Are All Hispanics Spanish Mexicans?

I was speaking recently with a communications staffer for a national candidate whose boss had asked him to explore hiring a Latino to join his team. The staffer told me he knew of someone who could be good for the job, “a Spanish guy who is either Puerto Rican or Costa Rican … he’s some kind of Mexican.”

Wow, what a catch! Someone who’s Spanish, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican and Mexican?! Talk about cross-cultural. What an asset!

That would have been nice, of course, but that’s not what he meant.

In this guy’s mind, this well-educated, rather intelligent, reasonably successful political operative, “Mexican” is an umbrella term for all “Spanish” people whether they are Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, whatever.

At first I thought he was just joking around. But no, he was serious. And when I challenged him on his suppositions, he was taken aback. “What? Am I supposed to know where every African-American comes from? I don’t know if they came from South Africa or Nigeria or Uganda … and why does it matter? They’re all black, and they identify with black culture, and Hispanics identify with Hispanic culture, so as long as we understand Hispanic culture, we can relate to these voters.”

I nodded, understanding how this logic could make sense to him, but my nod quickly transitioned to a head shake and me still wondering if (more like hoping) he was putting me on. He even cited data indicating that national origin was not as important to “modern Hispanics.”

Unfortunately, this situation is not unique, and the belief that Hispanics are homogeneous is echoed among some marketers, politicians and everyday Americans – and, yes, there was some data to back it up.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I wrote an article in Adweek’s Marketing y Medios magazine asking , “Who is the ‘Other’ Hispanic Consumer?” The story examined the fact that, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the second-largest group of Hispanics in the United States, behind Mexicans, was “Other.”

In fact, at more than 17 percent, there were almost twice as many “Other” Hispanics than the third-largest group, Puerto Ricans, at 9.6 percent of all Hispanics in the U.S.

Other Hispanic_charts

As I reported in 2004, those 6.1 million “Other” Hispanics consisted of individuals who identified themselves solely as Hispanic or Latino, without specifying country of origin.

At the time, a report by the Pew Hispanic Center explained the phenomenon by stating that, “The longer Hispanic immigrants are in the United States, the more likely it is that they will refer to themselves as either Hispanic or Latino instead of using their country of origin.” Even the chief of the Ethnicity and Ancestry Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau agreed that the trend among Hispanics was moving away from self-identifying based on their family’s national origin and toward a “common Hispanic culture.”

And so was the thought that permeated. It appeared that segmenting geographic background and paying attention to Latinos’ national origins really didn’t matter when attempting to connect with them. Hispanics were simply Hispanic.

That made lives easier for marketers and communications professionals who were somewhat relieved to know they could target Hispanics without having to worry about their various backgrounds.

Incidentally, it’s interesting that marketers and politicians are mindful of geographic and cultural nuances — whether they’re accents, colloquialisms, beliefs, music or food — within a single county such as United States (think New Jersey, Louisiana, Hawaii), but were comfortable classifying Hispanics as a homogeneous group.

However, when the 2010 U.S. Census came out, the numbers told a different story than 10 years prior. The number of “Other” Hispanics dropped by almost half, from over 6 million to 3.5 million Latinos in the U.S. — and this with a total Hispanic population growth of more than 15 million people.

So where did all of the “Others” go? Looking closely at the data, many of the “Others” had been reclassified and identified by their countries of origin. For example, the number of Latinos who hailed from Central and South American countries more than doubled, and the number of Uruguayans, Guatemalans and Hondurans tripled. Was there an immigration surge during those 10 years? Somewhat, but not necessarily among those who participate in the U.S. Census.

Digging further into the fine print, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that, “empirical evidence of question-design effects on the question of Hispanic origin … showed changes in wording … that contributed to a significant number of people reporting general ‘Hispanic’ and ‘Latino’ instead of reporting a specific Hispanic origin.”

Really? So the questioning process was screwed up? But what about all of those experts? What about trending toward general “Hispanic culture” and moving away from identifying oneself based on national origin? Apparently, the experts looked at the data and added their own assumptions, without truly trying to understand the individuals behind the data.

To communicate effectively with a community, you must understand the individuals that make up that community. Because when you don’t, they know you don’t, and not only will you not persuade them with your messaging, you likely will alienate them instead.

The incident with the political staffer regarding the universal “Spanish Mexican guy” is not unique. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother-in-law not long after I met her. To put her in context, she is a white woman born in Philadelphia, whose parents were born in Philadelphia, and has only traveled outside of the U.S. a few times. Overall, she’s pretty representative of many Americans.

She would introduce me to her friends as her soon-to-be Spanish son-in-law. The first time that I corrected her, telling her I wasn’t Spanish, she just ignored me, likely thinking I was joking. The next time she introduced me as Spanish, again I corrected her. She had a look of utter confusion on her face and could only muster a, “Huh?”

I explained to her that while I do have some family members that live Spain, who actually are Spanish citizens, I was born in Peru and was not Spanish. The ensuing conversation would be the envy of even Abbott and Costello.

ME: I’m not Spanish, I’m from Peru.
HER: Right?
ME: Right, so I’m not Spanish.
HER: (Looking even more confused) But you speak Spanish.
ME: Yes
HER: I don’t understand. How can you not be Spanish?
ME: Because I’m not from Spain. Only people from Spain are Spanish.
HER: What?!?! What are you talking about?
ME: Who’s on first?
HER: What?
ME: No, What’s on second.
HER: Huh? I don’t know.
ME: No, I Don’t Know’s on third.

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