December 27, 2004

Dispersal and Concentration: Patterns of Latino Residential Settlement

I. Overview

Rather than clustering in ethnic enclaves, Census data show that most Latinos live scattered through neighborhoods where they are a small share of the population. Some 20 million Hispanics—57 percent of the total—lived in neighborhoods in which Hispanics made up less than half of the population at the time of the 2000 census. These Latinos lived in census tracts where only seven percent of residents were Hispanics on average. This pattern of dispersal even holds for Latino immigrants and for low-income Hispanics although to a somewhat lesser degree.1

Of course, this leaves a sizeable share of the Hispanic population—43 percent—in neighborhoods where Latinos are a majority. These communities are large, and the Hispanic population that lives in such neighborhoods is growing faster than the Hispanic population that lives dispersed among non-Hispanics. A comparison of data from the 1990 and 2000 census counts shows that as the size of the Hispanic population increased in big cities with already large Hispanic populations, such as New York and Los Angeles, these majority-Latino neighborhoods spread across the urban landscape. Although such neighborhoods where Latinos dominate can be highly visible and sometimes controversial, they are not the norm for the Latino population.

Thus, the recent growth of the Hispanic population has produced two countervailing trends in residential settlement: dispersal and concentration. The increase of the Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000 was almost equally shared between neighborhoods where Latinos are a majority of residents (6.5 million) and neighborhoods where they are a minority (6.9 million). As of 2000, however, more Hispanics were dispersed than were concentrated. Moreover, a variety of different types of Latinos— immigrant and native born, poor and middle class—live in predominately Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Hispanic population is classified as a minority group, and it is growing rapidly through immigration. On both scores questions arise about patterns of residential settlement: Are Latinos segregated into neighborhoods where they constitute the dominant population? What are the characteristics of Latinos who live in neighborhoods populated mostly by non-Hispanics? In order to help resolve these and other related questions, the Pew Hispanic Center conducted an analysis of data from the 2000 census. Each of the nation’s more than 65,000 census tracts was sorted according to whether or not Latinos constituted a half or more of the population in the tract. Then, the characteristics of the Hispanic population in what we have termed “majority-Latino” tracts were contrasted to those in “minority-Latino” tracts. Further analysis examined the residential distribution of the Hispanic population in these kinds of tracts in the 1990 census to determine how patterns changed over the course of a decade. In addition, this analysis was applied to states where large numbers of Latinos have lived for many years and to states that have recently experienced rapid growth of the Hispanic population to determine whether these residential patterns differed in traditional and new settlement areas.

Overall, this analysis shows that by a significant measure most Latinos live in communities that they share with non-Latinos. And, while majority-Latino neighborhoods are large and growing, especially in the nation’s biggest cities, those neighborhoods contain a mix of native-born and foreign-born Latinos, Spanish speakers and English speakers, the poor and the middle class. On balance, Balkanization is not the defining trend. Most Latinos are not conglomerating into densely packed, highly homogenous communities characterized by a prevalence of Spanish-language and immigrant cultures. Rather, most are living with non-Hispanics and even neighborhoods where Latinos dominate show considerable variety.

Some of the major findings:

  1. The terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably. The terms “white,” “African American” and “black” are used to refer to non-Hispanics who identify themselves in those racial categories. The terms “immigrant” and “foreign born” are used to refer to any person who was born outside the United States its territories or possessions regardless of their citizenship or immigration status.