Subtitle: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race

NYU Press
Chapter Title: The Hispanic Consumer: That’s “A Lot of Dollars, Cars, Diapers, and Food”
Book Title: Latino Spin
Book Subtitle: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race
Book Author(s): Arlene Dávila
Published by: NYU Press
Stable URL:
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The Hispanic Consumer
That’s “A Lot of Dollars, Cars,
Diapers, and Food”
Recognize that in just seven years, the 43 million plus Hispanics in
the U.S. today will have spending power equivalent to 60 percent
of all 1.3 billion Chinese.
—E-mail sent by the owner of a New York–based
Hispanic marketing agency to his client
We are in the business of counting people and we have never cared
if you’re documented or not. Early on we learned that when we
did phone surveys, “American Research Bureau” sounded way too
governmental. We needed a name that would not scare the undocumented away, something that sounded more gizmo-ish, more
futuristic, that’s how we changed our name to Arbitron.
—Pierre Bouvard, president of Sales and Marketing
for Arbitron, during a presentation to the
National Hispanic Media Coalition, NYC
One of the most intriguing conundrums in contemporary
representations of Latinos is their growing preeminence as a so-called
booming and profitable market at the same time that they continue to be
stereotyped as illegal and a burden to the nation’s economic welfare. This
contradictory scenario was poignantly evident throughout 2006, at the
height of the immigration debate. While editorials bemoaned the threat
that Latinos supposedly pose to the integrity of “America’s national culture,” it was not uncommon to find news in the business section of major
national newspapers touting the profitability of this market. On and on,
we were told that Latinos have large families and conservative values, that
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72 The Hispanic Consumer
they feel strongly about culturally specific marketing and that they make
up a booming and coveted market. USA Today headlines, for instance,
stated that “Media tune in to ethnic audiences: As immigration rates
soar, broadcasters, cable channels, newspapers, magazines take notice”
and “Immigrants courted as good customers; Businesses compete to win
their loyalty,” along with similar news fueled by speculation over the sale
of Univision, the largest Spanish-language television network, which was
sold in 2007. Exactly which group of investors would get the profitable
bounty was a story that appeared repeatedly, right alongside xenophobic
editorials and letters to the editors set off by coverage of the immigration
debate. One could have easily thought that the objects of so much attention were two entirely different populations—one a liability, the other a
profitable market.
Arguably, marketing discourse is one of many other fields articulating public ideas of and for Latinos alongside political parties, strategists,
and think tanks. Yet numerous trends point to the growing influence of
marketing in the national discourse and debate on U.S. Latinos. Among
them is the historical preeminence of economic frameworks within the
nationwide debate on immigration. In particular, immigrants’ value has
long been reduced to their economic contribution, be it as an anonymous
workforce, as an economic liability, or as a mass of undifferentiated consumers.1
There is also the record amount of Hispanic advertising monies
spent by corporate America, which, according to,
grew almost 50 percent since 2000, from $2.3 billion to a projected figure of $3.6 billion in 2007. Even the major political parties have increased
their advertising budgets. During the 2004 campaign, they paid $14 million in Hispanic advertising, up from $3 million in 2000, which attests to
the growing interplay between marketing and national politics in mainstreaming commonplace understandings of Latinos.
Adding to the power of marketing discourse is the general lack of
civic leaders relative to the number of marketing pundits who serve as
Latino spokespersons. This disparity is poignantly displayed in one of the
many frequent articles on Latinos’ boom and popularity predating the
2000 census. Following a common trend, a Newsweek feature on Latinos’ shaping the face of America was supported, not by politicians, nor
labor leaders, nor scholarly experts, but rather by Nelly Galán, the then
director of programming for Telemundo, the second largest Spanish TV
network, and Chrissy Hauberger, founder of Latina magazine. Marketing
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The Hispanic Consumer 73
charts and statistics that show the size, growth, and buying power of Latinos from Arbitron and Strategy Research Corporation were also cited,
while a blurb describing younger Latinos was titled “Generation Ñ” after
the catchy phrase Hispanic marketers coined to describe young, upwardly
mobile Latinos. All of this speaks clearly to the paucity of non-marketer
spokespersons in the entire feature.2
The second point this chapter examines is the stark difference between
current commercial representation of Latinos, especially immigrants, as
family-oriented, traditional, and religious, and their continued portrayal
as unskilled, uneducated, illegal, crime-ridden, and unemployed. I suggest that, at the core of this treatment is a unitary one whereby, irrespective of their history or legal status, Latinos are always potential aliens and
outsiders and hence “immigrants.” In this context, publicly sanctioned
discourses of and about immigrants become relevant not so much for
what they communicate about Latinos per se, but rather for what they
reveal about the regulation and maintenance of a particular national identity.3
Specifically, such discourses can be analyzed as functional resources
that perform and reiterate the “American values” of democracy, upward
mobility, and workmanship through the censure or praise of those rendered in most need of direction and guidance. Images and discourses of
immigrants “making it” as consumers, for instance, simultaneously help
feed and establish the myth of American democracy safeguarding the
attainability of social and economic prosperity for all, while veiling the
actual inequalities reproduced on the basis of people’s social, cultural, or
racial backgrounds that may affect or hinder economic attainment and
These are some of the reasons why my earlier examination of Hispanic
marketing concluded that marketing discourse is more revealing of U.S.
normative values than of any attributes unique to U.S. Latinos. In what
follows, I suggest that marketing continues to function in analogous ways;
and moreover, that despite the increased growth and complexity of Hispanic marketing, commercial definitions of Latinos as a market have continued to narrow. This trend responds both to political economic trends
within the industry that have favored media conglomeration and solidified the dominance of the Spanish-language media; and to the growing
xenophobia that envelops discussion of Latino immigrants which, extending to all Latinos, demands their continued sanitization through positive
commercial images.
