What is Acculturation?

In my role as a Hispanic market consultant I am often asked about the different levels of acculturation in the US Latino community. In conducting marketing research studies with Latinos it is certainly important to pay close attention to the different acculturation levels; failing to do so would result in data that does not truly represent the market. The problem is that many in corporate America seem to think that acculturation can be easily divided into very clear and distinct segments. This is definitely not the case! There are as many definitions of acculturation and acculturation segments as there are experts willing to offer an explanation- and the truth is that there is not really a right or a wrong answer when it comes to defining acculturation. In my case I tend to define acculturation segments differently depending on the client, the industry, the particular geography in question, and many other factors that affect the marketing of a given product or service. In this article I present my own views on acculturation and attempt to give the reader some guidance on how to go about defining acculturation levels.

First of all, let us explore what acculturation means in the first place. By definition acculturation means a “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture” or “a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/acculturation). In the case of the Latino community in the U.S. acculturation means becoming more “American” by adapting or borrowing the traits of the American culture. While this seems like a straightforward definition that makes sense, in reality it is not that simple. Think about it- what exactly are the traits of the American culture that are borrowed in acculturation? Is there really a set definition of American traits? I will argue that the US varies tremendously from region to region and covers many different cultures. Acculturating to the New York culture is not the same as acculturating to the Los Angeles culture.

Let me offer an example that demonstrates how extreme the differences in American cultural traits can be. A couple of years ago I conducted a Spanish language interview with a Latina in McAllen Texas. Prior to the interview she had completed a screener questionnaire. One question in that screener asked about her country of origin and she had indicated that her country of origin was the United States. Another question in the screener asked about language preferences and she said that she spoke only Spanish. While she qualified for the interview in all other respects, my client wanted clarification. How could someone say that the U.S. is their country of origin and not speak any English? During the interview I asked for clarification. She explained that she had traced her family back several generations and they are all original residents of McAllen Texas. They consider themselves American- not Mexican, because they are indeed American. However, her family never left McAllen and most people in that area of the U.S. speak only Spanish- it was not necessary for her or others in her family to learn English. In fact, Spanish is an important part of the “American” culture in that region of the United States.
Acculturation also evolves differently depending on the region. Miami is a great example of a different type of acculturation. Third generation Cubans in Miami are in almost every respect completely acculturated. They speak English and act “American” in almost every way. However, most have also retained their Cuban cultural heritage. They can easily switch from English to Spanish and feel very much at ease when interacting with both non-Hispanic Americans and unacculturated Latinos. These individuals live in both cultures and are a good representation of the type of acculturation that is becoming more common in other regions of the country.

So… what goes into defining acculturation? Typical measures used include the number of years in the country, the age in which they entered the country, English language proficiency, Spanish media consumption, and other variables that are sometimes associated with acculturation like the type of sporting events they follow or their social drinking behavior (e.g. happy hour is an acculturated behavior). I do not believe, however, that there can be a set acculturation algorithm that can be applied across the board. Many of my colleagues have attempted to promote their “perfect” acculturation formulas and I feel that that has created more confusion surrounding this subject. My recommendation is to look at your own unique situation and define acculturation segments that fit your particular marketing situation.

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We must stop the negative immigration rage!

e pluribus unumLatino immigrants generally come to the U.S. driven by a strong desire to provide a better life for their family. Their drive is not that different from the motivating factors that impelled the ancestors of almost everyone in this country. The strength of the immigrants’ spirit helps them combat what amounts to insurmountable odds against them. Immigrants are faced with an incredible emotional turmoil that stems from being separated from their family, friends, culture, and heritage. This separation anxiety is always difficult, and it is often hard to understand by those who have not experienced it first hand. Immigrants endure the turmoil and forge ahead in pursuit of the American Dream. For new American immigrants the anxiety feelings are compounded by the fact that the immigration laws in the U.S. no longer have an open door policy. And even when Latinos come in with a legal immigration status, they still have to endure the overwhelming negative social pressure that surrounds the subject of immigration in the 21st Century.

