On how the Las Vegas Valley will inevitably become a predominantly Spanish-speaking community
Hal Rothman is a professor of History at UNLV. His column appears Sunday.
If you don't know what that means, you had better find out.
The most significant demographic change in Las Vegas in the past 15 years is neither the emergence of a retirement community nor the growth of a transplanted upper-middle-class. It is, wholeheartedly and without a doubt, the remarkable growth of the Spanish-surnamed population.
No group of people has become more visible in recent years in Las Vegas than Latinos. They have come from everywhere, from East Los Angeles and now South Central, increasingly Latino instead of African American.
They leave Mexico in droves, fleeing the poverty of the cities and oppression of the highlands. Middle-class people from Nicaragua, Salvador, Guatemala and Panama come, fleeing the anarchic and often lethal dangers of life in societies with private armies and rampant poverty, where riding in limousines surrounded by armed escorts makes you a target. Filipinos arrive in an ever-growing stream. We have even imported the show that Fidel Castro does not want you to see.
The Latino population of Clark County jumped from 85,000 in 1990 to more than 375,000 in 2004, an increase that put the Latino presence well over 20 percent of the county. With the propensity to undercount immigrants and minorities, such numbers are surely below the actual total.
Children with Spanish surnames will soon be the majority in Las Vegas public schools. Only 13 percent of the school population in 1991-92, Latinos increased to 23 percent, almost 45,000 students, in 1997-98, and to 99,368, more than 35 percent of the school district this year.
In the younger grades, the percentage of Latinos is even higher. And remember that the school district has added about 15,000 students each year for more than a decade, meaning that almost half of the incoming students are Spanish-surnamed. Project that growth over time and Latino in-migration has already reshaped Las Vegas.
Hailing from a multitude of places, Latinos are not just one community. The Latino community looks homogeneous to outsiders, but is actually made up of a complicated array of different and sometimes conflicting interests.
Spanish-speakers often share the Spanish language and little else. Even their Spanish varies widely, as diverse as the many locales in which it originates. Mexican-Americans -- many third-, fourth- or fifth-generation American -- new immigrants from anywhere in Mexico and Central America, not to mention South America and the Caribbean, and others combine in an uneasy mix. Few community-wide clubs or groups even venture to represent the whole.
As a result, even though you can live a life in Spanish in Las Vegas without being inconvenienced, an enormous gulf between the English-speaking community and much of the Latino population remains.
Despite important work in the social service sector by the Culinary Union and other organizations, Latino Las Vegas remains largely invisible to the rest of us. Neither television nor the newspapers cover Latino issues in a substantive way, except when they cross with mainstream issues.
Like any other, the Latino community has its own problems and ways to resolve them. Yet for a group that makes up one-quarter of the Las Vegas Valley and 35 percent of the school district, Latinos appear too often in the crime news and not enough in other ways in coverage of the civic life of greater Las Vegas. We hear too little of what sustains this community, of its businesses and churches, of its celebrations and laments.
As the influence of this community grows, the lack of attention from the rest of us will create an even larger divide that will someday come back to haunt us. In the recent chaos in France and Australia, we have seen how societies that fail to integrate minority populations pay for that shortcoming.
The United States remains the best example of a polyglot nation; simply put, we bring all kinds of people under the tent better than anybody on Earth. We're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we still do a better job than anyone else.
The problem is we're not doing it with Latino Las Vegas. Despite the close-cropped snapshot of today, Latinos are the future. Their population has grown so quickly that the town, like the nation, is only beginning to recognize its significance, much less come to grips with it.
That oblivious attitude does not change reality: after Miami and Los Angeles, Las Vegas will become the third American city to overwhelmingly speak Spanish.