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74 The Hispanic Consumer
The Politics of Hispanic Media:
Consolidation, Access, and Ownership
Contemporary marketing thrives on difference, be it along the lines of age,
gender, or race, that can be targeted, turned into a market, and sold to corporate America and beyond.4
Similarly, it is Latinos’ supposedly cultural
and linguistic uniqueness apart from “mainstream” society, and hence
dependence on culturally relevant marketing, that has historically underlined the operations and profitability of Hispanic marketing. As noted in
Latinos Inc., this industry’s common name of Hispanic Marketing is indicative of its nature and scope: its premise is not only that there are unique
differences between “Americans” and Latinos that need to be addressed
through culturally distinct advertising, but that it is language, specifically
the Spanish language, that constitutes its primary distinguishing variable.
Ironically then, it is the highly feared Latino “immigrant,” whose putative
newcomer status makes him or her more culturally authentic and hence
more easily marketable, that has long been construed as the model “Latino” consumer. As we shall see, this involves addressing fears of Latinos’
“foreignness” in their presentation as a safe immigrant population that is
full of assimilable traits that the greater society can be proud of, but that
remain culturally distinct, in their place and with their culture.
Emphasis on the Spanish-speaking consumer is promoted first and
foremost by Spanish-language TV, and in particular, by Univision, the
most important outlet for nationwide advertisements for the U.S. Latino
market. Its 2006 media kit claims that 90 percent of U.S. Hispanics speak
Spanish, that two-thirds of U.S. Hispanic adults are foreign-born, and
that Univision commands a 34.6 percent share of viewers of the entire
Hispanic population, above and beyond all major networks and cable stations, whether in Spanish or English. In so stating, Univision thus provides us with a very good example of what is a common trend in the industry at large: the manipulation of figures and statistics about Latinos
to turn them into a profitable and accessible market, and the central role
the Spanish-dominant Latinos play in such commercial imaginations. In
reality, the 90 percent of Hispanics that are described as Spanish speakers
and as the primary audience for Univision range in language competency
and include bilingual and mostly English speakers who are not as likely
to watch Univision. With regard to the percentage of foreign-born Hispanics, it is significant that this percentage is as high as two-thirds only
among the adult population, not among the youth, which is the fastest
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The Hispanic Consumer 75
growing segment of the total Hispanic population. Again, the point here
is not Univision’s self-serving manipulation of numbers, but rather its
construction of the totality of Hispanics out of one of its segments.
Obviously, the portrait of the foreign-born and Spanish-dominant Hispanic who watches only Univision and Spanish-language television has
not remained unchallenged. The battle over Latinos’ media consumption
in Spanish has been at the center of long-standing debates over representation, jobs, and money, and ultimately about determining who can or
cannot profit from this market. For one, the dominance of the Spanishlanguage media universe has long sustained the importation of cheaper
media programs from Latin America, while discouraging the production
of original programming. Despite all the excitement provoked by Ugly
Betty, ABC’s English-language mega-production of the Colombian-based
telenovela Betty la Fea, it is worth noting that the show represents a Latin
American import, an adaptation of a genre and a script that had already
proven successful and profitable. As media scholar Tomas Lopez Pumarejo
explained during an interview, the show represents a growing trend in
the new international division of media whereby Latin American media
is positioned as provider—of genres, scripts, and formats—to American
TV producers, who retain commercial control of their execution and distribution for the more profitable U.S. market. All the while, U.S. Latinos’
access to and control of the media remain untouched by these arrangements. It is also noteworthy that while Ugly Betty revolves around Latino
characters, it is not marketed as a “Latino media product” but rather as a
general market offering. As such, it is unlikely to have a major impact on
Latino media offerings in years to come.
At the crux of the issue is the profitability of the Hispanic marketing/Spanish language diad and its effects on hindering change. One may
think that this is a positive development in the current monolingual and
anti-Spanish language climate. However, the current state of affairs has
sustained a growing conglomeration of Spanish-language media, a narrowing of content, alongside the continued exclusion of Latinos from the
media that profits so handsomely from them. The Spanish language/Hispanic marketing is additionally supported by some of the major general
market research companies. Nielsen TV ratings, the company that holds
a monopoly on TV ratings nationwide and is considered the “gold standard” for TV audience measurements, for instance, has generalized language use as their primary testing variable for this market. In so doing,
this company has also been at the center of many debates.
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76 The Hispanic Consumer
For years, Latino media activists have been critical of Nielsen, bemoaning its lack of transparency; the limited number of households
that are measured to determine the viewing habits for the entire Latino
population; as well as the lack of young Latinos in their sample, among
other criticisms believed to lead to the undercounting and miscounting
of minorities. They have also criticized Nielsen’s use of language as the
primary variable to test this market because it is believed to lead to the
over-counting of Spanish-language TV viewers. It would take a major
corporation joining in the criticism, however, to bring these issues into
the limelight. Namely, in 2004, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation opposed the introduction of Nielsen’s local people’s meters, which it feared
would show similar trends already documented at the national level: audiences drifting away from network TV and moving to cable, and would
have had an impact on the Fox network’s advertising rates. The counting of Latino and minority audiences suddenly became a key concern of
News Corp. Most specifically, News Corp. was behind the launching of
the “Don’t Count Us Out” campaign, a grassroots effort that fed from local media activists’ concern, but that was actually primarily funded and
fueled by Murdoch’s News Corp.5
Marta Garcia from the National Latino
Media Council recalled: “All of a sudden we were involved with a major
transnational corporation that has largely snubbed the Latino community.
They hired all of these lobbyists and we were holding hands with the enemy. And sure enough, the whole thing backfired. FOX [News Corp.] is
a client of Nielsen, and when it was no longer convenient to them, they
simply dropped us.”
Indeed, News Corp. had larger interests than “minority audiences” in
mind. A media client dependent on Nielsen, News Corp. had bigger concerns than Nielsen, including gaining greater access of its control of the
ratings industry. And as suggested by communications scholar Philip Napoli, minority audiences provided the perfect decoy. In his view, the debacle over Nielsen was ultimately a good example of the media industry’s
ability to wrap its self-interest in “public interest rhetoric,” this time in the
civil rights claims of minority groups.6
News Corp. was hence the biggest
winner of the Don’t Count Us Out campaign, which turned out to be a
perfect example of Latino spinning: the real concerns of minority groups
about how they are being measured and about how Nielsen affects their
representation, visibility, and power were easily muted.