The pursuit of happiness and a new life in the United States has defined this country since its inception. Seeking the so called American Dream is what being American is all about. Immigration defines our American culture. It has shaped the American way of life and has created the unique diversity that is so highly cherished in the United States. Even our country’s motto, “e pluribus unum” (Out of many, one) symbolizes the importance we place in coming together from different places to form one country. Yet; immigration is no longer popular with many Americans; and the thought of people coming to the U.S. “illegally” infuriates the masses.

Latinos are often attacked just because they are perceived as criminals from an immigration standpoint. Never before in this country have immigrants who lacked the appropriate immigration documentation been commonly referred to as “illegals.” The strong feelings harbored against “illegal aliens” (a truly horrendous term) have become so pervasive that some people who are otherwise very inclusive and welcoming towards others become quickly enraged when I bring up the subject of immigration. The rage is not always rational; in fact, most of what infuriates people (like the so-called negative effect on the U.S. economy) is simply not true (see an earlier post here). But I’m not trying to generate more hate mail on this subject (I get enough of that); my intention is to show how all of the negativity surrounding immigration is really counterproductive and ends up hurting us all.

Yesterday I was driving and almost got into an accident. I became very enraged at a driver who was clearly doing something illegal. I was livid! But my thoughts against this person were irrational; in retrospect I realize that he was only trying to circumvent a truck that was blocking the intersection. If I knew the person driving that car I would not have even gotten upset. Car rage happens because it is easy to disconnect from the person driving the other car. I find that when I make eye contact with another driver they are more likely to be nice and become human again. Why am I talking about this? Because car rage creates a very serious problem on the roads; and I feel that the illegal immigration rage is often just as irrational and is creating a very serious problem in our society.

It is easy for people to believe the negative buzz regarding immigration and become enraged; but like it is with car rage, I find that people react very differently when they personally know an undocumented immigrant or family. It is easy to support immediate deportation and harsh laws against undocumented immigrants when you are not connected to them; in fact, it is easy to think of them as criminals. But it is much more difficult to do so when it affects someone who you personally know and/or care about. In my work I interview many undocumented Latinos and have heard many immigration horror stories. Try explaining to a child why their parents were taken away from him because they were here illegally. In a recent interview, a U.S. born Latino teenager with a severe medical condition told me about how his mother had to go back to Colombia. In tears he said: “I had to stay because I would die in Colombia… my mother is not a criminal, she was just trying to be here for me.” I can fill the pages of many books with similar stories. As a country we need to realize that these immigrants are no different in their motivation to be here as any other prior immigration group. If we are able to see past the immigration rage we will realize that these people are not “criminals” at all; they are hard working families trying to become American like all other immigrants did.

The negativity towards immigration, be it warranted or not, is not good for our country. It fuels segregation, racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It affects everyone and does nothing to resolve the issues at hand. Like it is with car rage, we need to take a moment to make eye contact and become human again.

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Stop the Latino Apathy and Become an American Participant!

This article was first published under the title “A Matter of Influence” on October 24, 2009 in Connections, the newsletter of the Southwest Florida’s Hispanic Business Link (See A Matter of Influence).


Latinos are beginning to understand the importance of their participation in the United States’ social, legal, and political system. The significance of this understanding cannot be overemphasized. For years Hispanics have exercised little influence in U.S. politics. And while Hispanics account for 15% of the total U.S. population, the Latino participation in the electoral process has always had a significant lag when compared to the general population and to that of other ethnicities. In last year’s election, however, voter participation among eligible Hispanics increased; with the voter turnout rate rising 3 percentage points, from 47% in 2004 to 50% in 2008. Still, the numbers do not reflect the Latino potential and the Latino turnout rate does not come close to that of other groups. Among Whites, for example, the turnout rate was 66% in 2008. The main problem affecting Latino participation in U.S. politics is rooted on social indifference and political apathy. This article explores the reasons behind this Latino indifference and demonstrates how successes in Latino political leadership are driving Hispanics to finally engage in the U.S. social and political arena.

