With the economy booming, Ernesto Martinez can barely keep up with all the construction work coming into the small drywall company he owns. He's part of a historic wave of Latino prosperity in America.

It wasn't always like this. Martinez remembers when he was 17. He had $120 to his name, and it was all in his pocket. It's how much he got paid for his first job in the U.S., as a mover. He says he stood there, mesmerized, in front of a shop window at the mall.

Martinez was looking at a pair of Air Jordans. They cost around $100.

"I fell in love with them," he says. He didn't speak English, so he turned to his brother and said, "Ask them to bring me a size 8."

"What do you want those shoes for?" his brother responded disapprovingly.

Martinez says that's when he decided to learn English, so he could go back and get the shoes.

He had just arrived from Mexico. It was the 1990s, and cultural critics spoke of a "Latin explosion": Over the next two decades the Hispanic population would grow from 22.4 million people, to 50.5 million. But the numbers did not translate into power, or well-being: The 2000 census reported they had a poverty rate of 21.2% — nearly double the overall U.S. rate.

Martinez's wife, Araceli, had three cleaning jobs, but it was still hard to get by. She says the owners of one of the hotels where she worked made her do heavy lifting — such as moving furniture.

It was grueling, but she just couldn't afford to lose that job.

Across the U.S. today, there are plenty of jobs. Unemployment for Latinos is at 4.2% — the lowest in recorded history. And their poverty rate has gone down somewhat, to 18.3%.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

For the Martinez family, things have improved dramatically.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, Araceli shows a reporter around her home in New Jersey. She and Ernesto were able to buy it in the early 2000s. It's beautiful, with an expansive backyard.

And it takes a lot of work to afford this place.

Araceli still has three jobs: house cleaner, supermarket cashier and assistant at a day care. Both she and Ernesto say their incomes have barely budged in the past decade. But the cost of living has gone up. "Sometimes you have to have two or three jobs to make ends meet," Araceli says. "Everything is expensive. Food, utilities, car insurance."

So, despite low unemployment numbers, economists urge caution.

Yes, joblessness is down, and that's great. But Hispanics earn about one-fourth less than white workers do. And for some 7 million Central American and Mexican immigrants who don't have legal status, it's even harder to move up. Being undocumented often leads to exploitation. It makes it harder to get an education. It forces people to work for low wages in the informal economy. It makes it difficult to start and build a company.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here.

Which is why, for all the talk about the Latin cultural explosion and unemployment going down, some academics and activists worry about the formation of a permanent Hispanic underclass in America.

But Ernesto and Araceli say they see a really bright future. And it's because of their daughter.

Alondra is 22 years old. She's the eldest of the two Martinez kids. When they were born, Ernesto says, he had a clear vision: He didn't want to see them doing drywall. "I want them to have a 9-to-5 job. I want them to be well-dressed and not dirty like we get dirty," he says.

As soon as Alondra was born, Ernesto started saving for her to go to college.

But as Alondra got older, she didn't see herself as the kind of person who goes into higher education. "Growing up, I was very aware of the kind of family I came from. When you don't have lawyers and doctors and people with careers in your family, you think it's so far-fetched. And it's like, so much money," she says.

A high school Spanish teacher spoke to her about New Jersey's Educational Opportunity Fund, the state's support program for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

That's how Alondra ended up going to Montclair State University. She's part of the record number of Hispanics going to college: Enrollment nearly tripled between 1999 and 2016.

At this years graduation ceremony for students in the Educational Opportunity Fund program, she gave a speech. Alondra was nervous at first.

"Being a first-generation college student means breaking every barrier, silencing every negative voice and pushing myself to be the woman I know I am meant to be," she said.

Then she turned to her parents. "Mamá, papá, lo logramos," she said. Mom, dad, we made it.

This fall, Alondra will be going to Rutgers University to pursue a master's degree in college student affairs. She dreams of being a college dean someday.

Ernesto marvels at this. This generation's goal is to be lawyers, engineers and architects.

"That is their dream," he says. "And what was my dream?"

Nearly 30 years ago, it was a pair of Air Jordans.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.