This example underscores the difficulties Latino media groups face in
light of the increased commercialization of Latino audiences. Their lack of
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The Hispanic Consumer 77
power, resources, and access to stakeholders often makes them dependent
on larger institutional entities. Such dependency in turn increases the
likelihood that their views be dismissed as the interests of governmental, corporate, or not-for-profit stakeholders rather than as genuine Latino
concerns, not to mention the potential that “Latino interests” be co-opted
for advancing commercial alternatives that exclude them as major beneficiaries and stakeholders.
Research reports were central to the debate over Nielsen’s measurement of Latinos. First was the “Latino Television Study” (Rincon and Associates 2004) commissioned by the national Hispanic Media Coalition
and produced by Rincon and Associates. The study challenged the homelanguage measure used by Nielsen as “unstable and inadequate,” finding
that the audience for English-language television programs was underestimated, while calling for the need for external audits to verify the accuracy
of Nielsen estimates.7
For their part, Nielsen commissioned the Tomas
Rivera Policy Institute to review and challenge the report’s findings. Not
surprisingly, the study, “A Policy Review Paper Assessing the Nielsen and
Rincón Study on Latino Television Viewing,” concluded that Rincon’s findings were unfounded and not supported by the data, prompting a counter-response from the National Latino Media Council which denounced
the response as a “not so scholarly exercise to distract industry attention
away from their client, Nielsen Media Research.”8
The political brouhaha over Nielsen shows that the measuring of Latino
audiences is inextricably connected to larger economic and media interests, and that controversy over these measurements is not likely to end. In
fact, Nielsen’s status as proprietary research, and its lack of transparency,
will insure that its measurement of Latinos and other minority audiences
remains contentious in years to come. In addition, there are enormous
economic incentives that hinder innovation and change in the business of
measuring Latino audiences. Napoli explained during a telephone interview: “Nielsen is an unregulated monopoly, and they’ve invested all this
money in their systems and training, they have little incentive to change.
It’s worked all these years without challenges and they are the only game
in town and everyone has to sign to their system.”
Producers of English-language media have also criticized Nielsen’s use
of language as their primary sampling variable, proposing instead a system based on the U.S. Census, such as on nativity, or whether Latinos are
immigrant or U.S.-born. A chief proponent of this view is Robert Rose, a
former Univision employee and executive director of AIM Tell-A-Vision
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78 The Hispanic Consumer
Group and producer of the English-language, nationally syndicated LatiNation show. In 2005, Rose launched a very public grassroots campaign
to challenge Nielsen’s sampling of Latinos. The campaign, “Help! Change
TV,” is advertised by the image of a young Latina woman whose mouth
is taped shut with masking tape inscribed with the word “Nielsen” to
dramatize the effects of the company’s underrepresentation of U.S.-born
Latinos in their language-based sample. The example Rose was eager to
share to support his view is that of the show Ugly Betty. Despite featuring Latino characters and themes, and being heavily promoted and advertised, the show was shown by Nielsen to have underperformed heavily
among Latinos. He was quick to point out that ABC has a much larger
pool of potential Hispanic viewers—U.S.-born and presumably Englishspeaking Latinos make up 60 percent of the population, versus 40 percent foreign born—in addition to more powerful stations in all the major
markets (ABC is VHF and Univision is UHF). Despite these differences,
however, Ugly Betty was found to lag behind Univision’s La Fea Mas Bella,
the Mexican remake of the popular Colombian telenovela, which Nielson
found had pulled three to four times the Hispanic ratings over ABC’S Ugly
The math simply does not add up, he insisted; it corroborates that
sampling methods for Hispanic viewers are flawed and biased in favor
of Spanish-language TV. Yet problems of sampling Hispanics go beyond
the issue of language, as explained by a researcher working in Hispanic
The ugly truth is that everyone cuts corners in terms of sample design
and methodology because to do it right would imply the use of greater
resources that they are not willing to commit to spend. Most companies
are simply not sufficiently committed to the Hispanic market to insure a
representative and stable sample size. All the while, they emphasize that
they have a nationally representative sample.
Yet, measuring Latino audiences according to nativity, instead of language, as some Nielsen critics propose, presents its own sets of problems.
How about accounting for the diversity among the foreign-born, such as
between the upper-class immigrant and the undocumented working immigrant? And how about differences between the U.S.-born who is a second, third, or fourth generation—are they all part of the same market?
And would this new type of classification backfire in the present nativist context by feeding distinctions between “the rightful” and the “illegal”
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The Hispanic Consumer 79
Latinos”—that is, those who are U.S.-born and hence more likely to be
citizens, and the foreign-born who most likely are not? Will advertisers be
scared off from investing in Spanish-language TV if their customers are
so readily identified as foreign-born immigrants? At least, the present category of “Spanish-dominant” Latinos refers primarily to the foreign born,
without openly signaling it so.
Yet Latinos’ linguistic diversity remains a reality, and in a move that
would have been unforeseeable when I first began to write about Hispanic
marketing, some marketers are taking steps to move away from language.
This move is critical if they are to assert their dominion over the bilingual
and English-language Latino segment of the market, which is increasingly targeted by general market shops bypassing Hispanic marketing altogether. In addition, this move is part of the industry’s strategy to remain
competitive amidst a harsher immigration climate. Consider the Association of Hispanic Marketing Agencies’ “Latino Cultural Identity Project,”
an initiative launched in 2006 specifically intended to move away from
the industry’s reliance on language and acculturation models, which I will
turn to later. The project was carried out by AHAA’s (Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies) leadership in consultation with academicians,
though, as admitted by Carl Kravetz, the then chair of AHAA, the lack of
media alternatives for non–Spanish language ads remains the greatest obstacle to the initiative’s success.
