Hispanic Biculturalism: Cross-Cultural Identities

22 Jun 2005|Added Value

At the 6th annual Hispanic Boom conference in Los Angeles on June 13th and 14th, the theme of biculturalism emerged as a dominant theme among panelists and speakers. The theme of Cheskin’s panel was “Cross Border Strategies” . While no one else talked about this theme explicitly, most of the panelists did point to the phenomena of cross-cultural identities when discussing the growing importance of biculturalism. Most talked about the importance of the growth in the youth segment and how these younger Hispanics are cultivating bicultural identities. We learned that biculturalism has implications for media viewing activities, as bicultural Hispanics will tend to view both mainstream media and those geared to Hispanics. So we learned that Hispanics over index on going to the movies and on renting DVD’s. (12 times per year vs. 8 times per year, and 18.4 times per year vs. 16.5 time per year, respectively.) All speakers acknowledged that today, language is not the only tool to consider when targeting Hispanics, especially with the growth of the bicultural population. Overall, however, people are still trying to grasp what we mean by cultivating a bicultural identity, and the implications for businesses in targeting the Hispanic market.

The term “cultivating” is key when talking about biculturalism. Unlike Hispanic Dominants and US Dominant Hispanics, bicultural Hispanics have actively determined that they seek to cultivate Latino culture as part of their identity. In other words, choosing to speak Spanish, travel to Latin American, have Hispanic friends, listen to Latin music, admire Hispanic leaders and artists, are all actions that one must consciously make as one goes about living a US committed life with US customs and practices. Hence one must make room for these new practices, ask questions to relatives and friends about the meaning of certain products, such as food and music, rather than passively consumer these. Being bicultural implies having a “cross-cultural identity”; bicultural folks can actively appropriate different sets of values and practices from each culture. What it means to have a “cross-cultural identity”, however, is still an area that requires much investigation. Some folks believe that Hispanics will eventually assimilate as, presumably, have other cultures. Italians are often the example cited as a culture that “assimilated”. I propose three points to consider in this discussion.


First, we should note the type of immigration that occurs. It is often the case that immigrants come to the US hating the lack of opportunity of their home country and embracing that of the US. People are often in disaccord with the political views of their home country or with the status quo. Our interviews have revealed that Mexicans, 60% of the Latino population, in the US still love and respect their home country, regretting that there are not more opportunities there. They acknowledge the lack of economic opportunities in Mexico, and they manifest distrust of Mexican institutions and the government, but they hope that the situation will change. The love and respect for one’s home country keeps first generation folks tied intimately to Mexico, teaching their children to love and respect cultural traditions. Given this context, questions of interest include: What products and services can serve to allow people active heritage creation rather than passive nostalgic longing? How can companies take the positioning of a brand on both sides of the border and create new meaning that will give it a competitive advantage with this market segment?

Second, we should note that large cultural groups, such as Italians, have indeed created new sub cultural spaces within the US. These sub cultural spaces have inflected the distant, protestant culture of our early fore fathers, creating a more intimate, friendly US culture. Indeed, if one has ever spoken to someone from a strong protestant culture, such as a Swede, one would be amazed to learn that they find Americans a bit too informal and intimate as a culture. The interesting question then becomes: how will the growth of Hispanics in the US impact the US culture? What new cultural spaces will be created? (For instance, what are the foods that will be in everyone’s refrigerator, the way in which Pizza has become an American staple?). What cultural values will be inflected? How will these cultural changes impact the demand for products and services?

Third, no one can deny that Latino immigration is distinct, especially with the proximity of the regions from which people migrate. Today, there are regions in the US in places such as Texas and California with roughly 20% or more of the population born in Mexico. According to Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard, there are three distinct ways in which this immigration varies from past patterns:

“Three distinct social formations describe this new Latino immigration: (1) A more or less uninterrupted flow of large scale legal (as well as undocumented) immigration from Mexico, rapidly intensifying after 1980 (by the last decade of the Twentieth Century, there were more legal immigrants from Mexico alone than from all of the countries of Europe combined), structured by powerful economic forces and socio-cultural practices, which seem unaffected by unilateral policy initiatives, (2) more time-limited “waves” (as opposed to uninterrupted “flows”) of large scale immigration from Central and South America—by the early 1980s, El Salvador and Guatemala replaced Cuba as the largest source of asylum seekers from the Spanish-speaking world, and (3) a Caribbean pattern of intense circular migration typified by the Puerto Rican and Dominican experiences in New York—where Dominicans are now the largest immigrant group.” David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University

Immigration from Mexico, in particular, has implications for cross-border commitments folks from Mexico still retain, including family members and other financial obligations. How will cross-border commitments impact cultural values? What products and services can be offered to folks with cross-border commitments?

Which questions are relevant depend on a particular company and the industry. A company with brands on both sides of the border will need to understand how new meaning can be created, inquiring in the way in which bicultural folks invent practices to deal with two worlds simultaneously. In the case of a food company, an area of inquiry should be how people mix foods from the US with those of their home country, or how they find ways to make convenient US foods seem more homey, or meal like. In addition, the company will need to understand the types of messages that people are receiving on both sides of the border. Companies in the financial service industries should tune to the types of cross-border commitments that people have beyond sending remittance. Are there segments that could benefit from real estate on the other side of the border? These companies should also tune into the informal savings and investments mechanisms that exist.

In short, the question regarding opportunities for targeting biculturals requires much thought. It is clear that not all Hispanics are the same. And it is also clear that some opportunities will get at the heart of the cross-cultural identity issues while others will not. Companies will need to research and develop appropriate offerings to leverage this opportunity carefully.

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