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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Generation Matters: The Nexus of Nativity, Identity, and Fertility Among Hispanic Women in the United States

  • Author(s): Thayer, Sarah Anne Walchuk
  • Advisor(s): Johnson-Hanks, Jennifer
  • et al.

What explains the curious pattern of Hispanic fertility in the United States? This dissertation explores this question, and in doing so sheds new light on processes of immigrant incorporation in the United States.

I examine the fertility of Hispanic women across immigrant generations, and I also examine how the fertility of immigrants and their descendants compares with a mainstream non-Hispanic white population. Previous research on immigrant fertility has drawn predominantly on classic assimilation theory, as well as theories of selectivity and disruption to explain the fertility outcomes of immigrant women in the U.S. These theories have some empirical support, but tests of them have been fairly inconsistent or inconclusive. To date, there is no coherent theory of immigrant fertility. I argue that a theory of segmented assimilation with an intergenerational disjuncture hypothesis offers the most compelling explanation for observed Hispanic fertility patterns.

In an analysis of European, Asian, and Hispanic immigrant generations, I find that fertility change across immigrant generations of European and Asian women is largely consonant with what we would expect from a classic assimilation perspective—also consonant with the upwardly mobile path within a segmented assimilation framework. Although individual level demographic and socioeconomic covariates largely explain the differences between most of the European and Asian immigrant groups and their non-Hispanic white peers, they do not explain the Hispanic fertility differential. I find that a puzzling U-shaped pattern of Hispanic fertility across immigrant generations remains even after adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic factors. Strikingly, fertility decline reverses from the second to the third generation, diverging from the reference population.

In a new contribution to the body of literature on immigrant fertility outcomes, I find that the composition of parent nativity of second generation women is an important predictor of their lower fertility relative to third generation women, even if the exact mechanism of action is still unknown. I theorize a number of ways this mechanism could function and argue that this finding is further evidence that fertility change across immigrant generations in the U.S. is best explained within a segmented assimilation framework enriched by an intergenerational disjunctures hypothesis.

I also find evidence that women who can do so are opting out of Hispanic identity by the third generation. Second generation women of Hispanic origin (identified as such through the nativity of their parents) who did not self-identify as Hispanic are measurably different from their peers who identified as Hispanic on almost all socioeconomic, intergenerational disjuncture factors and contextual variables. The women with discordant identities are clearly a distinct group, and the explanation for this may be tightly linked to segmented assimilation theory, where selective identity occurs at the site of conflict between structural assimilation and cultural factors. By the third generation, women who have achieved assimilation to a mainstream reference group may choose not to identify themselves as Hispanic. The unique pattern of Hispanic fertility, that is, the higher fertility rates we observe in third generation Hispanic women, may be due partially to selection out of Hispanic identity.

Taken together, the findings point to an assimilation process in which Hispanic immigrants become racialized and sent back to the underclass. I show that while second generation Hispanic women are characterized by much higher educational achievement, employment, and household income relative to their first generation peers, the trend stagnates or reverses by the third generation. Hope builds up with the second generation, and even legitimates some sacrifices, as exemplified by fewer children. But these immigrants and their children learn that educational achievement in the U.S. does not translate into long term gains, at least for them.

Although this work sought to explain the puzzle of Hispanic fertility across immigrant generations within a segmented assimilation framework, in the end, we may find that the more theoretically compelling site of inquiry may be found by turning the question on its head. How does the curious pattern of Hispanic fertility across immigrant generations help enrich our theories of immigrant incorporation? No demographic work to date has tested the hypothesis that a selection effect with respect to ethnic identification may be taking place with third generation Hispanic women. An analysis here of second generation women finds a selection effect—that is, women who have achieved assimilation on other measures may be opting out of Hispanic identity—and suggests that this process of selection continues into the third generation and beyond. This possibility contributes a new and important modification to the segmented assimilation thesis. The findings from this dissertation demonstrate that analyses of vital events can contribute important insights into immigrant incorporation in the U.S.

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