Indeed, despite the recent emergence of more English-language, U.S.-
produced media—George Lopez and Ugly Betty in the major networks,
and MTV’s Tr3s, and LatiNation and SiTV for the younger Latino market, the media universe for the Latino market remains a primarily Spanish language–dominated one made up of imported programming, leaving
little room for local talent and sensibilities. Not only are there powerful
new Spanish-language media, such as V-Me TV, a Spanish-language, public television station out of New York, which is planning to expand nationally, but Univision has become an even stronger and more dominant
player since I began to monitor the growth of Hispanic marketing and
media in early 2000. In particular, national media trends favoring conglomeration and concentration of media outlets have facilitated Univision’s growth, especially its controversial merger with Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, the largest owner of Spanish-language radio stations at
the time of the 2003 merger. As a result, Univision remains the largest
and most dominant player in advertising revenues in the Hispanic market. It is the fifth largest television network and, in the words of Jorge
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80 The Hispanic Consumer
Reynardus, a New York–based advertising executive, Univision continues
to be the “eight hundred pound gorilla in the room and the real engine of
this market.” Univision owns the top Spanish-language formatted radio
station KLVE-FM (Los Angeles), the top Hispanic websites (Univision.
com), and the top Spanish-language cable network (Galavision).10
Similar trends toward consolidation are visible in all media genres. Less
than a handful of investors now dominate Spanish-language newspapers
and English-language, Latino-oriented weeklies with companies such as
Tribune Co., Knight Ridder (purchased in 2006 by The McClatchy Company), Hearst Corporation, and Impremedia buying out most independent weeklies or launching entirely new publications. These developments
have raised serious concerns about the corporatization and dilution of the
news and opinion editorials directed at this market.11 Even equity funds
dedicated to investments in the Latino market have joined the fore, assuring the continued commercialization and consolidation of the Hispanic
market. The lure is seemingly limitless, as indicated in the marketer’s email to his client cited at the start of this chapter, or as noted by Marcos A.
Rodriguez, the managing partner of one of these Latino-oriented equity
funds, the Palladium Equity Partners. In Rodriguez’s words, quoted in the
New York Times, “investing in the Hispanic market in the United States
[is like] investing in an emerging economy like Argentina or Mexico, but
without the currency or political risk,” following the common trend of
presenting the Hispanic market as a nation in and of itself, or as the fifth
largest and richest Latin American country.12
Concerns over media conglomeration and its effects on limiting diversity and local programming through its reliance on syndicated programming are not limited to Latino/a media. Yet, where Latinos are concerned,
the situation is more dire. According to a study by Free Press, conglomeration has led to a decrease in minority ownership of media outlets;
minorities make up 33 percent of the U.S. population, yet they own only
3.26 percent of all TV stations; whereas Latinos, who comprise 14 percent, own 1.11 percent of all TV stations.13 In other words, the seemingly
greater number of media offerings for Latinos veils their consignment to
being mere consumers, rather than producers or owners of media outlets.
It is important to note that neither of the largest Spanish-language TV
networks, Univision, Telemundo, and Azteca TV, are Latino owned, but
rather are controlled by American investors and corporations, alongside
investments from Latin American media moguls. The newest owner of
Univision is Egyptian-born, Israeli-raised American media mogul Haim
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The Hispanic Consumer 81
Saban, the 75th richest businessman according to Forbes, heading a group
of American investing companies. Executive positions in Latino media
continue to exhibit an ethnic division of labor, as confirmed by Juan Pinon’s work on Azteca TV, one of the latest Spanish-language media entrants to the U.S. Latino market. As he found, top positions in production, programming, sales, and news are dominated by Anglo Americans
or upper-class Latin Americans and the lower positions are held by U.S.
Latinos, whereas there is a hierarchical racial and ethnic distribution of
the Latino talent.14 Speaking loudest about this hierarchy is the pervasive
preference for speakers of so-called non-accented Spanish who are lightskinned, and who can be easily marketed in the transnational Spanishlanguage Latin American media market.
In addition to furthering inequalities in ownership and access to jobs,
conglomeration has exacerbated the lack of programming and choice. Indeed, there exist more investors, more Spanish-language radio, and more
programming. Communications professor Maria Castañeda estimates
that from 2000 to 2004, media outlets for Latinos grew 125 percent. But,
as she also notes, there is far less choice, as described below.15 This was
brought vividly to light during the 2006 public hearings on media diversity organized in New York City by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and the Free Press, among other media advocacy groups. There, over
100 attendees provided vivid and emotional testimony about the effects
of conglomeration on minority audiences in front of two FCC commissioners and an audience of 400 primarily black and Latino New Yorkers.16 It was impossible to miss the audience’s commonly shared outrage:
“Por favor no more blonde-blue eyed-heroines,” and “no more imported
programming,” “no more washed out fake commercial editorials,” were
some of the many repeated concerns. Similar concerns were being voiced
throughout U.S. cities, according to a coordinator involved in the organization of other town hall meetings. Among them, calls for more diverse
programming and local news; and for more and fair coverage of our communities; for more politically diverse opinions; for representations that
show that “we’re more than violence, drugs and poverty”; for staff that
knows about us, at least about the history of particular policy debates that
affect our communities; alongside cries for local media that would help
bring local, state and national emergency alerts; and whatever happened
to our music, to Tejano, salsa, bachata, and other genres after all these
radio takeovers? And why is Clear Channel Communications not being
charged by the FCC for their anti-immigrant slurs?
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82 The Hispanic Consumer
Unfortunately, these and other important considerations of content remain largely hidden from public view. Foremost, they remain subordinate
to the profitability the Spanish-language media universe assures, such as
by facilitating the types of consolidations that are increasingly apace in
this market. This helps perpetuate the view that Latinos are most touched
through Spanish, even if they do not speak it. A recent rendition of this
argument is provided in Hispanic Marketing: A Cultural Perspective by Felipe and Betty Korzenny (2005). While acknowledging language diversity
among Latinos, the authors fall back on the same views, even identifying Spanish as the “emotion-laden” language and English as the more
“functionally oriented” language. Whether Spanish is also “functional”
Fig. 4. One of the hundreds of people who showed up at the New York City FCC
hearings. Speakers testified on the need to stop media conglomeration and to demand more local content in the media. Photo courtesy of Free Press.