Here are some of the reasons why it is difficult to get Latinos to participate:

  1. Most Latinos are recent immigrants. Most of them have come to the U.S. looking for financial stability. At the outset, the primary objective of most new Latino immigrants is not to set roots in the U.S. Many come with the idea of living here temporarily in order to get enough financial stability to enable them to return to their country of origin. Statistics show that they do eventually set roots and the returns rarely happen; however, this new immigrant mindset greatly hinder Latino participation in a society that they are not yet embracing.Not all Latinos come to the U.S. for economic reasons. Recent political and criminal unrest in Latin American is driving Latinos here for political and social concerns as well. If these Latinos are to follow the footsteps of their Cuban counterparts who fled Cuba in the late 50s for political reasons, we can expect a different mindset when it comes to social integration. Cubans have been historically much more involved in the U.S. society than other recent immigrants.
  2. Latinos often come from countries where regular citizens have little influence in the political and social makeup of their nation. Many governments in Latin America do not give their people the level of political influence that is relished by U.S. residents. These Latinos have learned through experience that corruption drives politics and that societal change is only affected through the power granted by money and social status. Many come to the U.S. with the idea that citizen participation in government is a futile endeavor.
  3. Even when Latinos do not see the U.S. government as corrupt or power driven as that of their country of origin, many Hispanics hesitate getting involved because they may have an elevated image of U.S. government effectiveness and/or do not feel it is appropriate to get involved. Research has shown that many Latinos do not get involved because they feel they know very little and cannot make a meaningful contribution or feel that their opinions would not be necessarily welcomed.
  4. Latinos generally have a lower level of education. Some Hispanics may not understand the workings of the U.S. political system well enough to know how to engage in society at a political level.
  5. For many Latinos being involved in politics still mean following the events that transpire in their country of origin. Their political connection and engagement remains abroad.
  6. Language can be a barrier for participation at many levels of government.

Despite all of these, there are many reasons why Latinos are becoming more involved in the American society and all indicators point to an increasing level of Latino engagement in U.S. government affairs. Two factors that are helping turn the involvement tide include societal education/acculturation, and the visual presence of Latino leaders and politicians who make Latinos feel welcomed by asking for their engagement. The insurgence of Latinos in prominent positions at all levels of government and society is crucial in making Hispanics feel that they are truly a part of the American social structure.

Latino engagement and acculturation are sometimes interlaced. The first Latinos who engaged in American politics were Mexican-Americans who were already “acculturated” in the sense that the U.S. came to them (as opposed to them coming to the U.S.). After the Mexican war of 1846, Mexicans living in the U.S. were granted U.S. citizenship, and some Mexican leaders ended up being the first Latinos to become members of the Congress and the Senate. New Mexico became the first state with significant Latino influence and involvement and it is largely due to the proliferation of Latino governors, senators, and members of congress from that state. Puerto Ricans were also granted U.S. citizenship after the Spanish-American war and Puerto Ricans became more engaged in U.S. politics in the late 19th century. Cuban Americans who left Cuba during and after the revolution were granted residency and many became citizens. Leaders from this era evolved; Jose Más Canosa, for example, became a leader of Cubans in the U.S. and was effective in winning Cuban votes for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Busch. Second generation Cubans, like senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, have become great influencers in driving Latino participation.

One area that greatly affected (and continues to affect) Latino participation was the segmentation within the Hispanic community. Many Latinos like the early Mexicans and Puerto Ricans united because of their country of origin and did not see themselves as members of one cohesive and much larger voting block. While segmentation by country of origin is still happening, many Latinos now are aware of the benefit of uniting as one voice. This unification was loosely established in 1976 (and formalized in 1978) with the creation of the Hispanic Caucus; an organization whose goal is to promote Latino leadership and promote issues affecting Latinos.

For Latinos to completely feel connected to the American society and to have a normal sense of belonging to their new country they need to be appropriately represented in government. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, it is crucial to continue to unite as one voice and to promote Latino leadership in all aspects of society. The sometimes prevalent Latino mentality that sees “Americans” as separate from Hispanics also needs to be addressed. To promote participation and belongingness we need to unequivocally declare ourselves as members of the American nation. By using this form of “acculturation” mentality we can more easily become a part of American politics in the way that the early Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans did.

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Why Hispanics Live Long Lives

My mom (at age 80) and my children

My mom (at age 80) and my children

U.S. Hispanics tend to live longer than non-Hispanics despite many circumstances that negatively affect Latino longevity.  This is a fact that continues to puzzle the medical community.  On the surface it does not make a lot of sense.  Hispanics, for example, are more prone to illnesses like Diabetes and often suffer from high cholesterol.  While the Latino diet varies from country to country, most of the cuisines pay little attention to health implications and Latinos continue to use unhealthy ingredients like fatty meats and animal lard.  More alarmingly, Latinos in the U.S. have inadequate access to healthcare services / information and most of the new immigrants lack health insurance.  Latinos are also more likely than non-Hispanics to avoid going to the doctor and to not engage in preventive care.  So how is it, one must ask, that we generally live longer?  Here are some plausible explanations based on my own qualitative research exploration.

