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The Fresno Bee

America Drinks Up All Things Hispanic

Consumer culture falls in love with Latino influence.

By Vanessa Colón

May 5, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Fresno Bee. All rights reserved.

Companies creating products are finding that incorporating a little Latin influence is chic.

They've found blending aspects of Hispanic culture into new products, from ice cream flavors to cartoon characters, can make a lot of dinero.

Business experts say more companies are taking Latino culture into the mainstream. Hispanic culture encompasses a variety of groups, including Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans and South Americans.

Cinco de Mayo is an example of an ethnic event's reaching a broader audience than expected because of marketing campaigns by food and beverage companies. The holiday celebrates the defeat of French forces by Mexican peasants in the 1862 battle at Puebla, Mexico.

In the central San Joaquin Valley, the celebration has spread to nearly a week -- it started Friday, five days before May 5. It has meant more business for local bars in the Tower District and elsewhere.

"It's gotten more popular. People are always looking for something to celebrate. It keeps people's mind off the economy," said Scott Kendall, owner of Sequoia Brewing Co. on Olive Avenue in the Tower District.

Call it commercialization or Latinolization: Businesses spice up their products with a little sabor and a bit of flair. Häagen-Dazs has blended the swirling sweet caramel taste of dulce de leche into ice cream, and Liz Claiborne captured the hip sway of a Latino dance in its perfume, Mambo.

"There has been a trend created, and it has sparked a trend in fashion and in products," said Carlos Villanueva, a partner at C&V International, a marketing and advertising company in Beverly Hills. His clients include Corona, Citibank and Union Bank of California.

"Today, speaking Spanish is cool," Villanueva said in Spanish.

Other business experts credit the Hispanic population boom in the late 1990s. "There's so many positive things in Latino culture that it's easy to embrace," said Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, CEO of Enlace Communications, a marketing and advertising firm in Los Angeles that represents Macys and Jack in the Box.

"Because the Hispanic market is so sizable, it brings with it so many cultural elements in terms of food and values. And it's weaving itself into the American society," Newman-Carrasco said.

More than one in eight people in the nation are of Hispanic origin, according to 2002 census data. The 2000 census shows about 32%, or 11 million, of California's 34 million residents are Hispanic. In Fresno County, Latinos make up 44%, or about 351,000, of the near-800,000 population.

Hispanic buying power is expected to jump to 9.6% in 2008 from 5.2% in 1990, according to a 2003 report by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.

The fiesta factor

Many businesses targeting the growing Hispanic population attract an even larger audience.

"On the tangible stuff, the non-Hispanic community has been receptive and embracing, and it has made it a win-win situation to capture Latino and non-Latino consumers," Newman-Carrasco said.

One of the first signs of Americans sampling a slice of Latino culture came with the explosion of beer advertisements displaying Cinco de Mayo as a big fiesta.

Anheuser-Busch says it markets its products to all ethnic communities, including Hispanics.

"We support many festivals and cultural celebrations important to the Latino community, and all our Latino-themed advertising and promotional materials, developed with leading Latino-owned agencies, reflect dignity and the utmost respect for the culture," according to Jesus Rangel, vice president of sales development and community relations for Anheuser-Busch.

Last year at Sequoia Brewing in Fresno's Tower District, Cinco de Mayo generated 25% more in sales than on a regular day, owner Kendall said. He expects more sales this year because Sequoia has brewed a new Mexican-style light ale, Del Oro.

Kendall says his love of Mexican light beers and the growing popularity of Corona brand beer influenced the creation of Del Oro.

"They have a distinct flavor, and people associate it with being relaxed and on vacation. It's been catching on. It's more mainstream," Kendall said.

Bobby Salazar, owner of a chain of Mexican restaurants and taquerias, including one in the Tower District, expects 50% more in sales today than on a typical day.

"It's busier than St. Patrick's. ... There's a wider acceptance of the holiday," Salazar said.

National businesses that want to capture the Hispanic culture's appeal are experimenting with new products.

Häagen-Dazs, for instance, introduced its dulce de leche ice cream flavor in 1997, then an ice cream bar in 2000. Dulce de leche ice cream is one of the company's top 10 flavors, said Diane McIntyre, a public relations manager for Häagen-Dazs.

"The original intent was to appeal to the Hispanic palate, but it became bigger than that. It's a great flavor. ... It flew off the shelves," McIntyre said.

Other food businesses are trying to capitalize on the popularity of dulce de leche: Wolfgang Puck bottled a dulce de leche latte, and LUNA created a low-calorie, low-fat dulce de leche nutrition bar.

McIntyre attributed the mainstream appeal to the fact that more people today are adventurous and more comfortable about trying ethnic foods.

Heroes and foes

But the commercial use of a Latino image also can be viewed as insulting or disrespectful. Take the fashion industry's use of the image of anti-capitalist revolutionary figure Ernesto Che Guevara.

The image of the Argentinian-born rebel, who joined Cuban leader Fidel Castro in fomenting Cuba's 1959 revolution, has been imprinted on T-shirts. The famous image of the rebel wearing a thin mustache and cap was seen on a bikini worn by model Gisele Bündchen.

Many Latinos view Guevara as a hero and equate him to a civil rights leader, Newman-Carrasco said. But not some Cuban Americans, who consider him a foe because of his support of Castro.

"Those who don't see him as a hero may see him as a negative image. Those people will think, 'Why are you using him?' " Newman-Carrasco said.

The Latino influence also has spread to entertainment.

In Fresno's Tower District, many residents flock to the Starline to learn and practice salsa dancing on Thursday nights. The music and the dance form, with origins in Cuba and Puerto Rico, have attracted all ethnicities, said Rowan Hernandez, who organizes salsa events and hires dance teachers for Starline.

"A lot of people start out because they like to dance. Some people come because of the music," Hernandez said.

Suzanne Sobenes, 57, who is not Hispanic, said: "There's such a Latin influence in California. ... The culture is kind of being infused. The dance is lively, and it's fun. It's good exercise. It's sexy."

Sobenes and her husband, Juan, were among a crowd swaying their hips and trying to learn the steps last week.

The entertainment industry has helped make Latino culture visible to the mainstream.

"Hollywood started to have more Latinos in movies. ... It gave corporate America a more comfortable [feel] that non-Hispanics had a connection with the culture," Newman-Carrasco said.

Latino characters on television have increased from 4% in 2001-02 to more than 6% of the 2003-04 prime-time population, according to a 2003 report by Children Now. The Oakland-based nonpartisan group conducts research with the intent of improving children's lives. More than half of all prime-time shows include at least one Latino character, according to the study.

And PBS plans to introduce the cartoon "The Misadventures of Maya & Miguel," about 10-year-old Latino twins, this fall.

"We developed 'Maya & Miguel' to address the needs and wants of the Hispanic community. This is not merely a goodwill act on our part, but more as a business reality which calls us to create television programming that today's children can not only relate to, but also learn from," according to Mindy Figueroa, project director for Scholastic Entertainment's "Maya & Miguel" in New York.

Hernandez, the dance coordinator at Starline, says the mainstream acceptance of the Latino culture is the latest trend: "It's a melting pot. It happened with the hamburger and the hot dog. We embrace food and style from different groups. Right now, it happens to be Latino."

Villanueva agrees: "It's the place in the world where everything becomes commercial."

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