formulated to be quite broad and comprehensive. I think many of the books that have been done on Hispanics are very focused on immigration issues, health care issues or education issues, and appropriately so. Very often, they become advocacy books with a political agenda.
We are not interested in creating that kind of book. For example, this is not a book that advocates for bilingual education, it describes it. The book was designed to frame the questions about Hispanics for the 21st century. We have a range of writers, from social workers to lawyers to economists, and we asked the contributors to approach this from the perspective of creating a policy agenda for the next century rather than simply doing data analysis.
Do you expect that lawmakers will read this book and use it to analyze the Hispanic population?
(Laughs) That would be a wonderful thing. But my experience is that intellectual capital works differentlyif legislation is influenced, it is only because that knowledge burbles up. One always hopes that one can influence public policy by supplying the intellectual capital, but if legislators read every book that matched their interests, theyd never get any work done.
Why is it important to look at these questions about the Hispanic population from a social service perspective?
A large number of people in social welfare contributed to the book, including Associate Professor in SSA Melissa Roderick and SSA alumni David Engstrom (M.A. 83, Ph.D. 92) and Zulema Suarez (Ph.D. 88). Though I was trained as a historian, when you teach at SSA you look at issues from an interventionist perspective.
This is a professional school where were educating our students to do social intervention. So, we make it our business to translate theory into practice. Whenever we look at political theory and issues of social justice, we do so not only to understand the issues, but beyond that, to create social interventions that will translate into a better society.