Hispanics, the fastest growing ethnic group in the US, have overtaken blacks to become the largest minority in the US, according to newly released government figures.
One third of Hispanics are under 18
For the first time, there are now more Hispanics than Black Americans - 38.8 million Hispanics, compared to 38.3 million blacks, according to the United States Census Bureau.
And the Hispanic population is likely to continue to grow quickly - in the last two years they accounted for over 50% of the total growth in the US population, from 281m to 288.4m.
US POPULATION GROUPS
Whites - 200m
Hispanics - 38.8m
Blacks - 38.3m
Asians - 13.1m
Native Americans: 4.3m
Source: US Census Bureau
Nearly one-third of the US population is now non-white, and some census projections suggest that within the next 40 years whites will become a minority.
"This is an important event in this country, an event that we know is the result of the growth of a vibrant and diverse population that is vital to America's future," census Director Louis Kincannon told the League of United Latin American Citizens (Lulac) convention in Florida.
The Hispanic population is likely to continue to grow because of higher birth rates and increased immigration.
It suggests a demographic momentum so powerful that the immigration flow is relatively impervious to the economic downturn or fears over national security
Pew Hispanic Institute
US immigration has soared in the last 25 years after immigration laws were liberalised, and more than 10m people immigrated to the US in the last decade - the majority from Latin America.
Demographers say that the rapid increase in immigration has now become virtually unstoppable.
"It suggests a demographic momentum so powerful that the immigration flow is relatively impervious to the economic downturn or fears over national security," said Roberto Suro of the Pew Hispanic Institute.
The number of Hispanics rose 9.8% between 2000 and 2002, while the black population increased by just 2.9%.
Asians are the next largest minority group after blacks and Hispanics, at about 13 million - an increase of 9%, while the native American population rose 2.4% to 4.3 million.
Whites remained the largest single population group, numbering about 200 million in July 2002 - nearly 70% of all US residents.
The Hispanic population is younger, more diverse, and poorer than other US ethnic groups.
Around one in three Hispanics are under the age of 18, and one in five are in poverty, double the rate of the US population as a whole.
The highest concentration of Hispanics is in the south-west
Although Mexicans are the largest single group of Hispanics, there are large numbers from other Central American and Caribbean countries.
While Mexican-Americans are concentrated in the south-west (especially Texas, California, and New Mexico), Cubans have congregated around Miami, and Puerto Ricans and people from other Caribbean islands in New York and other north-eastern cities.
Over 50% of Hispanics live in central cities, a much higher proportion than other Americans.
Hispanics also have a higher rate of unemployment and lower educational levels, with only 57% having completed high school, compared to 88% of the population as a whole.
Despite the size of the Hispanic community, it has yet to develop the national political influence in the US enjoyed by blacks after years of political activism.
The number of Hispanic voters is lower, due to the fact that 40% are foreign-born and one-third are under the voting age of 18.
There are no Hispanic Supreme Court justices, no Hispanic Senators, and only one Hispanic Cabinet member.
But now both political parties are targeting the Hispanic vote, which has tended towards the Democrats in national elections (except among Cubans in Florida).
President Bush has proposed a conservative Hispanic lawyer, Miguell Estrada, to become an appeal court judge, a move that is being blocked by Democrats in the Senate.
But some Hispanic groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, have broken ranks with the Democrats on this issue.
In November, the Democrats nominated an Hispanic candidate for Texas governor, Tony Sanchez - but he lost to the Republicans.
Hispanics are having a much bigger impact on US culture, though, with a burgeoning number of Spanish language television stations, websites, magazines, and music groups.
The census figures are estimates, and include significant overlaps. Around 1.5m Hispanics say they are also black, while 1.6m blacks say they are of more than one race.
In the 2001 population estimates, Hispanics had edged past blacks if those who reported being of more than one race were excluded.