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The Hispanic Consumer 83
and hence deserving of public use and acceptance is never addressed. Instead the Spanish language is once again stereotypically described as the
language that communicates most directly and emotionally with the Hispanic consumer, harking back to the dominant rational-Anglo/emotionalLatin Americans dyad made so commonplace by nineteenth-century U.S.
and Latin American nationalist ideologies.
Through this and other strategies, conceptualizations of the Hispanic
market have tended to anchor themselves in the immigrant, foreign-born,
and Spanish-dominant Hispanics, the sector regarded as the most tame,
reachable, and most easily moved with the right emotional appeal. These
assumptions are evidenced by the comments of one marketer who, when
describing the ideal Latino consumer, explained: “We are really talking
about two different types of Hispanics. The Hispanic who is Spanishdominant, the guy that works hard and at night watches a soap opera and
goes to sleep, and the Latino.” Interestingly, as he continued to elaborate
on the distinction between them, he attached a political personality to the
Latino but not to the Hispanic. “It is Latinos that politicians are after,” he
added “they are the ones that make noise and that complain if they don’t
like something,” unlike the Hispanics who, according to him, just “watch
soap operas, buy products and work hard.” In other words, what surfaced
as the most attractive Hispanic characteristic was a concern with material
acquisition, not politics; the nonpolitical figure, epitomized as the illegal,
the alien, the one that “stays home” and is most afraid of visibility. These
traits remain veiled and transposed; they are never mentioned but always
implied in the very category of “Hispanic.”
Stark distinctions between Hispanics and Latinos, however, are not
usually prevalent in the industry. And this move is primarily one of strategy, not ignorance. Years in the business of Hispanic marketing have
made both marketers and clients quite sophisticated about Latinos; few
can ignore differences regarding acculturation, language use, generation,
class, and so forth. But differences remain economically risky. They are
increasingly explored in Internet and in alternative media marketing, or
in TV ads circulated in some states such as New Mexico, known for their
large percentage of English-dominant Latinos. Yet few corporate clients
are as invested in Hispanic marketing to explore differences among Latino
demographics, and consequently, the putative “authentic” consumer of
yesteryear remains the most profitable consumer. This is the one who, according to our discussion above, would more likely be called a Hispanic—
used by marketers as a code for immigrants. In projecting the idea of the
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84 The Hispanic Consumer
affluent but culture-bound Hispanic, we thus have one of many mélanges
that are constructed in the process of selling the market: a construction
involving the higher income of the U.S.-born cloaked in the authenticity of the foreign-born, which is only possible if we ignore the intraclass
variation among U.S. Latinos. Never referred to as individuals, but rather
as a market and a conglomerate, marketers then repeatedly vouch for its
affluence and rapid growth, statistics which, not surprisingly, are never
contrasted with income figures for non-Latinos.
The Culture that Makes Us Profitable
Is the Culture that “Brings Us Down”
As with language, the market’s growth and consolidation have ironically
paralleled a constriction, rather than a diversification, of the type of cultural definitions that are generalized about the Latino consumer. The
specter of culture looms large in this market where Latinos are regularly
characterized as holding “communal values,” among other cultural characterizations that additionally represent Latinos as more spontaneous, affectionate, and relaxed about time, as spiritual, and so on. “Anglos,” who
are their constant reference, in contrast, are said to see themselves as individuals, and to rely on themselves and institutions, rather than on family,
and to stress symmetry and democracy in interpersonal and in cross-gender relationships, among other traits sharply contrasted to Latinos’.
These ideas are alive and well notwithstanding the industry’s considerably greater complexity since the onset of Hispanic marketing. Consider
AHAA’s Cultural Identity Project, the first attempt to consolidate a common definition of Latinos’ identity across advertising agencies.17 The project is wrapped around the idiom of scholarship and research. It acknowledges complexity. We are now told that Latino identity “is NOT confined
to language and acculturation. Rather, at the heart (emphasis mine) of
Latino Cultural Identity is a set of complex, adaptable, intricate, and interrelated values that change through time according to the environment
and external stimuli.” However, it is the “heart” that is regarded as the
core of Latino identity, a heart that has four chambers—a unique Interpersonal Orientation, Time and Space Perception, Spirituality and Gender
Perception—responsible for its functioning. In other words, we are talking about a fancy new language and terminology for the same old cultural
clichés that have long dominated the Latino market, which once again are
described as being “radically different from that of non-Latinos” revolving
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The Hispanic Consumer 85
around collectivism, and Familismo, which were once again sharply contrasted to non-Latino American core values, of individualism. “Ours is a
collectivist culture in which the goals and interests of the group are emphasized over those of individual members. Our Interpersonal Orientation also drives our acceptance and giving of authority, our dependent relationships, our communication style, and our relaxed sense of privacy.”18
I won’t be so bold as to maintain that efforts to conduct research on “Latino values” or trends are hopeless or destined to fail. Researchers in myriad fields—health, linguistics, psychology, sociology, political science, and
even anthropology—have sought to define and better understand human
behaviors and attitudes through models and measurements. Instead, I am
concerned with the ease with which many scholarly insights can be so easily trivialized in the context of marketing. It is also noteworthy that many
generalizations made about Latino consumers are not different from those
generalized by the insidious culture of poverty thesis, where Latin culture
traits are held responsible for Latinos’ “intrinsic” lack of ambition and consequently, their self-imposed status. In fact, based on the writings of key
Latino marketing brokers, there is a general recognition that the culture
that makes Latinos profitable is the same culture that brings them down.
