SAN DIEGO -- For more than two centuries, part of being an American has often meant struggling to be something else.
No offense intended. It's not that people are looking for ways to stop being American. If they were born here, they accept this as a given. It's just that they're hungry for ways to supplement their American identity with something that reminds them of home -- or at least what was "home" for their immigrant ancestors.
That's how a PBS documentary -- "The Jewish Americans" -- defined the Jewish experience in the United States, which is steeped in both religion and ethnicity. The adventure began in 1654 when 23 people arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The narrator said of the Jews: "As much as they loved America, they held tight to their heritage. They wanted to maintain their identity as Jews ... and to be fully accepted as Americans."
The same goes for the Irish, Italians and Germans. A visit to South Boston, or Little Italy, or any one of a dozen Germantowns in the Midwest confirms that, for many Americans, there is no conflict between being proud of one's ancestry and being proud to be an American.
You don't need to use a hyphen. But if you refer to yourself as German or Irish or Italian, it doesn't necessarily follow that you think of yourself as any less American. Heritage is one thing, and nationality is another. If you doubt it, try confronting an Irishman on St. Patrick Day's and demanding that he choose between being Irish or American. Not a wise move.
That's the genius of this country. Unlike Germany, France, Mexico or any other place that tries to impose uniformity through language or citizenship, America doesn't demand that we fall in line. It's secure enough to not make people check only one box as to how they identify themselves.
Now, according to a new study that is being touted as one of the most comprehensive of its kind, it seems that many young Latinos are continuing this tradition.
The report by the Pew Hispanic Center -- "Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America" -- relies on detailed analysis of government data on Latinos ages 16 to 25, as well as a survey of more than 2,000 respondents. According to the study, a major issue for young Latinos is their identity. Overall, only 24 percent identify themselves as American. Fifty-two percent identify with their family's country of origin, i.e., Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc. Twenty percent use the terms Hispanic or Latino to describe themselves.
This changes the longer a family remains in the United States. Among the first generation of foreign-born Latinos, only 3 percent call themselves American. Among second-generation Latinos who are U.S.-born children of immigrants, the percentage of those who identify themselves as American jumps up to 33 percent. By the third generation, the percentage is 50 percent. This lag time probably starts at home. Only 29 percent of young Latinos said that their parents had spoken to them of their pride in being American, while 42 percent said that their parents had spoken of their pride in their family's country of origin.
Yet, whatever they call themselves, most Latinos are doing as the Americans do. Consistent with other surveys, the study found that by the second generation practically all Latinos speak fluent English. Rejecting the fatalism that is often ingrained in their culture, most young Latinos are optimistic about their future and what is possible in the United States.
They have reason to be. Latinos are the largest minority in the United States, and also the youngest. They account for one in five schoolchildren, and one in four newborns. Thirty years from now, when the U.S. Census estimates that Latinos will account for more than 25 percent of the U.S. population, it'll be this younger demographic -- which will be by then between the ages of 46 and 55 -- that finds itself in the best position to break down whatever barriers remain.
According to Paul Taylor, executive director of the Pew Hispanic Center, this is why this group is worth keeping an eye on.
"If you want to understand what America will be like in the 21st century," Taylor told The Washington Post, "you need to have an understanding of how today's young Latinos, most of whom are not immigrants, are growing up."
That's easy. Whether they realize it or not, they're growing up just like the preceding groups did: as Americans.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.