How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California's imminent Latino plurality: How will we know when it happens?

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A ceremony last week outside the State Capitol marked a long-predicted milestone: the day that Latinos in California catch up with the number of whites.

As far as population milestones go, it's a big chunk of news. But there's no certainty that it's occurred yet, or when it will. The only thing California state demographers can predict is when this shift — most likely in the form of a baby born to Latino parents — is expected to happen. By their best calculations, it'll be sometime this summer.

After that would come the inevitable tipping point, with Latinos becoming the plurality — meaning the single largest demographic group in the state — by early 2014.

The July 1 ceremony on the Capitol steps was more symbolic than anything, but some missed the point. One sample headline from that date: "As of today, California no longer has a white majority."

If only tracking demographic shifts were that easy.

While that history-making baby or immigrant newcomer may have already arrived, quantifying a population shift is tricky. It's not like a turnstile count pinpointing, say, the 15-millionth visitor at Disneyland. In fact, it may be a while before we know when it happened.

"We work with estimates. It's not something we're able to pin down," said John Malson, a demographer with the California Department of Finance, which projected this year's population shift in January. "We know it's during this year. And from what we've seen, and past indications, is that it will happen this summer." 

Based on existing census data, the number of Latinos in the state was projected to catch up to that of non-Latino whites during a three-month window, roughly June through August, explained Malson. The two groups are already more or less on par, each accounting for 39 percent of the state's residents.

But it could take a couple of years to determine just when the catch-up moment occurred, Malson said, because "we usually rely on data once it has been established." This was the case, for example, when the U.S. Census Bureau established last year that non-white babies had outnumbered white babies. The shift actually occurred in mid-2010.

Here is what we can count on, according to state projections: By early next year, California will have a Latino plurality. While Latinos won't be the majority, they will outnumber non-Latino whites — until now the state's largest demographic group.

The growth is expected to be driven mostly by native births, less so by immigration. By 2060, it's projected that Latinos will account for nearly half — 48 percent — of Californians.

At the same time, the numbers have yet to translate into other kinds of representation. California's Latino voters are one example: While they turned out in record numbers in November 2012, their voter participation still lags behind that of other groups.

And this is what Sacramento's Latino Democratic Club, which chose July 1 somewhat arbitrarily for its event on the Capitol steps, was trying to point out, said club president Orlando Fuentes.

"We wanted people to know that while we are represented by numbers, we are underrepresented politically, economically and educationally," Fuentes said. "We also want to achieve parity in all those areas as well."

When Latinos do become the plurality in California, it will be a milestone indeed: The first time that people of Latino/Hispanic descent will hold that status in California, a former Spanish colony and Mexican outpost, since it became a state in 1850.

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