Social classifications in my high school outside Boston in the late 1950s were rather clear-cut and precise. There were three dominant groups: Italians, Irish and the catch-all Protestants, with a small smattering of Cohens, Jeffersons and Chens.
Despite their ethnic rivalries, both the Irish and Italians were Catholics who couldn’t eat meat on Friday or darken the doors of a Protestant church. Inevitably, they were also Democrats. The Protestants, subdivided by mainline sects, knew that something sinister was occurring behind the walls of the local nunnery and that they were forbidden from attending the Friday Catholic Youth Organization dances. In almost all cases, they were the minority Republicans in town. When the 1960 presidential election rolled around, it became a test of doctrinal loyalty more than philosophical position.
Fast forward a quarter century and look at Texas. An Italian Catholic marries a Canadian Baptist, and they and their offspring live happily ever after. The anti-clerical Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (POAU) has changed its name to simply “Americans United,” while the term “religious right” describes nearly as many Catholics as it does Protestants. Social and economic issues, rather than ethnicity and doctrinal questions, divide more Americans today. True, there are still remnants of the Knights of Columbus, Masons and SPJST members, but today all of those groups are united under the single descriptive term “Anglos.”
Which brings me to the incessant claims by demographers that, at some ever-changing date in the future, Texas will become majority-Hispanic, itself a catch-all term that includes Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans and those from Central and South America. Attention has largely focused on what this may mean for the state’s political future. But what exactly does “Hispanic” mean in concrete terms? And will its distinctiveness remain or become engulfed in some broader category?
Generational change, assimilation and intermarriage are impacting more and more of society. For centuries, Hispanics and Anglos have been marrying each other — today, for instance, the leading Hispanic 2014 statewide candidates have the surnames Van de Putte and Bush. Can we predict how future generations from such families will identify themselves and what relevance any such ethnic self-identification will have?
Ethnicity, once a clear-cut dividing line, has lost its predictive power in terms of religious identification. It’s likely that today there are more non-Catholic Hispanics in Texas than there were among the Boston-area Irish and Italians of the last century. In political terms, how often someone attends religious services has become a more effective predictor of behavior than knowing whether he or she is a Protestant or Catholic.
As more Hispanic families leave the inner cities, suburbanization can lead to further assimilation and impact voting behavior. Moving to a neighborhood where nearly all elected officials are Republicans and many of the decisions about who is elected are made in the Republican primary, the question remains whether these individuals will retain any previous Democratic loyalties or start voting with their neighbors in the Republican column. Already today, some 40 percent of Hispanics in Texas vote Republican, a sign that the political predictability of being Hispanic has lost much of its meaning.
The bottom line is that, despite the prognostications of the so-called experts, none of us knows what it will mean to be of Hispanic heritage 20 or 30 years from now. To anticipate a political party’s future success on the basis of enrolling and motivating any one ethnic group is building on an ever-shifting foundation. Not knowing the meaning and distinctiveness of being Hispanic some two decades in the future, we’re left solely with the realization that all who live here will be Texans and Americans. Can anything be more important than that?