PHOENIX (Reuters) - Hispanics in the United States are breaking out of traditional strongholds in the Southwest and making their homes in states where they never had much of a footprint before, according to data emerging ahead of this year's U.S. census data.
"For a long time Latinos were a fact of life in the American Southwest, and that was it," said John Weeks, a professor of geography and director of the International Population Center at San Diego State University.
"But over the last 20 years, there has been just a mushrooming of migrants into places like Charlotte (North Carolina), originally brought there to do construction."
Latinos are leading the transformation of the United States, where ethnic and racial minorities are expected to become the majority by mid-century, according to U.S. Census Bureau projections.
There are more than 45 million Hispanics in the United States, double the number 20 years ago, according to the American Community Survey released this month ahead of the 2010 Decennial Census data being released on Tuesday. The survey drew on five-year estimates from 2005 to 2009.
While long a presence in the states bordering Mexico such as Arizona, Latinos are increasingly moving to the U.S. interior to work in states like Georgia and North Carolina, where the number of Hispanics as a proportion of the population has grown by nearly 50 percent since 2000.
A sign of that growth is in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Charlotte -- one in five children now born there are to Hispanic mothers.
"This city is no longer thought of as being a 'Southern town,'" said Rocio Gonzalez, of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Charlotte, speaking of the city's transformation.
While it was hard to find a place to sway to a salsa beat when she moved there in 1999, Gonzalez, who is originally from Colombia, says it now has clubs open even on week nights.
The Census Bureau projects that the U.S. Hispanic population will nearly triple to more than 130 million by 2050, when nearly one in three U.S. residents will be Latino.
The rapid growth in part is a result of increased economic immigration from Mexico and Latin America, which has helped swell the U.S. foreign-born Hispanic population to 37 million, from 31 million a decade ago.
But it also points to a relatively high birth rate among Hispanics, who tend to be younger parents and have larger families than their white and black neighbors, analysts say.
"The reason why we're seeing relatively robust growth in that group has to do with their age structure," said Audrey Singer, a demographer with Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
"They are younger than whites, they're younger than blacks ... they're in their family creation years, and there's been relatively high immigration at least up to the recession," she said.
While Hispanic immigration has slowed with the 2007-2009 recession, demographers say the growth of the Hispanic population will continue in coming years.
"Looking to the future, we are going to see an even more diverse population in the U.S.," Singer told Reuters. "Part of that will be through intermarriage, children born to couples from different races. We are just looking at a much more diverse future," she said.
Editing by Peter Bohan and Mohammad Zargham