The Mañana Syndrome

It is a well known fact that Latinos are generally more laid-back than non-Hispanics. It is also a scientific fact that by not stressing over issues our bodies are more able to fight diseases and remain healthy. My paternal grandmother is a great example of a wonderful person who knew the importance of taking it easy. She passed at the age of 102 with her laid-back outlook of life completely intact. I always tell the story of when the whole family gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday. I was unable to travel to Puerto Rico with all of my children and abuela wanted to hear how her great-grandchildren were doing. She sat next to me for lunch (I remember her having a large piece of steak) and said “I may have asked you this already and I’m sure I will ask it again; you will just have to deal with that; how are the children?” Despite her age she remembered the names of my children (I had four at the time) and asked about them my name. In trying to recall the name of my ex-wife she got confused; I recall that at that point she closed her eyes briefly and said; “it is not that important to remember everything; is she still being difficult?” My abuela knew how to avoid stress; and that kept her healthy despite being blind as a result of her Diabetes. The tendency to take it easy in life have often been criticized by those who find the mañana attitude inefficient; but it may very well be the key to a long and happy life.

Abuela at her 100th birthday!

Abuela at her 100th birthday!

A Purpose At an Old Age

I have conducted many interviews with Latinos regarding the idea of retirement. When it comes to retirement, Hispanics and non-Hispanics have very different points of view. Most Hispanics feel that their purpose in retirement is to help their family in any way they can. The tendency is to move closer to the family or with one of the family members. The role of the Hispanic grandparent is very important in the Latino family and many Hispanics rely on the grandparents for support. The idea of moving to a retirement community is foreign and uncanny to most Hispanics. In my interviews with Latino seniors I often hear comments like: “Why would anyone want to move away from the family to live with other old people? I want to retire to dedicate my time to my children and grandchildren; I want to be with them.”

My mother, who is 82, lives in Miami where most of my family now lives. Despite the fact that she has many family members and friends there, she often laments not being able to live closer to me (we live in New Jersey) so that she could help us out. I invited her to come over for a few days next month because she really wants to see the grandchildren; yet she forewarned us already saying that she is not coming on vacation. She said: “Last time I was there you were catering to me all the time and I did not feel useful; I may be old but there is still a lot that I can do, so start thinking of some things that I can help with while I am there.” Latino seniors demand to be a part of the family and work hard to make real contributions to the family. This cultural tendency makes Latinos feel needed and useful in their old age; and having a purpose in life is usually linked to longevity.

Not Wanting to Die

I have written here before about the Latino fear of death and how it is not as much a fear of the unknown as it is the fear of leaving loved ones without adequate support (See Here). Not wanting to die has been proven to be a key to staying alive. The simple desire of wanting to stay in this world in order to support the family may be a potent contributor to Latino longevity.

Exercise and Physical Fitness

While Hispanics may not be as much into exercise and physical fitness as their non-Hispanic counterparts; most Latinos exercise more than non-Hispanics because they are more likely to work in blue collar jobs that require them to be physically fit.

Chispa

One of the characteristics that is generally shared by all Latino sub-groups is something that Hispanics call “chispa” or Latino wit. Latinos will agree that they know how to have fun. Latino gatherings always include music, storytelling, joking, dancing, and tons of laughter. And Latinos gather very often; at the very minimum Latino families get together for parties every weekend. Laughter is known to trigger the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. Sharing with family and friends also produces a general sense of well-being that contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

This is not to say that there is no drama or stress in a Latino gathering; there definitely is. But in my experience doing ethnographic work with Latino families I have witness the positive effects of music, dancing, and laughter. The Latino tendency to have fun is a very strong antidote to the disease ridden stress and negativity that often permeates our American society.

