"If you constantly add people who are barely making anything, you drag down the overall numbers," said de la Torre.
But a farther-reaching cause may lie in another set of statistics: More than a third of Valley Hispanics over the age of 25 reported having less than a ninth-grade education in the 2000 census, and less than half had made it all the way through high school.
The graduation rate for Latino high school students in the Valley in 2002 was 63 percent, well below the 76 percent rate for non-Latinos.
"That more and better schooling would help any group has the ring of a truism," wrote researchers Jeffrey Grogger and Stephen J. Trejo in "Falling Behind or Moving Up? The Intergenerational Progress of Mexican Americans," a report by the Public Policy Institute of California.
"But educational improvements are crucial to the earnings progress of Mexican Americans to a much larger extent than for blacks and other disadvantaged groups because their schooling levels lag behind those of almost all other groups."
For the business world, however, other demographic factors outweigh Latinos' slow progress in closing income and education gaps.
Larger household sizes make it easier to concentrate advertising and reach more people. Valley Latinos also are younger than the overall population, which makes them not only a large part of today's market, but of tomorrow's, too. About 77 percent of Hispanics in the Valley were younger than 40, according to the 2000 census, compared with 62 percent of the general population. Moreover, 43 percent were 19 or younger, compared with 33 percent overall.
"Big retailers like Wal-Mart and Kmart are making big strides in reaching the Latino market," said Thomas Tseng, co-founder and principal of New American Dimensions, an ethnic marketing research and consulting firm in Los Angeles. "In addition to advertising (in Spanish-language media), they are changing their inventories and even their credit systems to attract Hispanic shoppers."
Tseng said major retailers also are making efforts to hire more Latinos "because they are realizing they need staff that reflect the community and can act as a bridge to those customers."
Many retailers are trying to walk a fine line between appealing to Latino consumers and alienating other customers, Tseng said, while "others are just going full scale and customizing their stores entirely to appeal to Latinos in high-Hispanic-population areas."
"Donde todos califican" -- "Where everyone qualifies" -- is the slogan of the Los Compadres Auto Plaza, which celebrated its one-year anniversary over Labor Day weekend with a customer appreciation party at its south Sacramento car lot. Israel Ramirez, one of the owners, said the niche has worked for them so far: Business has been steadily growing there, despite the drag of the state's economic downturn on other car dealerships.
Nearby, at the Food Maxx, Brackin and produce manager Ernie Alarcon said a demographic study done before the store opened last April concluded about 18 percent of the store's drawing area was Latino. Instead, Alarcon estimates about a third of the store's business is coming from Latino customers.
"They don't just shop for TV dinners," Brackin said. "It's a family thing, they bring the whole family, mom and the kids and dad and grandma, and they fill up the shopping cart."
It's a generalization backed by statistics. A 2002 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, a grocery trade association, found that the average Latino family spent $117 per week on groceries, compared with $87 for the general population.
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