The use of Spanish or English at home varies from family to family, and from generation to generation. Growing numbers of U.S. Latinos practice evangelical Christianity, and not Roman Catholicism. Many of the indicators that once identified U.S. Latinos are changing rapidly, and most notable is the rise of the second generation of Latinos in the United States.

It was once believed that the U.S. political establishment should focus on first generation Latinos because as a single demographic they comprised the majority of the total U.S. Latino population, but these numbers have reversed over the turn of the century. According to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, as of 2010, second and third-plus generation Latinos comprise over 60 percent of the total U.S. Latino population, meaning that the majority of U.S. Latinos are now American-born, English-speaking and U.S.-educated.

The second-generation, many either born in the U.S. or well integrated, tends to be bilingual and multicultural. They bridge their parent’s past-focused, Spanish speaking (first) generation to their, eventually monolingual, future-oriented children’s (third) generation. Like other Americans, they are concerned with burdensome taxes, homeownership, jobs and business opportunities, and the education of themselves and their children, among other issues. But they maintain ties to documented, un-documented and non-naturalized relatives, so a lawful solution of immigration is important if at the minimum to stop the rhetoric against “illegal immigrants” which is perceived by the community writ large as thinly veiled racial intolerance and prejudice.

As Latino generations entrench themselves in the “American” way of life a significant cultural shift takes place, which must be understood in order to engage in effective political outreach. For instance, while second-generation U.S. Latinos sympathize with the struggles of their immigrant parents, their attitudes, identity and experiences are their own. Like many other ethnic groups, assimilation has not been easy for second generation U.S. Latinos; many have struggled to find a niche in the mainstream of U.S. society. On the aggregate, second generation U.S. Latinos have the second highest high school drop rate, highest teen pregnancy rate, and largest proportion of gang involvement of any U.S. born racial or ethnic group. 

Yet the “American dream” is still very much alive within this young generation, and the majority continue to pursue upward social mobility through access to education, serving our armed forces, entering the professional job market, and engaging the political process. If for nothing else, than to make their parents proud and position their children to inherit fewer struggles than generations before them. 

In politics, as in life, authenticity matters and the business community, as usual, has been ahead of politicians in tailoring their message towards U.S. Latinos, because they understand the generational differences between them. According to a recent Yahoo marketing study, most second-generation Latinos feel that public spokespeople (including politicians) do not accurately portray their ethnicity and if messaging is to be authentic it must reflect the bilingual and multicultural identity of this key demographic, whose buying power is projected to reach $1.5 trillion within a few years.

U.S. Latinos are the nation’s fastest rising electoral group, and as birth rates continue to outpace immigration rates the U.S. Latino population will shift more towards the second and third-plus generations. Understanding this is key to any political outreach effort. 

Therefore while immigration reform serves a practical purpose for a shrinking share of Latinos in the U.S., and a symbolic purpose for a growing share, this important debate needs to be complemented with a nuanced understanding of how acculturation and assimilation has been affecting the U.S. Latino experience.   

Humire, a Bolivian-American, and Menéndez, a Cuban-American are principals with the Cordoba Group International LLC, a strategic consulting firm in Northern Virginia that provides research, analysis and project management for a variety of U.S. and international clients.