Lionel Sosa, who has made millions marketing Latino values to corporate America, provides a poignant example of this view. His Think and
Grow Rich: A Latino Choice (2006), a Latino version of Napoleon Hill’s
1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich, maintains that Latino success is a
matter of shedding the “cultural baggage derived from our roots.” In his
view, Latinos can achieve success through Hill’s mantra, but only after shedding their common cultural baggage derived from Catholicism,
Spanish colonization, and their disposition to respect authority. It is these
values that have led Latinos toward a path of shame, suffering, sweat, and
sacrifice, rather than toward a path that cultivates the Anglo-American
values of independence and individuality. Sosa’s theory harks back to centuries-old Hispanophobic views most represented by the infamous Black
Legend, which represents Spanish civilization as inherently barbaric, making their descendants prone to criminality, vice, and indolence. This is a
view that reverberates in debates over immigration, as evidenced in the
words of Representative Tom Tancredo, chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, and others who fear the cultural invasion represents
a “scourge” and a “cultural suicide” for Western civilization.19
Similar messages of Hispanics’ doomed cultural legacy are repeated in
numerous self-help and motivational books, which are among the fastest
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86 The Hispanic Consumer
growing genre dominating the category of nonfiction commercial books of
“Latino interest.” Written by successful Latino “pillars,” these books often
follow three very predictable formulas. First is when the authors put Latinos down for not pulling up their bootstraps. A recent example is the controversial yet highly publicized “One Nation, One Standard: An Ex-Liberal on How Hispanics Can Succeed Just Like Other Immigrant Groups”
(2006) by veteran Puerto Rican former congressman Herman Badillo.
Years ago Badillo became infamous for his racist comments against rural
Mexican and Dominican immigrants, whose “deficiencies” he blamed for
overtaxing the New York City public school system. This time, Badillo is
an equal opportunity defamer; he chastises all Latino parents for not caring enough about their children’s education. Entirely ignoring discrimination, and the current deficiencies in public education infrastructure and
even the growing surveillance that deters undocumented parents from
becoming involved in the public school system, Badillo bemoans Latinos
for failing to prioritize education and not following the paths of earlier
immigrants. His diatribe provides a good example of the pervasiveness of
this “blame the victim” formula.
The second dominant nonfiction literary trend is when authors remind
us that success comes to Latinos who adopt “mainstream” values of upward mobility, and who keep their self-sabotaging values in check, as we
are told by Lionel Sosa’s books or by Hispanic businessman Charles Patrick Garcia in A Message from Garcia: Yes, You Can Succeed (2006). Then,
there is the increasingly popular trend of urging Latinos to draw from
their strengths, be it by repackaging their culture in cutesey ways, as does
former CBS and FOX anchorman Mario Bosquez in The Chalupa Rules: A
Latino Guide to Gringolandia (2005), or by strategically taking advantage
of their Latino values, such as their innate strengths in relationship building, as we are summoned to do in The Latino Advantage in the Workplace:
Using Who You Are to Get Where You Want to Be (2006) by Argentineanborn and -raised business consultants Mariela Dabbah and Arturo Poire.
A pervasive Latin/Anglo dyad underlies many of these authors’ ponderings, where culture always triumphs among Hispanics, making it irrelevant
to identify them by class, nationality, ethnicity, generation, or any other
variable, as they are all culturally the same. In a similar manner, a presumed
white Anglo America becomes the key symbolic reference in advertisers’
conceptualization of the Hispanic consumer, projecting commonalities that
override differences of race, class, or ethnicity among Hispanics. One need
only talk to advertisers to perceive the strength of these ideas, as I learned
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The Hispanic Consumer 87
after asking some New York advertisers to describe the “average” consumer
to which they target their advertisements. These were described, among
overtly culturalist characterizations that recycled a view of a “traditional”
Hispanic in opposition to “Americans,” as people who are “conservative, who
care about their culture, who are respectful of their elders and traditions,
and who love to eat rice and beans,” among other culturalist generalizations.
Communicating with Hispanic consumers becomes a matter of communicating with emotion and to the emotions. As simply put by Lionel Sosa, in
his first and best-selling book, The Americano Dream: “What we’re dealing
with here is the logic of the heart, not the logic of reason, and the power
of its effect on everyone, but especially Latinos is remarkable. . . . Like our
homelands we are lush and warm. We are extraordinarily open with each
other. We communicate through a touch, a gesture an embrace” (1998: 112).
Ultimately, despite the growing sophistication of Hispanic marketing—
more stakeholders, investors, and programming—the view that the Latino
market is principally defined by its culture remains unrelenting. It is this
view that drives the continuous production of research, surveys, and portraits of the Hispanic consumer; unlike the mainstream consumer—who
is targeted in terms of class, generations, or gender—the Latino is continually reduced to an issue of “culture.”
I have described the problems of this type of portrayal at great length
elsewhere. Suffice it to point here to the continued folklorization of Latinos, part and parcel of their projection as a market that is easily marketable, authentic, and ready for mass consumption. As we have seen, these
representations continue to reference the immigrant population—the same
Fig. 5. Collage of recent book covers discussing how Latinos can achieve success in
business and life. Photo by Johana Londoño.
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88 The Hispanic Consumer
population that is constructed as a threat in mainstream society—as the
idealized authentic consumer, necessitating its continued sanitization as the
market that exhibits the “Nation’s” most “positive” values. In other words,
the commodification of Latinos presupposes their disciplining into the
“right” way of being an “ethnic.” This construction presents Latinos as possessing a unique, bounded, and separate culture from U.S. culture, which is
simultaneously constructed as homogeneous, white, and “mainstream,” not
unlike Latino think tanks are said to do, as described in Chapter 1.
