American Hispanics

In 1950 the population of the United States included fewer than four million resident “Ilis – panics”-rhat is, people originating from Spanish­speaking countries. By the mid 1980s this number had increased to 17.6 million and was still rising fast. In some parts of the United States, especially in the South and West, it became more common to hear Spanish being spoken on the streets than English.


Illegal immigrants caught by U. S. border officials.

Reformers accused the United States of helping to keep these groups of wealthy tyrants in power. There was some truth in this. The American government often seemed more concerned with suppressing communism in Latin America than with improving conditions of life there. In 1954, for example, the American secret service (the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA) encouraged the overthrow of a reforming government in Guatemala. When Guatemala’s deposed President asked the United Nations to look into this, the Americans used their Security Council veto to prevent an investigation.

About 60 percent of the United States’ resident I lispanics came originally from Mexico. The remainder came from other Latin American countries, such as Cuba and Colombia. The newcomers’ usual reasons for coming were the same as those of earlier immigrants from Europe – to escape from poverty or political persecution in their homelands.

The increase in the number of Hispanics was partly the result of an important change in the American immigration system. The old immi­gration laws, which dated back to the 1920s, had favored Europeans. But in 1965 a new law said that what would count in the future was who applied first.

The result was a big increase in immigration from non-European countries. By the 1980s the United States was officially accepting 270,000 newcomers a year. Forty percent of these were coming from Asia and another forty percent from Latin America.

Many other immigrants entered the United States without permission. In 1985 the government estimated that the country had between two and ten million of these illegal immigrants, half a million of whom had arrived in the previous year. Many were Hispanics, who had waded across the shallow Rio Grande River that formed the border between the United States and Mexico. For obvious reasons, people who entered the United States in this way were called “wetbacks.”

In later years American governments went on interfering in Latin American affairs. Sometimes they interfered openly, sometimes in more secret ways.

In 1965 President Johnson sent 22,000 American marines to the Dominican Republic to stop a leader he distrusted from regaining power. In 1973 CIA agents helped generals in Chile to overthrow President Allendc. Allcnde was sympathetic towards communist ideas and had nationalized some American-owned mining companies.

Actions like these help to explain why many Latin Americans continued to dislike their North

American neighbor. All over Latin America, it seemed, the United States was propping up oppressive and unpopular governments.

This was not the whole truth, of course. American dealings with Latin America had a more positive and humanitarian side. During their earlier occupations of countries such as Cuba and Nicaragua the Americans had built hospitals, supplied towns with pure water and wiped out killer diseases like malaria and yellow fever. In the early 1960s President Kennedy continued this tradition.

In 1961 Kennedy set up an organization called the Alliance for Progress. The United States gave millions of dollars to improve the lives of Latin America’s poor. The money was used to build roads, homes and schools, and to improve water-supply and sanitation systems. The Alliance also advanced money to peasant farmers, so that they could buy more land. Kennedy hoped that aiding Latin America like this would enable governments there to make enough improvements to stop people Irom turning to communism.

But the generals running much of Latin America continued to rely more on guns than on reforms to keep power. Despite the generosity of schemes like the Alliance for Progress, many people saw little basic difference between the attitude of the United States towards Latin America and the attitude of the Soviet Union towards eastern Europe. In one way or another, both superpowers seemed determined to protect their own interests by controlling their smaller neighbors.


Young US. volunteers building a clinic in Lima, Peru.

Updated: 18th July 2015 — 3:17 pm