The Future of the American Mood: Hispanic Millennials in Border States

By , Friday, July 11, 2014, at 10:10 am.

[Originally posted on the Huffington Post.]

The new U.S. centers of gravity are California and Texas. Yes, they’re the top two states by population, with just over 38 million people in California and more than 26 million in Texas. But mass does not equal gravity. And yes, they have Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Dallas and SXSW. But even those reasons aren’t as important as this: The Southwest is becoming the new capital of influence because of the millions of Hispanic-Americans putting down roots there.

California and Texas, as well as Arizona and New Mexico, aren’t just on the geographical border of the United States and Mexico. They’re also a frontier between the America that we were and the America we’re rapidly becoming. We all need to start paying attention— especially marketers, but really everyone—because some 52 million Americans (17 percent of the population) identify as Hispanic, and 50,000 Hispanic-Americans will turn 18 every month for the next two decades. These millennials in particular have real clout, both for their spending power now and for their ability to influence what comes next.

The media has been talking for a while about the new Latino influence in American life, politics and culture. But it’s not all that new. The first non-native arrivals in the U.S. were not the Anglo-Saxons at Roanoke or Jamestown, but the Hispanics in St. Augustine and Santa Fe—and they managed to build settlements that lasted.

No other major culture in the American melting pot has an influence with older and more omnipresent traces. Yet Hispanic-Americans have retained a distinct difference from other immigrant groups (German, Irish, Dutch) who now just seem “American.” For one thing, they share a language with millions of people directly to the south of this country. A majority are from Mexico, a country whose trajectory historically was and still is entwined with that of the U.S. (and not always in ways that have been mutually beneficial), and they’ve held tightly to cultural traditions—so tightly that the U.S. as a whole is beginning to adopt them. And the youngest members of their growing numbers are creating new takes on tradition, maintaining a distinct outlook on what it means to be a Hispanic-American in the 21st century.

Those are among the many reasons that my agency, Havas PR North America, undertook a study of 804 Hispanic and non-Hispanic Americans ages 18 to 34 in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. We asked for their views on a whole range of everyday life issues, what they like and dislike about the cities where they live, and which cities in the Southwest will be the best places for their generation. Their answers were illuminating.

Community and roots—developing ties not just to la familia but also to cities and states—was extremely important. A majority of the Hispanics in our sample (68 percent, versus 57 percent of non-Hispanics) said they feel committed to living in their current part of the United States. A majority, but not all, of the Hispanics in our survey who expect to stay close to home also said it’s important to stay close to their families, who will never leave the Southwest (51 percent of Hispanics, versus 44 percent of non-Hispanics).

Among Hispanics, familia is associated with a bigger range of connections than the American nuclear family. It encompasses parentesco (kinship ties), compadrazgo (real and fictive godparenting) and cuates (twin brothers, or buddies). Among women in the survey, far more Hispanics than non-Hispanics (34 percent versus 22) lived with parents or family. The overall percentages of live-with-parents males were even higher among both ethnic cohorts, but still with a fairly significant gap (39 percent versus 31).

Food, and sharing meals with family and friends, is a core part of Hispanic culture, and our respondents mentioned it often. Overall, 78 percent of Hispanics reported dining out at least once a week, compared with 64 percent of non-Hispanics. (This helps explain why national data shows that Hispanic-Americans accounted for 25 percent of restaurant visits in 2011 even though they only constituted about 17 percent of the population.)

And the Hispanic respondents expressed a value for cities that are culturally welcoming, good for families and rich in economic opportunities. This is their top 10, in order: San Antonio, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Austin, Albuquerque, Dallas–Ft. Worth, Houston, San Francisco and Tucson. (Something those cities have in common: They are ethnic, affordable and youthful, including college towns as one anchor.)

It’s no surprise that six of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the country are in the four states bordering Mexico: Austin (No. 1), Phoenix (No. 3), Dallas (No. 4), Houston (No. 10), San Jose (No. 19) and San Antonio (No 20). These are places where Hispanics can flourish, where they can preserve—even as it evolves—a distinctive culture with depth and roots.

Part of that flourishing involves a sense of optimism and a desire to pursue the traditional American dream. The young Hispanics in our survey are more optimistic than their non-Hispanic peers, especially about their own future (80 percent versus 73), the future of their region (56 percent versus 50), the future of the United States (51 percent versus 40) and the future of the job market (53 percent versus 46). Homeownership is more important to Hispanics (32 percent versus 26). And Hispanics start new businesses at far greater rates than non-Hispanics—an annual increase of 6.7 percent versus 3.1 percent since 2007. In our survey, owning their own business was important for significantly more Hispanics than non-Hispanics (54 percent versus 43).

As with previous immigrant groups, Hispanics rely on their communities as they pursue their dreams—and now that their communities are bigger than those of other minorities, they have critical mass.

 [photo: creativecommons.org/NMCIL]

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