Sometime during 1996, at the very latest, Latinos surpassed Blacks as the second largest ethno-racial group in New York City. (They long have been the largest census group in the Bronx.) There were no street celebrations in El Barrio or Washington Heights, nor did the mayor hold a press conference from the steps of Gracie Mansion. Indeed, most New Yorkers remain oblivious to this demographic watershed, which was first announced in an academic working paper.footnote1 Yet it was an epochal event all the same: comparable to the numerical ascendancy of the Irish during the 1870s or the peaking of black migration to New York in the early 1960s.

It also mirrors a decisive national trend. Salsa is becoming the predominant ethnic flavour—and rhythm—in other large metropolitan cores. In six of the ten biggest cities—New York, Los Angeles, Houston, San Diego, Phoenix, and San Antonio, in that order—Latinos now outnumber Blacks; and in Los Angeles, Houston and San Antonio, non-Hispanic whites as well. Within five years, both Dallas and Fort Worth will have Spanish-surname pluralities, while in Chicago—Drake and Cayton’s paradigmatic ‘Black Metropolis’—the surging Latino population, although still only half of the size of the African-American community, now holds the balance of political power in most city elections. Philadelphia’s Latinos may be in distant third place, but they account for a majority of the city’s population influx since 1980. Only Detroit—with the most threadbare private-sector economy of any major central city—clearly bucks the trend.footnote2

In the broader census of cities of 200,000 inhabitants and over, nearly two-fifths now have larger Latino than Black populations. Although urban centres where Latinos are in the majority, or are the largest minority, are concentrated in the south-western tier of states, Spanish-surname populations have also been growing in hothouse fashion in cities where there is a negligible historical Mexican or Spanish connection, such as Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Washington, dc. Another spectacular example is Las Vegas, the nation’s fastest growing metropolitan area throughout the 1990s. Thirty years ago, the desert glitterdome had hardly any Latino residents, and the casino industry relied upon a segregated Black population for its supply of poorly paid maids and janitors. Today, Latinos outnumber Blacks in both ‘back-of-the-house’ occupations and the general population. Extrapolating from current school-age demographics, Latinos will become the majority in the city of Las Vegas within a decade.footnote3

This far-reaching ‘Latinization’ of large and medium-sized American central cities is being driven by a formidable demographic engine: a Spanish-surname population that is increasing by one million annually, or five times faster than the general population.footnote5 While nativist hysteria has focused on supposedly ‘unrestricted’ immigration, the growth of the Latino population (32 million in 2000) is equally the consequence of higher fecundity in the context of larger, more successfully maintained two-parent families, especially amongst those of Mexican origin (two-thirds of all Latinos). Even if all immigration were terminated tomorrow, the dramatically younger Latino population (median age 26) would continue to increase rapidly at the statistical expense of ageing, non-Hispanic whites (median age 37).footnote6 ‘Jose’, as a result, is now the most popular name for baby boys in both California and Texas, and Southern Californians are more likely to greet each other with ‘Que tal?’ than ‘Hey, dude’.footnote7 More importantly, Spanish-surname children already account for a bigger share of the national school-age population than African-Americans, and are expected to displace Blacks as the largest minority some time in the year 2000—far ahead of earlier predictions. Indeed, the present demographic momentum will ensure that, by 2025, there will be 16 million more Latinos (59 million) than African-Americans (43 million). From then until the mid-century, according to the Bureau of the Census, Latinos will supply fully two-thirds of us population growth. Shortly after 2050, non-Hispanic whites will become a minority group. These are millennial transformations with truly millennial implications for us politics and culture.footnote8

Latinos, moreover, have a striking preference for big cities that contrasts with the crabgrass prejudices of an overwhelmingly suburban nation. (Only Asian-Americans are more urbanized.)footnote9 With the partial exception of Mexicans, who also invigorate small-town life from California—which had 72 Latino-majority cities in 1990footnote10—to Iowa, all major Latino groups are heavily concentrated in the twenty largest cities, with Los Angeles and New York alone accounting for almost one third of the national Spanish-surname population. Thus, Los Angeles can boast that it is the second largest Mexican, Salvadorean and Guatemalan city in the world, and, over the next generation, as its metropolitan Latino population grows in excess of nine million, will become the third largest Spanish-speaking city in the world after Mexico City and Buenos Aires.footnote11 New York City, meanwhile, is the true capital of Puerto Rico and the second city of the Dominican Republic. Without this Latino population boom, most big American cities would be dramatically shrinking in the face of accelerated white flight and, since 1990, black out-migration. ‘The Greater Los Angeles and New York City metro areas’, the National Journal notes, ‘each suffered a net loss of more than one million domestic migrants from 1990-95’. Latinos, with help from Asian immigrants, compensated for this exodus to the edge cities.footnote12

The stubbornly binary discourse of American public culture, however, has yet to register the historical significance of this ethnic transformation of the urban landscape. The living colour of the contemporary big city—dynamically Asian as well as Latino—is still viewed on an old-fashioned black-and-white screen. (This is almost literally true: a recent study found that only one out of every fifty characters on primetime us television is a Latino.)footnote14 The 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles County, for example, were universally interpreted as Black versus white, or Black versus Korean, despite the fact that a majority of arrested had Spanish surnames and came from immigrant neighbourhoods severely battered by recession.footnote15 Similarly, when more than 75,000 young Latinos, protesting against anti-immigrant Proposition 187, marched out of their high schools throughout California in 1994—the largest student protest in the state’s history—it was virtually ignored by the media networks, although a comparable uprising by Black or white students would have become a national sensation.footnote16

Unfortunately, the invisibility of Latinos also extends to ‘high-end’ urban studies. For more than a decade, urban theory has been intensely focused on trying to understand how the new world economy is reshaping the metropolis. Yet most of the literature on ‘globalization’ has paradoxically ignored its most spectacular us expression. This neglect, moreover, is not for want of a richness of data and ideas. Researchers in the fields of Chicano, Puerto Rican and Cuban-American Studies, as well as urban sociologists, anthropologists and immigration specialists, have produced a bumper crop of important findings and conceptual innovations that soi disant urban theory has failed to harvest.footnote17 Moreover, Latino Studies recently has been capturing broad academic attention with its effective attacks on the Great Wall of us Exceptionalism that has stood for so long between Latin American Studies and ‘American’ Studies.footnote18 This article explores some of the consequences of putting the new Latino urban populations where they clearly belong: in the centre of debate about the future of the American city.