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Non-Verbal Latino Communication & Social Networking

I have written before about how Latinos prefer to interact at an emotional or spiritual level. Achieving this heightened level of communication means going further than the articulation of words and connecting by relying on information that transcends the spoken language. Is this communication preference limited to Hispanic consumers? Of course not. And it does not apply to all Latinos either; but I am a market researcher, and we are in the business of generalization. My contention is that Hispanics in the U.S. are more likely than non-Hispanic consumers to rely on non-verbal communication and gut feelings in almost every interpersonal encounter. In a prior post I gave some examples of this phenomenon. Here I would like to expand on the subject and explore how this communication style works in the digital world of social networking.

Let’s start by looking into how Hispanics gain this emotional connection. One thing that Latinos overly rely on to gain a better understanding of one another is the use of non-verbal communication cues. The cues include facial expressions, hand and body movement, physical touch, voice pitch, voice sounds (not the articulation of the words), physical appearance, emotional appearance (like teary eyes), and even smell. I did not realize how often I used non-verbal cues to communicate until I started dating a non-Hispanic girl who once asked me why I smacked my lips and made other sounds to convey my feelings, instead of simply expressing them verbally. As I have said in prior articles, Latinos are very emotional creatures; but that does not mean that the emotions are always verbalized. From the loud moaning of a man who who just stubbed his toe, to the exaggerated screams of a mother whose child just took his first step, Latinos excel in the use of sound and facial expressions to convey emotion.

Many of you will know that Latinos are also keen on physical connection. Hugs and kisses are normal in everyday interactions. It is normal for Latino men to greet females with a kiss; even if they do not know each other well. Men also hug each other as a sign of affection. In fact, a very common closing for a business letter in Latino correspondence is “un abrazo” or “a hug.” In interviewing Latinos I sometimes use touch to communicate that I understand and care about what they have to say. Simple gestures like a hand on the shoulder or a handshake are effective. In some instances when a respondent became very emotional I have offered a hug. I don’t know that I have ever used touch in non-Hispanic interviewing. While it may be easy to understand the importance of using physical touch in Latino interactions, you may have more difficulty conceptualizing the role that smell plays in the communication.

Okay, I think we can agree that if a person reeks with body odor, the smell will undoubtedly affect his or her personal interactions! But BO aside, odor is used extensively by Latinos in communicating. Many Hispanics use perfume or cologne to convey their personality; an the smell of a particular brand of perfume becomes a part of who they are. Sometimes the smell is used to convey how much they care about their family. When my daughter Marina came home my mother was at our house with a basket of goodies. Among them was a bottle of “Violet Water,” a cologne that Cubans like to use on babies. My mother explained to my wife (who is not Hispanic) how good it was to use this fragrance because it conveys that you care about your baby. Latinos also use fragrances in other areas to communicate something about them. Colgate Palmolive, for example, has a very successful line of cleaning products called Fabuloso. Most Latinas know that Fabuloso is not a very good cleaner; but they also agree that cleaning is not the main purpose of that product. They buy it because in the Latino culture the smell of products like Fabuloso is extremely important in conveying how a woman takes care of her house and her family. The same holds true for the laundry products they use. The clothing needs to have a particular fragrance. Undoubtedly, the sense of smell is very much a part of the Latino communication process.

Body and hand movement is also extremely important. Many Latinos find it necessary to move their hands in order to communicate effectively. I find myself using hand movements even when I talk on the phone and nobody sees me! I have said many times that if you tie my hands I am unable to speak. Voice pitch and volume is also used extensively among Latinos. This sometimes varies by Latino country of origin. Cubans, for example, are culturally very loud in their communication. In everyday social gatherings Cubans are accustomed to raising their voice to get the group’s attention and are perfectly at ease with all of them talking at the same time. When I moderate focus groups in Miami I have to warn clients about this unique social preference because I need to allow it to happen (to an extend) in order for the communication to flow “normally.”

Given the propensity for Latinos to use non-verbal communication that goes far beyond what can be communicated through text; how do Latinos manage to engage effectively in social networking? The interesting thing is that Hispanics are very fond of social networks like Facebook and MySpace an the Latino communication in those networks is thriving! Why? Because these networks have been successful in digitally emulating non-text communication through the use of photographs, music, recorded voice, video, chat, digital gifts, quizzes, news, status updates, group affiliations, games, personal information, links, and hundreds of add-on applications that often reveal the more personal or emotional side of the user. These “gimmicks” that we reject in business communication are very much a part of what social networking is all about. In some Latino specific networks like MiGente members often set their own color scheme and background music for their profile. All of this contributes to the “personal appearance” of the user and can be compared to the importance of clothing styles or makeup in personal interactions.

