BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- I, and I suspect many others, have a love-hate relationship with
Hispanic Heritage Month. On one hand, it's fiestas and pinatas and school
children learning about Cesar Chavez and how great Latin American culture is.
But on the other, it's a vivid reminder of the rest of the year's status
quo. Though I've thought it myself a million times, I don't think I've ever
heard it described as eloquently as Arlene Davila, a professor of anthropology,
social and cultural analysis at New York University, did last week.
"I've learned to see it as what it is, which is a huge marketing tool.
This is the time of the year when corporations and institutions everywhere carve
a little bit out of their budget to do something Latino," she told the NPR
program "Latino USA."
"More often than not it becomes translated into
things that make us feel good, like exhibitions or talks ... about Latino
history, which is really significant because it points to what we usually don't
get during the year because what happens is that within the month we go back to
â€˜normal.' And going back to normal, as you know, is going back to a state where
it's OK to ignore Latinos, to not teach Latino history, and to not know [about
Like so many others, I take this time of the year to marvel
at the bizarre lengths companies go to in their Hispandering. Blockbuster, the
movie rental company, sent an email to inform me that it's adding a "Cine
Latino" movie section "dedicated to celebrating the Latino genre of film" in
more than 200 of its stores. Cool -- I mean, if they've run the numbers and
think that will make their registers ding, that's fine.
My advice to them is to tap the German-American market next. There are 49.8 million people
describing themselves that way and counting. It might be worth looking into for
next year -- German-American Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
At any rate, after years of watching how both Hispanics and non-Latinos
handle Hispanic Heritage Month, a few themes emerge. Some organizations "honor"
Latin American culture, others highlight our cultural similarities, but until
this year I'd never seen a quantification of how Hispanics have changed
non-Latinos' preferences and habits.
Wing, a marketing communications
agency, and Experian Simmons, a consumer research firm, recently released the
results of what they dubbed "The Latino Influence Project." What was interesting
was the methodology. The researchers surveyed more than 25,000 people:
non-Hispanics who live in communities with large concentrations of Latinos, and
non-Hispanics who live in areas with few Latinos. They then measured how
Hispanic norms subtly affected non-Latinos' behavior. <BR><BR>The results were,
OK, not all the results were surprising. For instance,
non-Hispanics living in Latino-dense neighborhoods were three times more likely
to be interested in other cultures and love the idea of traveling abroad. And
they're five and a half times more likely to eat jalapenos and six times as
likely as those not living in close proximity to Latinos to listen to and enjoy
subgenres of Latin American music such as salsa and merengue.
But I had to scratch my head and wonder why non-Latinos living among Hispanics would, for
instance, be twice as likely to buy recycled products, twice as likely to
experiment with new clothing styles and say they want to "stand out from the
crowd," and almost 2.5 times likelier to pay attention to the commercials in
Perhaps my particular majority-Hispanic community is
just not as progressive as others. People here are not particularly "green,"
dapper, likely to crowd the local movie theater, or be very well accepted by
their older, white neighbors. But I may just live in a statistical anomaly.
In his statement announcing the results, Andrew Speyer, Managing
Director of Wing, said "This study is the first to offer statistically
significant proof that Hispanic attitudes and behaviors are permeating the
broader culture." Unspoken was the presumption that it's a positive impact and
not strictly the doomsday scenarios that some like to paint when Latinos come to
Though I'd like to think Hispanics will make meaningful long-term
contributions to our society far beyond a love of spicy food and natty fashions,
it's a start toward something more than sombreros and Mayan calendars during
just one month out of the year. And at this point, I'll take what I can get.
Esther J. Cepeda's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org