Acculturation among Hispanics in a changing landscape:


What you see is not always what you get

One day [months] ago, on the same day the Puerto Rican Day parade took place, I found myself in Spanish Harlem, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in New York City.  I was eating tacos at one of the most authentic “taquerias” outside of Mexico and I just couldn’t stop thinking about the acculturation process among Hispanics and how much it has changed over the past decade. This was the kind of place you would always believe was patronized almost exclusively by unacculturated, or at least low acculturated, Hispanic consumers. 

Suddenly all of the preconceived notions that the industry holds about acculturation were shattered as I watched a Hispanic male of Mexican descent dressed in jeans and python cowboy boots pull out a brand new video iPod and then place a call on a very fancy, high-tech cell phone.  I was moved to strike up a conversation with my fellow patron and discovered that he was 35 years old, hails from Puebla, Mexico, and has been living in New York for less than a year.  Like many Mexicans in New York he works in the kitchen of a restaurant in midtown Manhattan from Monday thru Saturday.  He doesn’t speak English, but he owns an iPod. Afterwards, on the way home, I was driving down on Park Avenue and a black Rolls Phantom with a huge Puerto Rican flag on the trunk passed me. Yes, a Rolls Royce. Yet many upscale/affluent brands question if there’s really an opportunity in reaching Hispanics.  

Today, everyone talks about acculturation, but do we really understand how Hispanics acculturate? Or do we only think we do?

Acculturation among Hispanics in America is a complex and multi-layered process that should not be influenced by obsolete models that no longer apply to today’s Hispanic market.

The not-so-simple fact is that acculturation is no longer an uncomplicated process where an individual adopts the English language and the American culture until he or she becomes highly acculturated or, in many instances, even assimilated. (Keep in mind that acculturation and assimilation are very different.  Assimilation means that one completely adopts a new culture and leaves his home culture behind.  Acculturation means that he allows for the host and home cultures to blend and interact in the way one adopts language, trends, behaviors, customs, etc.)

The acculturation process has drastically changed in the past decades. Hispanics as well as any other immigrants moving to the U.S. acculturate in various ways based on different factors such as their age at time of arrival, education, socio-economic level, type of job, motivation for migration, country of origin and final destination in the U.S.

For instance, if we think about the Cubans that immigrated in the 1960’s, they had to acculturate much faster because they could not go back home for political reasons, the availability of Spanish language media was very limited, and products from back home were not available. If you analyze the current environment, you will see a completely different picture that is influencing the way in which Hispanics acculturate. It is now a process by choice rather than need.

Today, foreign-born Hispanics are coming to a country with less cultural tension where it’s cool to be Hispanic, where “salsa” has surpassed ketchup as the number one selling condiment in the U.S., where mainstream artists like Beyoncé and J. Lo are doing a reverse crossover by recording songs in Spanish language and where “Cinco de Mayo” has become a major party occasion among non-Hispanics. Here’s a list of other factors to consider:

• The number of Spanish language TV and radio stations continues to grow and companies like Clear Channel are converting English language stations across the country into Spanish language stations.

• Univision has beaten all English language networks in many occasions such as with the finale of “La Fea Mas Bella”.

• The number one radio station among all persons in the Los Angeles DMA is a Spanish language station.

• Stores like Fiesta, Carnival and Supermercados continue to open new stores catering to Hispanics with all sorts of products from Latin America.  Shopping at one of these stores feels like going into a supermarket in Mexico, Colombia or Guatemala.

• Hispanics are no longer concentrated on the West Coast, in the South, Florida, or New York. They are everywhere. States such as North and South Carolina, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Georgia and even Tennessee have three-digit Hispanic population growth rates.

The fact is that the U.S. is no longer a melting pot but a “salad bowl” where Hispanics are able to maintain their cultural identity, language, traditions and cherry-pick what they want and like from the U.S. culture.

Hispanics can now move to the U.S. and live exactly the way they lived in their country of origin without having to speak a word in English if they live in certain Hispanic neighborhoods and cities. These include neighborhoods such as Pico Rivera in L.A., Hialeah in Miami, Washington Heights in New York City, or Maple Avenue in Dallas.
Hispanics are an integral part of the U.S. culture, and marketers and media companies need to understand that. The acculturation process is starting to slow down significantly, and true bilingualism is becoming more predominant among U.S. born Hispanics and foreign-born kids. These kids go into the U.S. public school system and become proficient in English but still can’t lose their Spanish in order to communicate with their parents or perhaps to serve as facilitators to help their parents navigate the complex maze that the U.S. represents. 

Next time you go to an electronics store think twice if you see Hispanics that might appear to be unacculturated and you ask yourself what they are doing there. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can determine a Hispanic’s level of acculturation just by the way he or she dresses or by the accoutrements they own or the language they prefer to speak. Acculturation is too complex and marketers should be warned never to judge a book by its cover.  They need to read a few chapters before they can really understand how they should speak to this market and what language they should use.

Halim Trujillo is Director of Multicultural Planning for MindShare North America. He can be reached at [email protected] or 212-297-7102.