Communication on the Internet has moved far beyond the simple emoticons used in text email interactions. Even business networks like LinkedIn can now incorporate visual presentation documents in the member’s profile and applications like Tripit, Amazon reading list, and embedded WordPress blogs (this blog is on my profile). The ways we can now interact online fit very well with the Latino communication preferences. Unfortunately, marketing research has not yet taken full advantage of these new methods of communicating. With the possible exception of some online qualitative research and online research communities that include Facebook style social networks, most of the research that is currently conducted online continues to be static text (read as boring) questionnaires with complicated grids, numeric scales, and unappealing business formatting. This type of research communication, as you can surmise from my writing, does not work very well with Latinos.

Why are we not using visually appealing backgrounds, photographs, sound, and video in online marketing research? In training websites we often see a video of a person who explains what you are looking at on the screen and asks questions. Wouldn’t it be great to have research questionnaires “administered” by a videotaped individual? How about a truly administered survey through a webcam? The technology today even allows us to voice-record open ended responses. When online marketing research catches on with the technology that networks like Facebook use to engage their members, then Latinos will feel more at home in completing an online survey. But in the meantime I may have to continue recommending other methodologies over online for Hispanic research work.

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The Supreme Court Needs Diversity

President Obama’s historic nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the supreme court is a positive step for our country. From what I have read, Sotomayor’s life plays as one of the most inspiring Latino success stories; and her accomplishments exemplify what the American dream is all about. However, despite our country’s foundation on diversity, opinions against diversity continue to rule the land. A heated debate is expected to ensue over how her gender and Hispanic heritage could affect her role as a Supreme Court Justice. Critics worry that her background will influence her interpretation of the law. Of course it will. Just as the upbringing of the other Justices shape their own interpretation of the law. How can it not? Am I the only one who finds this whole line of reasoning absurd?

Any person by human nature bases any decision in life on what they know; and what they know comes from their personal education, background, and experiences. This is why very often there are ethnic clashes. Groups of people who share a similar background and upbringing tend to also share a similar point of view on social interactions and behavior. And ethnic groups will be at conflict when they find that what they understand to be true does not correspond with what people in other ethnic segments think and believe. Diversity is key in understanding one another because it brings to light another person’s point of view. We are more likely to educate one another in the presence of diversity and it allows us to place ourselves in somebody else’s shoes. Does it matter when we are talking about a judge who is supposed to only go by the letter of the law? Of course it does!

Judges are constantly called to make interpretations of the law. What is written is not always clear; and sometimes it is not even written at all. A large part of our “laws” are created through the decisions of judges in our rich history of cases. The system works; and case law is proven effective as more and more judges agree in the interpretation an decisions of similar cases. The ultimate court that is called to interpret the law is, of course, the United States Supreme Court. A case does not make it to the supreme court when the law is clear. The Supreme Court is always called to render an interpretation- an opinion. How can a Justice of the Supreme Court render an Opinion without using their cognitive thinking? And how does anyone do that without relying on what they know? They do; of course, and their background and upbringing is always there backing up every opinion.

When I hear that people do not want a Latino Justice because she may be biased by her gender and background, what I hear is that they do not want opinions rendered by Justices who have experienced something other than an Anglo White American upbringing. They are looking for an assimilated background to shape all interpretations. Why are we so afraid of having a perspective that represents so many other Americans in our country? How many Justices grew up in poor neighborhoods? How many had to find a scholarship to make it to law school? How many experienced the struggles that females face in this country to be at an equal stance with males? How many grew up with the difficulties poised by Hispanic discrimination and managed to rise above it all? The Supreme Court, more than any other court in our nation, must benefit from the understanding and clarity that diversity brings!

