By David Morse (Ad Age Blog)
The Internet was abuzz when San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke at the Democratic National Convention, becoming the first Latino Democrat to deliver a keynote speech. Not all the chatter was positive, however. Some of it centered on whether Castro — who admits that he “doesn’t really speak Spanish” — is Latino enough. Apparently, his uttering of the expression “Que Dios los bendiga,” (“May God bless you”) was insufficient.
Castro, who uses the Spanish pronunciation of his name, Hoo-li-AN, was born and raised in San Antonio, where speaking English is the norm for many of the city’s Hispanics, who trace their ancestry back multiple generations in Texas. Many consider themselves to be Tejanos first and foremost. Castro, the son of Chicana activist Rosie Castro, has said that he considers himself “Mexican-American,” with emphasis on both parts of the phrase.
The issue of whether Hispanics need to speak Spanish to be considered “authentic” Latinos may not go away anytime soon. Three-quarters of U.S. Hispanics are either immigrants or second-generation Americans, and about the same number, according to the Census, speak Spanish at home. In other words, most Latinos today speak Spanish.
But that’s not the whole story. Last year, for the first time in a long while, net migration from Mexico dropped below zero, meaning more Mexicans left the United States than arrived. The so-called exponential growth in the U.S. Hispanic population, will be largely driven by Hispanics born here, currently second-generation, but increasingly (like Castro), third-generation.
So what does that third generation of Hispanics look like? Well, largely like Julian Castro. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, a majority of third-generation Hispanics can neither speak nor read Spanish well; about 70% describe themselves as English dominant. A study by the University of Albany’s Mumford Center found that although Hispanics are retaining their Spanish longer than the children of earlier European immigrants and the children of today’s Asian immigrants, English monolingualism is the predominate pattern by the third generation.
Who, then, is a Hispanic these days? In the words of Pew, based on the Census definition, it is anyone who says they are, and nobody who says they aren’t. And how do you reach these folks who in increasing numbers say they are Hispanic, but like Castro, “don’t really” speak Spanish? In English, of course. What once was a combined front against this inevitability waged by Spanish-language media and Hispanic advertising agencies may be over. I know of few Hispanic ad agencies that are insisting — as they once did — that Spanish is the language through which a U.S.-born generation can be reached. And Univision, formerly the lead crusader, has joined forces with ABC to create a yet unnamed 24-hour English-language news channel aimed toward U.S. Hispanics. Times are changing.
Julian Castro, whom The New York Times referred to a couple of years ago as “the post-Hispanic Hispanic politician,” may well personify the Hispanic, indeed, the American of the 21st century. According to Arturo Madrid, a humanities professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, that city “is the model of what America will look like in other cities. English will be the dominant language. Young Mexican-Americans may display minor symbols of their ethnicity — ‘I eat spaghetti, therefore I’m Italian’, that sort of thing.”
Successful marketing to this group will need to be vastly different than the siloed approach traditionally taken by marketers, as some forward-thinking companies have already figured out. Hispanics are being changed by the mainstream just as the mainstream is being changed by them.
Future Hispanic marketing might be something akin to the old campaign “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” A series of posters featured such then-discordant images as an Asian-American boy and a Native-American man biting into a corned beef sandwich. The ads were funny and cutting edge for their time. Importantly, the ads, while using ethnic markers, made the product relevant and accessible to all.
Julian Castro is not typical of most of today’s Hispanics. He is third generation while a majority are of the first and second generation. Spanish-language networks like Telemundo and Univision are going like gangbusters, and others continue to pop up. But the Hispanic market is a moving target, one that is rapidly changing, as a generation of immigrants begins to pass the baton to its U.S.-born children, who will in turn pass it to the immigrant generation’s grandchildren.
Still, Hispanic identity is not going away anytime soon. Rather, Hispanics will comprise an increasingly larger share of a new America that will be increasingly multicultural in its outlook, its sensibilities and its skin color. In this new America, multiculturalism will be more about choice and less about genetics. As Madrid says, the markers of ethnicity will likely be symbolic, not linguistic or behavioral. Individual tastes and lifestyle factors will determine the ads Americans like and the products they buy.