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Chicago Tribune

Generic 'Hispanic' Identity A Product Of Decades Of Ads

By Gregory Rodriguez*

December 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

No habían "Indios" antes de la conquista de las Américas. No habían "negros" antes de que los europeos empezasen a explotar África. No habían "Latinos" hasta los años 1970, cuando las corporaciones de marketing y los organismos gubernamentales buscaban crear una identidad genérica para una población diversa de origen latinoamericano.

El proceso de agrupar una amplia gama de orígenes étnicos, grupos lingüísticos y tribus no es nada nuevo.

"Latinos Inc. The Marketing and Making of a People"
By Arlene Davila
University of California Press, 308 pages

There were no "Indians" before the conquest of the Americas. There were no "blacks" before Europeans began exploiting Africa. There were no "Latinos" until the 1970s, when corporate marketers and government agencies sought to create a generic identity for a diverse Latin American-origin population.

The process of lumping together a wide range of ethnicities, linguistic groups and tribes is nothing new. The Europeans did it to establish clear differences between themselves and others; today, it is being perpetuated in order to make non-whites more intelligible to the majority and more accessible to the marketplace.

Earlier this year, the Census Bureau confirmed that a growing number of Americans of Latin American origin are declining to identify the country where they or their ancestors were born and instead choose to check the box that reads "Hispanic."

Trend began in 1970s

Activist groups seized on the data as proof of an emerging pan- Latino consciousness. But, as Arlene Davila suggests in "Latinos Inc.," it is more likely the result of years of advertising campaigns that began in the 1970s with the advent of national Spanish language broadcasting.

Indeed, the catch-all Hispanic or Latino category that lumps together a vast conglomeration of Cubans in Florida, Dominicans in New York, Salvadorans in Washington and Mexicans in Southern California, is largely a product of billions of corporate dollars that have been spent over the last few decades cultivating the "Hispanic market."

Although assimilation is generally decried as a reduction in human diversity, the idea of various distinct minority groups disappearing into a super-minority category is generally considered a positive process. At 35 million strong, "Latinos" receive a lot more attention than they would if they were just plain Nicaraguans, Peruvians or Venezuelans. But the generic identity, which tells us little about one's cultural heritage, also obscures the unique attributes and customs of each national-origin group.

Marketers manipulate identity

Davila argues that Latino identity is increasingly being forged in the marketplace. She explains how the discovery and promotion of the generic Hispanic has given marketers and advertising agencies undue influence in the manipulation of Latino images. While tracing the path by which the advertising industry has changed the popular image of Hispanics from "suspects to prospects," Davila explains how the creation of a distinct ethnic consumer market has wound up further marginalizing "Hispanics" in the mainstream imagination.

Though businesses may appeal to white Americans as young people, senior citizens, sports enthusiasts or dog lovers, Latinos must always be approached vis-a-vis their "culture" and in their "language." Thus, Davila argues, Hispanic advertising agencies fall prey to "othering" practices in which minority Americans--no matter their class, age, educational background, gender or personal idiosyncrasies--are routinely reduced to being, simply, members of this or that racial or ethnic group.

In fact, Davila contends, Hispanic marketers have a vested interest in Latinos being portrayed as a culturally static and permanently foreign sector of the American public. "Heterogeneity is consistently downplayed," she writes. Hispanic marketers prefer "fixity and authenticity" over "fluidity and hybridity." The ideal Hispanic market would be like the island of Puerto Rico: "Spanish- dominant, authentic and contained."

Latinos get pigeonholed

Of course, the promotion of the idea that Latinos are permanently segregated within American culture does nothing to persuade Hollywood and other purveyors of U.S. culture to include them and their stories in mainstream media. To please the clients who bankroll them, advertisers have also pigeonholed Latinos as hyper-traditional and "stubbornly brand-loyal."

Unfortunately, not all of the arguments in "Latinos Inc." are as persuasive or compelling as its main thesis. The book's insights-- and there are many--are often hidden beneath otherwise dreary analysis and academic jargon.

Nonetheless, "Latinos Inc." is a welcome contribution to our understanding of the emergence of "Hispanics" in American life.

*Gregory Rodriguez is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation His review first appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune newspaper

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