The perils of this type of representation were visible during the 2004
election where Latinos were treated as a unique cultural entity, targeted
through multiple culturally specific ads. But, as we saw, they were interpellated as equal in values to “mainstream” America because of their socalled core conservative values of family so keenly translated to the anti–
gay rights and anti-abortion Republican agenda. In other words, what we
have seen is a preponderance of tamer and more publicly palatable appeals and representations of Latinos that are less threatening to an imagined “mainstream.” And I am not implying that Latinos’ so-called positive
American values of family, hard work, and patriotism could not be just
as easily inserted into a progressive agenda of change. Images of families
marching together during the 2006 pro-immigrant demonstrations on
May 1 should decisively give political pundits some alternative ideas of
how to deploy Latinos’ family values. As noted earlier, however, the xenophobia unleashed by the immigration debate makes me skeptical that
Latinos would be portrayed as the active agents they are any time soon,
or that their “values” would be too directly associated with an agenda of
political or social reform.
I also remain concerned with the selective manipulation of marginality
in the construction of the affluent yet authentic ethnic consumer. As we
saw, this involved veiling that ethnicity and affluence are antithetical concepts for U.S. minorities. After all, Latinos’ supposed cultural differences
may render them attractive to marketers, but these differences are more
likely to be construed in greater society as an impediment to upward mobility, a mark of their foreignness and hence lack of social or political entitlement. Certainly images of upwardly mobile Latinos can have a positive role by communicating that heritage is not antagonistic to upward
mobility, that Latinos are entitled to mobility as they are to their “culture.”
But images of affluence cannot bring empowerment on their own, especially if they mask the realities of marginality, unemployment, and racism
as they sanitize Latinos for public consumption.
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The Hispanic Consumer 89
From Rags to Riches?
On the Politics of Latino Consumer/Citizenship
Hispanics embody a hard work ethic; familial responsibility; religious faith; pride; appreciation; and a sincere desire to learn and
better themselves. All these make Hispanics ideal consumers and
ideal Americans. . . . Legislators and our fellow Americans cannot
ignore the influence of immigrants . . . on corporate America’s bottom line and on the U.S. economy.
—Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies,
“The Dollars and ‘Sense’ of the Immigration Debate”
In sum, marketing discourse is not without political and economic repercussions. Not only does it offer an extremely narrow means of entry into
the “mainstream”; it also prioritizes consumption over income, and spending over employment or economic parity, veiling the ongoing segmentation between those with “real” jobs, and income, and those who lack it.
In this context, the only reference for social parity becomes spending, or
putative consumer power of individuals, calculated through disembodied
bulk estimates, never to be contextualized against the consumption rates
of the all too real, powerful groups in society. This fosters my skepticism
over the abundance of reports and discussions about Latinos as a market. Yes, Latinos are undoubtedly gaining visibility through such discussions, but only as a market, never as a people. And, “markets” have to
be containable and approachable, if they are to be attractive to capital. In
this context, the tropes of conservatives for spirituality, family values, and
emotion can be studied for what they are: not so much valid descriptions
of Latinos, but rather, a projection of dominant society’s longing for docile, unthreatening consumers. These preferred subjects may work hard,
have values and traditions that American society can be proud of, but
must remain unthreateningly in their place, at a distance, with their “culture” as a visible and unquestionable reference to the existence of a white
non-raced U.S. world. All the while Latinos remain relegated to consumers, increasingly distanced from access and ownership of Latino-targeted
Yet representations and discourses are meaningless without a consideration of the social and historical reference in which they circulate.
And considering the preeminent role business sectors play in any public
debate on immigration, it is important to acknowledge another side of
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90 The Hispanic Consumer
the critical scenario I have described. I am referring to the role consumer
politics may play within contemporary cultural politics, despite their very
significant limitations. As Lizabeth Cohen’s work on the transformations
on consumer politics in postwar America and beyond shows, consumers’
political realm has been greatly diminished, from one where consumers
could effect social policy transformations to assure consumers’ protection
and well-being through fair prices and market conditions, to one where
their political role is reduced to simply the purchase of products (Cohen
2003). She signals this transformation by distinguishing between “consumer citizens” and “purchaser consumers” which, in her view, does not
invalidate the existence of more policy- and structure-oriented consumer
politics today. What this distinction does is mark the diminished context
in which consumers can assert themselves politically to effect lasting policy change, which is especially true for Latinos.
Undoubtedly, the Hispanic marketing industry has played a central role
in raising the visibility of Hispanics in public life, if only by alerting businesses, politicians, unions, and even religious leaders to the need to cater
to Latinos, if they are to grow in profits and numbers. The growing realization that Latinos buy products, that they contribute to the economy, not
only as producers but as consumers—paying taxes even when they buy a
Coca-Cola, as noted by a panelist at a Mexican immigrants forum in New
York City—has been an important political gain. It has fueled corporate
American’s growing interest in the Latino market, and their relatively more
positive attitudes toward immigrants. Indeed, as stated by the Association
of Hispanic Advertising Agencies position on the immigration debate, Latinos represent “about 6 to 7 million invisible consumers—that’s a lot of
diapers, a lot of cars, a lot of food . . . and frankly a lot of dollars that can
be attributed to the immigrant population,”20 and this point calls for an
assessment of the role consumer politics may be playing within contemporary Latino cultural politics. It is worth returning then to all the hoopla
about immigrants’ economic value with which I started this chapter.
The excitement over Business Week’s 2005 cover story, “Embracing Illegals: Companies Are Getting Hooked on the Buying Power of 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants,” during La Raza’s 2005 annual meeting
comes to mind.21 Amidst discussion of the growing xenophobia raised
by the immigration debate, the mood was somber as audience members
brought up case after case of immigrant discrimination in their communities, until an audience member brought up the Business Week cover.
“See, America cannot do without its Latino immigrants,” he noted while
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The Hispanic Consumer 91
pointing to the cover, which unmistakably showed a Latin American,
most specifically Mexican or Central American, as signaled by the picture
of a border fence.
