Rising population giving Hispanic influence a firm foothold

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Hispanic influence is felt in the halls of Congress and in heartland towns. It expresses itself in music, on dinner plates and on the playing fields of the nation.

When Mexican President Vicente Fox tours Washington and a slice of Ohio this week, he may feel quite at home, thanks to the growing Hispanic influence in the United States.

Fox will even find touches of Tijuana in Toledo, one of the country's most out-of-the-way big cities and one with a Spanish name if hardly a smidgeon of Spanish history.

The Mexican president's state visit, the first of President Bush's administration, begins today at the White House after Fox's arrival Tuesday night. It will include an unusual joint U.S.-Mexican Cabinet meeting and an address by Fox to Congress before the two leaders go to Toledo.

Bush is not the first president from Texas, where entanglements, hostilities and hands-across-the-border camaraderie with Mexico are older than time.

But he is the first to make radio addresses in Spanish. And in Congress, some members far from the border have seen their districts swell with Latinos and have discovered a sudden need to learn the language and ways.

East Coast influence

Democratic Sen. Christopher Dodd, proficient from his days in the Peace Corps, has found his fluency increasingly useful in Connecticut, where Hispanics have become the largest minority.

His advice is to go beyond language. "Get familiar with the culture and the music and the literature," he said. "People want you to connect with them."

When he speaks with Dominicans about the local foods he ate in the Dominican Republic, he finds a spark. "They go nuts -- the fact that I know about goat soup."

From soccer to salsa -- both the sauce and the dance -- the Hispanic influence is shaping the marketplace and mores of countless neighborhoods that have seen an influx of Latinos, Mexicans by far the most numerous among them.

In the latest turn of a seesaw battle going back through the 1990s, Mexican sauce is outselling ketchup on U.S. grocery shelves, marketers say.

"I think you're seeing the beginning of a major cultural influencing group, which is Hispanic-driven, Hispanic-led," said Tony Dieste, who has a Latino ad agency in Dallas.

Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the population, the census found, a 60 percent increase in a decade.

The presence is felt in many ways -- bank machines that offer service in two languages, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in rural Arkansas, the staging for a second year of the Latin Grammys.

People with no Hispanic heritage at all are taking a slice of lime in their beer.

Hispanics are seen as an awakening political force, leaning Democratic but swayable and hotly pursued by both parties -- yet largely disinclined to vote. Issues important to them are getting a hard look in Washington by Democrats and Republicans alike.

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