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Is America becoming a Hispanic country?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
  • Ruben Navarrette says census data show U.S. Hispanic population up dramatically
  • He says when all numbers come in, Hispanics should show as 17% of U.S. population
  • Hispanics will define media, politics, arts, he says; this threatens some who slam immigration
  • Navarrette: Hispanics have positive impact; Americans must not discriminate

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

(CNN) -- The United States is becoming an Hispanic country. And it's happening much faster than anyone expected.

According to an analysis of newly released 2010 U.S. Census data by the Pew Hispanic Center, the Hispanic population in the United States is growing more quickly and more dramatically than demographers had estimated.

In the 33 states for which data has been released so far, there are almost 600,000 more Hispanics than previously thought. Twenty-eight states had more Hispanics than expected. And, while the current count is 38.7 million Hispanics, there is still data coming from 17 states, making it likely that the final figure could surpass 55 million, or 17% of the U.S. population.

What is really interesting is that this "Hispanicization" of America is most noticeable in states that are not typically thought of as being places where Hispanics live.

The real story isn't what's happening in Texas, California, Florida or New York, which have long been home to significant numbers of Hispanics. It's about the demographic changes in states such as Alabama, Louisiana, Kansas and Maryland, where Hispanics are a relatively new commodity -- and the accommodations that have to be made between new arrivals and longtime residents.

One day soon, Hispanics will help define the worlds of media, politics, commerce, fashion, music, entertainment, sports and science. There will be no turning back.

But you knew that already. Maybe your first hint was the Latina models on magazine covers. Or that salsa is more popular than ketchup. Or the Spanish-language billboards you see on rural highways. Or that some members of Congress gather weekly for Spanish lessons.

Or maybe you figured out that the Hispanic population in the United States was exploding when you saw the quixotic efforts of some to stop the trend by cracking down on illegal immigration and -- for an encore -- trying to limit legal immigration as well.

Most immigrants to the United States, legal and illegal, come from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. But in states such as Arizona, Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, you also have Hispanic families that can trace their American roots back hundreds of years.

Still, for many Americans, changing demographics isn't cause for celebration. Rather, it's cause for alarm. It brings a sense of fear, anxiety and desperation. They know enough to know that the country in which they grew up is changing, and they'll do whatever they can to reverse those changes and return the cultural landscape to what it used to be.

In fact, Hispanics have become so accustomed to this sort of reaction that I know many of them who actually dread the census and all the related media coverage. Every 10 years, there is the possibility of a backlash. For Hispanics, being counted is a mixed bag. They gain numbers and prominence, but they also have to contend with resistance and hostility from those who feel threatened.

This partly explains what happened in Arizona, where a surging Hispanic population so panicked the state's residents that they began pushing lawmakers to pass immigration-related bills aimed at making the state less hospitable to illegal immigrants. This wasn't about reaffirming the rule of law. It was about returning Arizona to what it looked like 50 or 60 years ago, when the number of Hispanics in the state was much smaller than it is now.

It seems to have worked. The analysis of census data done by the Hispanic Pew Center shows that in Arizona, the number of Hispanics came in at 1.9 million, or 180,000 fewer than expected.

But many of those immigrants had simply moved on to other states. This approach would not be much of a national strategy; besides, who is to say that many of those people won't return to Arizona when the economy improves or some of these excessively punitive laws are dismantled.

Ultimately, you can't fight demographics. Hispanics are already here, and most of them aren't going anywhere. Instead of wishing otherwise, Americans would be better off accepting this new reality. While they're at it, they should acknowledge the positive impact to their communities and their country of having a growing population of people who are, by nature, conservative, hardworking, optimistic, patriotic and entrepreneurial. Hispanics aren't a threat to the United States; they're an essential component.

Visit any military cemetery in the United States and count the Spanish surnames. You'll see that Hispanics have already contributed so much to this country. And, in the decades to come, they and their children stand ready to contribute so much more -- if we put aside our prejudice and let them. That's the path to a better country.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.