August 8, 2003

Commentary

Hispanic Americans: Seeking Opportunity through Free Enterprise

By Hector V. Barreto

A few weeks ago, the Census Bureau announced that Hispanics are now the largest minority group in America, totaling 13 percent of the population, 38.8 million strong.

A recent survey of Latinos in the U.S. by the Pew Hispanic Center of the Kaiser Family Foundation sought to help answer some of the difficult questions that have been on the minds of many Americans since the new Census numbers were released: Do Hispanics want to be part of the melting pot? Are they willing to learn English and assimilate to American culture? Or are they and their children happier to stay separate from the American mainstream, divided by culture, customs, and language?

The survey found that the answer is: “Both, to some extent.”

As the son of Mexican immigrants, this finding rings very true for me.

To Hispanics, assimilation versus preservation of traditions and culture is not an either/or proposition. The Pew survey, for example, found that while most Hispanics speak Spanish or are bilingual, they feel very strongly that they must learn English in order to be successful in the United States.

The Pew survey also found that while Hispanics see the United States as offering more education and employment opportunities for their children than their family’s native countries, they are also worried about the moral values and the strength of family ties here in this country. For people with a strong faith and love of family, this is the less positive side of the U.S., but Hispanics are confident that they can maintain and pass on their cultural values even as they assimilate to this country.

This dual-desire to assimilate while also maintaining cultural identity, priorities and pride is not dissimilar from other groups who came here as immigrants. From the Scottish family whose 5th-generation-American men wear a kilt on their wedding day, to the Chinese-American family who celebrates Chinese New Year, maintaining cultural traditions while assimilating is what has made this country such an incredible, diverse place.

And like virtually all of the other groups who have come here, Hispanics come to the U.S.A. primarily seeking the opportunity that only comes with the kind of freedom, the kind of free market that we have here in this country.

The growth of Hispanic-owned small businesses is strong evidence of this thirst for opportunity, and an entrepreneurial spirit that has helped so many previous generations of immigrants to become major contributors to the U.S. economy.

Over 1.2 million of America’s small businesses are owned by Hispanics. and the number of Hispanic-owned firms is growing at a rate of about thirty percent. That’s twice the rate of all other firms. In an economy where small businesses create three-quarters of the net new jobs, this rate of increase is extremely significant.

As President George W. Bush has said, owning a small business is the “embodiment of the American dream.” It is no coincidence that Hispanics and other immigrants seek the dream through self-employment. My own family did. The fact that this path also benefits our economy and creates jobs is much more than the icing on the cake - it’s an essential part of our ongoing economic recovery, job creation and growth.

If we as a country want to help Hispanics assimilate and achieve the American dream, and ensure their ability to be entrepreneurial and create jobs, we’ve got to make sure we aren’t weighing down that incredible entrepreneurial spirit with excessive taxation and government regulation at every level (local, state and federal). We’ve also got to take steps to make health insurance more affordable for the self-employed and the employees of small business. Our economy depends on making sure that the American dream can always be reached - for Hispanics and, indeed, for all American entrepreneurs.

The Pew survey reminds us that Hispanics want the same things that those who came before them wanted: freedom and opportunity. Good jobs. Safe streets. Strong schools for their children. And many want to start, or grow, their own business. They share the values that made this country great, and that is why they are achieving what so many others have sought and achieved here: the American dream.

Hector Barreto is the Administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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