AHAA’s Position on…
Spanish Language and Hispanic Consumers
Yo soy un güiguaqueador
The Latino Identity Project and the Question of Languages.
by Gary Bonilla, VP Planning, Winglatino New York
Chair AHAA Planning Committee (2006)
My job as a planner is not to defend Spanish. Instead I seek to understand intimately the Latino consumer’s psyche and build strategies to connect them with my clients. A recent event in a New York court of law typified this line of thinking. A translator of the court system told one of my planners at Winglatino that during a recent trial he realized that language is but one of many components of equal importance for connecting with Latinos living in U.S. We were all ears. After all, this is one of the premises for the Latino Identity Project recently presented by the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies (AHAA), a project I have been a part of for the past year.
The story, as the court translator told us, had to do with a Latino witness who only "spoke Spanish". "Kindly tell us what you do for a living." The lawyer asked. "Por favor díganos a que se dedica." The translator continued. "Yo soy un güiguaqueador," said the witness. The translator thought hard but could not come up with anything. He explained to the court that he did not know the translation to this last word. The judge asked if anyone in the room had an idea, while the translator looked through dictionaries. Then he asked in Spanish "how do you do this?" "Yo güiguaqueo en la casas.” The witness replied. The translator continued. "What do you use to 'güiguaquear' at people's houses?" "El güiguaquer." As it turns out "güiguaqueador " is the job description for people who use a weed whacker to cut grass and trim bushes. But this was not an incident about learning new vocabulary or making up new words in Spanish, English, Calo or in this instance Northeast Spanglish. This was about the need to understand the context of the witness' life in order to communicate clearly with him in his language of choice.
The context of Latino life in the U.S. is unique and distinct. It is a melding together of three main elements: (1) the culture from our countries of origin or families, (2) our needs and motivations in this country and (3) the cultural and societal rules we have to play by here. Somewhere inside that mélange languages play a role. So do many other components like time, space, spirituality and gender perception to mention a few. This is what the Latino Identity Project is attempting to study: What are the dimensions and the interconnectedness between them that can help us understand the lives of Latino consumers in U.S?
As we move forward with the Latino Identity Project, the story from the translator launched me in search to answer a question that has been lingering since AHAA's Chairman Carl Kravetz presented the project in Miami. So let me start with a simple statement: The Latino Identity Project is not about languages. Please note that I wrote “languages”. Nor is it about the death of the Spanish-language or the desire to assimilate. Instead it is about understanding the elements that give context to the fast evolving Latino life in the U.S. If we understand this, we can connect better with our consumers and double the size of the market Hispanic agencies are hired to reach. If our clients understand this, they can seize a greater opportunity. It is very simple. Understanding calls for a common language. I don’t mean a tongue, but a way of expressing our understanding of consumers. And that is what the project will try to achieve. You probably have heard this already. But it seems to be worth repeating, given that I continue to read stories about how the project can be a threat to Spanish-language advertising.
The Latino Identity Project began almost a year ago. It was not an initiative to criticize or reinvent account planning in our agencies. Planning is a relatively young discipline in the U.S. Hispanic Ad world that has been growing and getting better at a much faster pace than other markets. This is partly due to the aggressive drive by planners and agencies to understand the uniqueness of Latino consumers as they grow in number and expenditure. This was not either an initiative to rehash existing hypotheses or segmentation models but rather it was about taking a deep look at the state of Latinos TODAY in the U.S. Ten planners, three professors, three research partners, four cities, and 40 years of data mined and analyzed by two PhD candidates at Florida State University helped put forth an unified idea that has been floating disjointedly around the hallways of our agencies with different names and levels of support for many years..
We all know that there are recent-arrival Latinos, Spanish dominant Latinos, bi-cultural Hispanics and so on. To some degree everyone knows that each segment and sub segment is not only defined by language preference. More and more we see how the question of language is situational. According to an article printed this year in the News-Democrat of Belleville, Illinois Consumers can bank, talk to the IRS or speak to credit counselors in Spanish. But the three major credit bureaus buck the bilingual trend by not offering credit reports in Spanish, despite the fact that identity theft affects Latinos more than any other ethnic group. According to the Pew Hispanic Center 44% of Latinos obtain their news in both languages, 31% in English only. Just 24% prefer only Spanish media sources.
However, a national survey conducted jointly by the New California Media, the Center for American Progress, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, 87% of Hispanics living in the U.S. prefer to watch Spanish-language TV networks. Furthermore, despite the growing interest in English-language publications aimed at U.S. Latinos, Spanish-language print still dominates. As of year-end 2005, 79% of the content in Hispanic magazines was in Spanish, according to Carlsbad, Calif.-based Latino Print Network, which tracks some 477 magazines. And I think it’s safe to say that Univision is not going first.
But before we select what language or media will best reach Latinos (a tactic), we first need to understand the situations and the insights about our consumers to communicate with them effectively (a strategy)
Our sheer weight in this country allows Latinos to hold on strong to our cultural components; we are also aware of what it takes to move forward. It also means that anyone who thinks that the Latino Identity Project tries to undermine Spanish language initiatives can relax. My language, el español, is not going anywhere. Understanding the dimensions of our lives in the U.S. can represent even bigger opportunities for such initiatives. It gives our clients and us the clear advantage when it comes to communicating and connecting deeply with Latino consumers. It poises us for continued growth and success as we Latinos grow in numbers, influence and contributions to this country. I like what my fellow country man Tego Calderón said recently. "Latinos are a large minority in the United States, and many know the English language. But in reggaetón, we mostly sing in Spanish, and it is appealing to the Latinos who do not speak English to identify with us."
The team of planners that initiated the Latino Identity Project has expanded and will continue to work on quantifying and qualifying the hypothesis put forth by the original group. In the process we will listen to Reggaeton and Corridos. After all they tell stories chock full of insights about our lives. But above and beyond qualitative observation we will work on industry-wide quantitative research designed to study the Latino Identity hypothesis, refine it and build a model. Simultaneously, we will work on the implications and applications of the project as it relates to research and media. Our thinking is clear: our consumer is as complex as it has to be and can't be limited to a country of origin and a language. The opportunity is a large as the market itself. I am sure the makers of weed whackers will appreciate that.