What was cause for much discussion was the cover’s bluntly optimistic
and idyllic representation of the U.S. business community’s hopeful views
of undocumented immigrants: an upwardly mobile message of from “rags
to shopping” that anyone would gladly embrace for herself. On the left
side, we see the stereotypical picture of the undocumented immigrant recently arrived carrying nothing but a bag of clothes. He is in motion, but
we can see that he carries a dirty clutch, that his cuffs are rolled up as if to
ease the sweat of a night of walking in the desert. The background is dark,
gloomy, and dangerous, as signaled by the barbed-wired fence to his back
and the spiked cactus at his feet. In contrast, the right side of the cover
presents an idyllic sight. We now see three-quarters of his body, evoking perhaps his newly attained assimilation quantum? He’s smiling and
looking to the distance. He seems happy and content, and in motion, but
this time he is moving forward. He is returning from a shopping spree, as
signaled by the five colorful shopping bags he carries with confidence and
head on, in direct contrast to the dirty bag he once dragged behind him.
He is no longer walking among cactuses but along a well-paved white
road—the road to whiteness? In the background we see a perfectly manicured lawn and a road of identical and spacious suburban homes. We
could assume he lives in one of these homes. He is dressed conservatively
in a pin-striped shirt and khaki pants. The sky is bright, and undisturbed
by clouds. No wonder the cover made such an impact.
At the 2006 NCLR conference, pride over Latinos’ consumer power
was quick to resurface. I am reminded of the audience member who,
Texan hat in hand, remarked forcefully about the best ways to get the attention of an elected official:
Our [political] representatives get tired of hearing the violin. If you give
them economic numbers they tend to hear better. In your testimony to
politicians let them know that the machine they’re so afraid of, that immigration is fueling the fastest and largest economy. That if you add the
state gross product of the California and Southwest economy we may not
need them “si siguen chingando” (if they keep fucking with us).
His comments drew open laughter—people obviously identified with the
speaker’s comments and with the less sensitive political climate everyone
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92 The Hispanic Consumer
must tread that he described so clearly. This is a context in which needs,
or “the violin,” are considered to be exhausted or exhausting, leaving the
numbers game, as in arguments that underscore Latinos’ economic might
and contributions, as the only viable option for Latino advocacy.
The point is that Latinos are becoming increasingly aware of their economic value and contributions and however simplistic, skewed, and problematic their depiction as consumers has been and continues to be, one
must also ask whether this recognition is likely to be politically relevant
in years to come. In fact, this awareness may be more significant than
ever in present society, where private companies rule the day and where,
Fig. 6. The rags to riches cover of Business Week gave
much to talk about at the 2005 annual Conference of the
National Association of La Raza. It corroborated that, as
an attendee noted, “They can’t do without us immigrants.”
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The Hispanic Consumer 93
unlike the state and public sectors, many of them are going out of their
way to do business with undocumented immigrants, even accepting alternative forms of ID from undocumented immigrants, such as the Mexican consulate–issued matricula. The financial services industry working
in areas such as remittances, bank accounts, credit cards, and home loans
is perhaps at the forefront of this trend. And so are media research company giants such as Nielsen and Arbitron, which are in the business of
“counting people” and have never distinguished between the documented
or not, as noted earlier by Arbitron’s Sales and Marketing chief, especially
when Spanish radio becomes their major engine for ratings. Smaller retailers, for their part, have been even more aggressive in their courting of
Mexican immigrants. The “Pesos for Pizza” promotion launched by Dallas-based Pizza Patron in 2007 may be the best example of this economic
move at the local level. The chain’s owner received death threats and hate
mail for accepting pesos as payment. But he stood his ground, carrying
10–15 percent of the business in pesos, which proved a winning move for
the franchise (Kovach 2007). In September 2007, the magazine DiversityInc devoted an entire issue to “The Business Case for Immigration,” a
title that succinctly made the case for the economic and business value of
immigrants. Widespread knowledge of the fact that immigrants contribute not only through work but through consumption informed the May
1’s “Day Without Immigrants,” where immigrants’ supporters were urged
to not only not work or go to work, but to defer selling and buying. The
word is out. Latinos’ buying power makes a difference. More specifically,
immigrants’ buying power makes a difference.
Conservative economists may have disregarded the economic impact
of the boycott as insignificant. In their view, the U.S. economy is way too
big and complex to be affected by any single sector; it was mainly immigrant businesses and immigrants themselves that were hurt most by
the boycott.22 But if indeed the Hispanic market is an $862 billion market,
as AHAA tells us, then a future consumer boycott won’t be ignored for
long.23 In this regard, a Hispanic marketer and twenty-five-year industry
veteran with whom I discussed the May 1 demonstrations shared interesting insights. He was especially infuriated with the extremely controversial
yet mostly hidden measure included in the more “generous” Senate immigration bill making English the official language of the United States.
He noted that this is a sentiment most of his colleagues shared, and that
has galvanized many to defend the importance of Spanish-language advertising. He had yet to meet one single client, however, that had raised
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94 The Hispanic Consumer
doubts about advertising in Spanish. On the contrary, he felt that clients
are more than ever committed to market segmentation, that many had
even been awakened by images of crowds of immigrants and Latino supporters incited to march by Spanish-language DJs. In his view, it had been
an education for them to see people come out and have a voice. He was
even quick to turn the events into a marketing pitch. As he explained: “If
Spanish-language advertising can produce these massive crowds, imagine
what it can do to their products!”
Briefly then, marketing is likely to be the only place where we may not
witness a direct backlash against Latinos, whether undocumented or not.
Marketers may be reaching out to the youth, to the “acculturated” and
the bilingual market, but they are still largely dependent on immigrants
to “refurbish” the base of their market. They also know full well that Hispanic marketing, as we currently know it, will be unavoidably affected by
the halt of immigration and the policing and persecution of their market
base. And insofar as this is the case, we must question the ascendancy
of marketing as a space of presentation. Marketers and corporations may
be Latinos’ number one cheerleader, but they cheer us solely for buying
their products. They reduce us to sanitized representations; their cheers
mask Latinos’ ongoing relegation to being mere consumers who lack access and ownership in the very media economy that profits from them. If
only for these reasons, they cannot ever be our sole, and most powerful,
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