According to nativists on the right and separatists on the left, America is slouching toward the Tower of Babel, destined to become a country divided into warring linguistic and cultural camps. But America, particularly, young America, may be more culturally united than ever before -- moving to an identity that transcends the traditional barriers of race and ethnicity.
Jennifer Lopez is one of America's hottest heartthrobs, with an appeal to fans -- and lovers -- of every complexion. Years ago salsa surpassed ketchup as the American condiment of choice. And hot salsa clubs in L.A. are frequented by Asians and whites.
One sign of this shift is contained in a recent study of young people in Los Angeles and New York by L.A.-based Cultural Access, a market-research group. It suggests that younger Latinos -- roughly one in five Americans under 30 -- are part of America's mainstream youth culture.
The study surveyed 500 people between ages 14 and 24 in the two cities. More than 90% spoke English with friends at school and work, even though a large proportion also used Spanish at home. Defying the notions both of nativists and ethnic marketers, five times as many respondents preferred English-language newspapers to their Spanish-language counterparts, and they listened twice as much to English-language TV and radio. Their favorite TV shows were "The Simpsons," "Friends" and offerings on MTV.
Thomas Tseng, director of marketing for Cultural Access, found that most Latino young people are proud of their heritage and listen to at least some Latin music. Given their greater numbers, Latinos may take a little longer to assimilate than other groups. More certain, their sheer numbers assure them of greater influence on the wider culture. But the English preference does suggest a real shift in Latino culture.
Indeed, a smaller set of in-depth interviews reveal, Mr. Tseng adds, that only 13% of the L.A. sample identified themselves as traditionalists, who, for example, listen predominantly to ranchera music and watch Spanish TV. Far larger groups follow mainstream American culture or are roqueros, aficionados of rock 'n' roll. The largest group, more than a third of the L.A. sample, identified most strongly with hip hop culture, itself mainly African-American in derivation and increasingly appealing to white teenagers and young adults.
Cultural Access suggests that youth culture is becoming more blended and less racially stereotyped. Whatever we older folks thing of rap music and its offshoots, generational appeals to what Mr. Tseng calls the "hip hop nation" are likely to be more successful than racially targeted approaches. Cultural Access is telling its clients, which include Pepsi and Kraft, that the vogue in Spanish-language marketing will be gradually overtaken by something with crossover appeal.
One group not likely to be happy about this news are those, such as the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo, who live off the notion that Latinos, unlike every previous immigrant wave, will somehow stay "loyal" to the mother tongue. Already Spanish-language radio, which for years burgeoned in Los Angeles, has been losing ground to stations such as KROQ, an alternative, youth-oriented station that has made it to the top of the L.A. charts. Forty percent of KROQ's listeners, according to the station's management, are Latinos.
Another unhappy band will be the professors of Chicano studies and other cultural nationalists who dream of a de facto Hispanic region, Aztlan, in the Southwestern U.S. It has about as much a chance as South Boston annexing itself to Ireland or Beverly Hills to Israel.
For Latinos themselves, believes Deborah Franco, a 31-year-old producer in Hollywood, post-ethnicity offers great opportunities. It's clear simply by going to a mall that Latin cuisine and culture have broad appeal outside the barrio. Movies and TV will be next, she insists. And TV programs like "The George Lopez Show" are already on the air or in development.
Ms. Franco, who is a bilingual Latina from Kansas City, last year formed Elysian Films, based in Los Angeles. "I am a Latina who is starting an American film company," she says. "It's an urban American thing." The former singer says she has put together funding for a new picture, "The Gardener," that deals with an immigrant Latino and his more Americanized sons. She adds that she has won commitments from actor Andy Garcia and musician Carlos Santana for the picture. She says she has also optioned another script being developed for Josefina Lopez, who made a powerful presence in the movie "Real Women Have Curves." It is about three 20-something Latinas coming of age in L.A.
Young Latinos are becoming an increasingly powerful presence in the U.S. And they are doing it, for the most part, en ingles.