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Editorial: Roanoke's Hispanic future

Editorial: Roanoke's Hispanic future

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In the Blue Ridge Adult Baseball League — a local amateur league — most of the teams mimic the names of Major League teams. Cardinals, Pirates, Dodgers, that sort of thing.

One of the exceptions wouldn’t draw much attention at first, until the team takes the field and you realize that the Eagles are named in honor of the Veracruz Eagles of the Mexican League.

The other team is more obvious. It’s called the Charros. Both rosters are filled with Hispanic players. That’s two out of ten teams, or 20 percent, which is another way of saying you can see the future of Roanoke on a baseball field.

The latest population projections from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia may have been startling in their numbers, but weren’t surprising in their trends: Northern Virginia will continue to grow; most of Southwest Virginia will continue to shrink. That’s been the case for a long time now; the difference is simply the pace at which both those trends are accelerating in opposite directions.

Buried deep inside those projections, though, is another, very curious data point. Or, to be precise, 31,579 data points.

That’s what the Hispanic population of Roanoke is projected to be in 2040, just a little over two decades hence.

Some context:

n Between now and then, Roanoke’s Hispanic population is projected to grow at a rate faster than the state average.

n Today, Roanoke’s Hispanic population is a little below the state average. By 2040, it’s projected to be higher than the state average — significantly higher, in fact.

n By 2040, nearly one-third of Roanoke’s population will be Hispanic — and Hispanics will constitute a bigger share of the city’s population than African-Americans. That raises a curious question: African-Americans today constitute a significant force in Roanoke politics. We have both an African-American mayor and vice mayor. Any serious broad-based community enterprise always makes sure it has African-American representation. What kind of political force will Hispanics be able to wield? Some more projections of interest:

n By 2020, Hispanics are projected to be a plurality in both Manassas and Manassas Park, accounting for 40 percent of the population in each city, making them the first localities in the state where Hispanics will outnumber non-Hispanic whites.

n By 2030, Hispanics are expected to be a plurality in Harrisonburg, too. The growth rate there is expected to be faster so by 2040, Harrisonburg is projected to become the state’s first locality with a Hispanic majority — 58 percent. Manassas is projected to be the second — 51 percent. Manassas Park, projected to have a 49 percent Hispanic population in 2040, will probably become the third a few years later.

Before we go further, let’s deal with a key definition that is often misunderstood. Hispanics are not a race; the term refers to people who have some ethnic link to Spain. That means baseball great Ted Williams was Hispanic because his mother was a Mexican-American from El Paso, Texas. On the other hand, Pope Francis is not Hispanic even though he’s a Spanish-speaker from Argentina. His ancestors were from Italy. The point being: Hispanics are hardly monolithic, except in government statistics. In any case, the numbers:

n In 2010, the census counted 5,345 Hispanics in Roanoke. They accounted for 5.5 percent of the population — a little lower than the state average of 7.9 percent.

n By 2020, the Hispanic population in Roanoke is expected to come in at 11,490, or 11.2 percent of the population.

n By 2030, the figures are projected at 20,396, or 19.5 percent.

n By 2040, the projections are for 31,579, or 29.9 percent — noticeably higher than the projected state average of 22.8 percent.

If these projections are accurate, here’s what Roanoke in 2040 will look like: The overall population won’t be that much bigger than now —105,357 as opposed to the 97,032 counted in the last census. Whites will be a plurality, but no longer a majority of the population. Meanwhile, the African-American population is expected to decline — from 27,612 or 28 percent in 2010 to 19,414 or 18 percent in 2040.

Put another way: Hispanics in 2040 will constitute a bigger share of Roanoke’s population than African-Americans do today.

Now, here’s a provocative question: Will anyone notice?

Much of the growth of the Hispanic population has come from immigration. That immigration has now slowed. Little-known fact: In recent years, more people have moved from the United States to Mexico than the other way around. The Weldon Cooper Center projects that future growth in the Hispanic population will come primarily from births, which means we’re talking second or third generations.

Because Hispanic is an ethnonym and not a race, the question becomes how future generations will identify themselves. Think of how previous waves of immigrants blended into the American mosaic. Some still refer to themselves as Irish-American or Italian-American; others simply drop the prefix.

Ted Williams, as we’ve seen, was Hispanic, but identified as white. Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, can trace his ancestry on his father’s side to a passenger on the Mayflower but identifies as Hispanic because his mother was born in Mexico. Or look at two sons of Cuban immigrants who both serve in the U.S. Senate and both sought the Republican nomination for president last year — Marco Rubio of Florida identifies a lot more with his Hispanic heritage than Ted Cruz of Texas does with his.

Demography is destiny, but how people identify their demography is something we can’t predict. We can, however, look at how that destiny is already playing out in some of Roanoke’s elementary schools.

Twenty years ago, there were no Hispanic students at Preston Park Elementary; in the past school year, 33 percent of the students were.

At Round Hill, the Hispanic enrollment is 25 percent. At Fallon Park, it’s 21 percent. At Monterey, it’s 18 percent.

Given the city’s diversity, Roanoke City Council — which appoints the school board — would never allow an all-white school board.

So if we’re peering into the future, a future that is already happening in classrooms across the city, we have to wonder: Who will become the first Hispanic member on the school board?

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