A few months ago In there was much discussion about the results of a Pew Hispanic Center report titled, “When Labels Don’t Fit : Hispanics and Their Views of Identity,” indicating that the more than 50 million Hispanics/Latinos in the United States don’t see themselves as Hispanic/Latino at all. Rather, the majority of them/us prefer to be identified by their/our country of origin. This rankled some pundits who saw it as a tell tale example of why Hispanic/Latino political power continues to be seen as a sleeping giant that needs to be awaked every national election cycle. After all if we can’t reach common ground on what to call ourselves, how are we ever going to be united enough to put forth a leader we can all get behind? Other pundits took the study as an opportunity to forge a new identity. New/old word mestizajes like Latinohispano, hispanolatino, hispotino (ok I made that last one up) were thrown around as alternatives in spite of the original word roots rejection. After all, we if nothing else, are the result of the blending, forced or by choice, of cultures, races, and ethnicities. Yet a third group saw this as a clear indication of rejecting the idea of a cultural monolith. It’s not a realistic expectation for one word to accurately reflect so much from so many places.
What hasn’t been addressed, in the original report or in the numerous critiques and responses across media platforms, is what If this discomfort with what the hell to call ourselves is not about nationalism nor the deficiencies of state sponsored labels to adequately capture the breadth of experiences that is Hispanic Latino? What if this is about rejecting a convenient little box that makes it easy to market and advertise to us and convince us that our identities are tied to brand or product loyalty?
This week A Forbes magazine article has been making the rounds linking Latino (my preferred word in this case) power, the mass media, and economics. This cover story, The Next Media Jackpot, featuring a photo of the hot Latin stereotype woman of the moment, Sofia Vergara, explores why our pocket books are just as attractive as our novela stars. This spike in interest in Hispanic/Latinos as a group to market to, just like the debate as to what to call us, cycles over and over. The cycling seems to be happening at a more rapid pace however, due in no small part to our growing numbers. While immigration numbers may be dropping because of the global economic downturn and a deportation happy executive administration, within the United States Hispanics/Latinos are one of the fastest growing demographics. Conservatives may fear anchor babies and deem our women loose, high birth rates that promise to turn us from ethnic minority to a numerical majority also means dollars. So which do conservatives love more? Their hate rhetoric or their bank accounts? Marketing and public relations firms put our collective spending power in the millions/billions/trillions (depending on how you play with the stats which is why companies like News Corp. can keep their racist talking heads on their payroll and still push Spanish language ads on English language television networks. The current growth is in English language content – from blogs to media networks to ad campaigns targeting the Hispanic/Latino who is either fully bilingual English/Spanish or who is English dominant but still identifies with Spanish of their parents or grandparents. Univision, NBC, Fox – these are just a handful of the companies that are betting their crossover dollars on us.
The problems with the marketable Latino identity are many. All this talk about us fails to recognize that none of the media sources are owned by us. So what we have is companies interpreting our complex identities, packaging it, and selling it back to us. Never mind how there are plenty of independent Latino media entities/makers out there who have been doing the work for many years. That work is likely to get gobbled up and spit out as bones as a trickle down never materializes. Additionally, the identity sold back to us is homogenous. It relies on actual common factors like language and shared colonial histories while glossing over individual regional, historical differences in favor of the stereotypical. While there is always a little bit of truth to stereotypes, telling women that using a certain brand of cleaner proves how much we care for our extended families, that may include multiple generations under one roof as is the case in my family, plays on the worse kind of stereotypes. Much of the food and cleaning marketing aimed at Hispanics/Latinos is a remix of the common themes of large families, martyred mothers, macho papis all wearing bright colors and shaking our hips to some vaguely tropical beat. For marketers to actually get the cultural nuances right, for ad agencies to actually reflect the differences among how Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Chileans, Dominicans, and Cubans make our beans, for example would require real homework and a lot more money than most companies are willing to spend. It would also requires our communities speaking for ourselves and demand a real stake in the game. It’s cheaper, expedient, and makes more money for them for us to be put into that proverbial accented melting pot.
The labels of Hispanic and Latino will never be able to fully capture the racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity that we carry and they certainly aren’t enough to convince us to vote a party line or stand in line to buy the latest must have product. Instead of worrying so much about what we call ourselves and how that can be used for a brand or a candidate, we should pay more attention to what we all need and that’s equal access to self-determination.