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    Apart from ancestry

    Census figures show fewer people are identifying with the most popular ancestries and more are calling themselves Americans.

    [Times photo: Lara Cerri]
    Smaragda Karakoudas-Soukup, 26, and her brother Michael Karakoudas, 22, restock the vegetable section at the Greek family's Pasadena Produce and Deli in South Pasadena. Tatiana and Leonid Beck, who are of Russian ancestry, shop.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 15, 2002


    Her first inkling she was different came in kindergarten, when she was kept in at recess to practice spelling her name.

    Smaragda Sofia Karakoudas.

    But she soon came to see other things that set her apart from the rest of the kids. She learned traditional Greek dances. She went to Greek Orthodox church. And later, when boys called her house, her protective father, a Greek native, hung up on them.

    "It made me who I am," said Karakoudas, who has married and added her husband's name, Soukup, to hers.

    The 26-year-old woman, who still helps run the family restaurant and market in South Pasadena, is part of a shrinking group, according to recently released census figures: people who closely identify with their ancestry.

    Tampa Bay census numbers, as well those for Florida and the nation, show precipitous drops in numbers of people who identify with the most popular ancestries: German, English, Irish, Polish and French. Identification with Greek ancestry -- many of whom are relatively recent immigrants -- has remained stable.

    At the same time, the people who list their ancestry as American has increased. And the number of Asians and Hispanics are on the upswing.

    Social scientists and demographers have a variety of theories for the dropoff in people who identify with their European ancestry: Older immigrants who came here from their native countries are dying off. Successive generations begin to lose track of their roots. Or maybe it's sheer trendiness: Current events may influence which slice of heritage one chooses to identify with.

    "What's at work?" said Matt Snipp, a Stanford University professor who studies how people identify themselves racially and ethnically. "It would be Taco Bell meets McDonald's. There are a lot of people who are sufficiently removed from their European heritage that nothing works for them."

    The practical effects of such a cultural shift are all too apparent to Charlotte Eidenschink, who is the membership chairwoman for the German American Club of Spring Hill. Most of the club's 232 members are natives of Germany, and are getting older.

    "The young ones don't want to join," said Eidenschink, 72, whose husband has been president of the club for 15 years. "They're married to Americans. And the old ones are dying."

    The percentage of Hernando County residents claiming German heritage dropped 8.4 percent during the past decade. In the seven Tampa Bay area counties of Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota, the drop was even more severe -- nearly 22 percent.

    Despite the drop, German ancestry is the most popular choice in Tampa Bay, Florida and the nation. Nearly 1.9-million Floridians consider themselves of German descent.

    Of Florida's foreign-born population, 13 percent claimed European birth, down from 19 percent a decade prior. Conversely, the population born in Latin American and Asian countries has picked up significantly in the past decade, a byproduct of immigration rule changes.

    But if assimilation patterns hold true, the great-grandchildren of the new Latin American and Asian immigrants are likely to consider themselves "American" when they are asked to fill out a census survey.

    Those who are losing touch with their ancestral roots are descended from the great waves of European immigrants -- Irish, Scottish, English, German and French, among others -- who largely came to this country before 1870, said Thomas Boswell, a University of Miami geography professor.

    Those people probably intermarried with the vast array of people that make up this country. Unless your family has a diligent historian, it's likely you will have lost track of at least part of your heritage, Boswell said.

    "Once you get beyond the grandchildren of the immigrants, they begin to lose their roots," Boswell said. "It's not important anymore. They don't speak the language. They're so mixed."

    Those are the people who, social scientists said, are most likely to resort to calling themselves "Americans," a category that bumped up in census figures in the past decade. The census survey, which went to one in six households nationwide, was completed well before Sept. 11. The resulting wave of patriotism since the terrorist attacks portends even bigger increases in the "American" categories during the next census, experts said.

    The most difficult phenomenon to measure and explain, said demographers and social scientists, are the effects of current events, trends and personal history on self-identification.

    Between 1980 and 1990, there was a tenfold increase in the number of people who called themselves Cajuns, said Barry Edmonston, director of the Population Research Center at Portland State University. He attributes that to the popularity of all things Cajun: blackened fish and bayou music.

    And during World War II, the number of people who identified themselves as Germans dropped dramatically -- a reaction to antipathy Americans felt toward their opponent in the war.

    Edmonston, who has used sophisticated mathematical modeling techniques to calculate how intermarriage is changing the United States, said the phenomenon has been called "situational ethnicity."

    "That kind of person is fairly fluid," he said.

    The dynamic can get personal, experts said.

    "Whether your father dumped your mother -- those things come into play," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, based in Washington.

    Krikorian said government and institutional policies governing things such as college admissions sway people when they are trying to decide which box to check.

    "Quite frankly, if government policies were to change and preference of some ethnic groups were eliminated, I guarantee the numbers would show that," Krikorian said.

    (A large, untrolled section of the census ancestry numbers released last month is the "other" category, which also increased. It includes a large number of lesser-known ancestry categories, as well as Hispanic and Asian subgroups.)

    While demographers crunch the numbers and develop theories, familiar examples of shifting ethnic identification support the social science.

    Each St. Patrick's Day, Chris Madden sees about 3,000 people come through the door at the Harp & Thistle, a St. Pete Beach Irish pub.

    "And they're all Irish," said Madden, 42, who has tended bar at the Harp for five years.

    And how many of them are Hibernians when they sober up?

    "Not that many," he said with a laugh. "I think on the whole, they consider themselves Americans, first and foremost."

    -- Computer-assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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