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Latinos Communicate at a Spiritual Level

 There is something peculiar about Latino interactions. Our communication goes much further than what is simply verbalized by the spoken words. We prefer to connect at an emotional, or at what I prefer to call a spiritual level. In my work interviewing Latinos I have witnessed this peculiarity in a consistent basis. Latinos generally feel more comfortable dealing with people when there is an established emotional bond among them. Yes, I know, almost everyone does; but Latinos are different in that they seek this emotional connection in almost every daily interaction. The connection with the person is almost more crucial that the verbal communication itself.

Perhaps my point is best described through examples. Have you ever been to a Latino supermarket or neighborhood store? A large supermarket chain in the northeast hired me once to understand why Latinos shop at what they considered to be low quality stores. “We do not get it,” my client said; “we are loosing customers to a store that is not very clean, is totally disorganized, carries very little variety of merchandise, and is more expensive than ours on almost everything!” I visited the Latino store in question and interviewed many of its customer. Their loyalty to the store had little to do with the merchandise they carried or the price point of the products offered; they shopped there because they felt at ease interacting with the employees. Here is a typical customer comment.

“I like coming here because I can talk to the butcher about his family; and the cashier knows who I am. The employees care about me and I care about them. In other places they try to rush you through the check out and do not care to chit-chat. If I am dealing with people, I like to feel like I know them.”

On another project a large insurance company wanted to understand the importance of having Latino sales representatives. They were of the opinion that the most important aspect in selling their services were the details of the plan and their pricing structure. They had translated their brochure into Spanish and were disappointed in the Hispanic receptivity. In talking to their customers and agents over several focus group interviews I, once again, came across the importance of connecting at an emotional level.

“I do not care to read the details of the plan or for the salesperson to give me a dissertation about the benefits. I prefer to deal with a Latino agent because they are more likely to understand what I want. My current agent knows me and my family well and he cares to ask how we are doing. I trust him personally, so I trust that what he recommends is good for me. A friend at work once convinced me to meet with an agent who had a very structured sales presentation; I did not trust him at all.”

A good friend of mine who is not Latino once told me the story of how his company, a liquor company, went about securing a merger with a Mexican brandy manufacturer. A team from the American company was sent to Mexico to finalize the details of the deal with the owner of the Mexican company. Their task was to convince the Mexican owner of the viability of the deal. They were prepared with all their financial backup, analytical charts, reports, and their laptop computers. They were picked up at the airport by an employee of the Mexican company who took them, to their surprise, to the private residence of the company owner. The were greeted there by the owner, a few employees, and the owner’s family. They ate, drank and shared stories with the Mexican family until someone from the American team asked when they were scheduled to discuss business. At that point the owner of the Mexican company said, “I just needed to know you better, they deal is sealed. You can work out the details with my people in the morning.”

All of these examples point out the importance that Latinos place on communicating using something that goes beyond words and facts. In Latino interactions we pay a lot of attention to how we feel about the person we are communicating with and rely heavily on visual, tactual, and other non-verbal cues. Touching, kissing, hugging, storytelling, tangents, and verbalizing feelings are all important components in Latino interactions. Through our unstructured style of telling stories and going on tangents we get to learn about each other. We seem to unconsciously monitor how the other person reacts and pay close attention to how we feel about those reactions. We use exaggerated non-verbal and verbal expressions to communicate feelings because we know how crucial it is to connect at the emotional level. I find that Hispanics do this even if they are not consciously aware of doing it.

In researching Latinos one has to be keenly aware of how Latinos interact and how they prefer to communicate. Not surprisingly, qualitative research works very well with Latinos because it lends itself to our peculiar communication style. Online research, however, is often problematic- not necessarily because Latinos are not online; but rather because the methodology currently relies on very structured text questionnaires and ignores the other important communication components. In a future posting I’ll touch on how Latinos are bringing their unique communication style to the online world and how it is indeed possible to build online spiritual interactions.

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We are not paying enough attention to Latino education!

EducationAll Latino children have a right to be educated. It is the law. Many Americans have argued otherwise because they feel that the children of undocumented [illegal] immigrants should not have the same rights as the children of legal residents and citizens. This line of thinking, however, does not match what our society dictates. If the children of undocumented Latino immigrants were born in the U.S., they are citizens by birth according to the U.S. constitution and entitled to the same educational opportunities given to any other U.S. citizen. If they were born outside of the U.S., they are also entitled to the same education rights according to the U.S. Supreme Court. [In Payler v. Doe it was determined that children of immigrants cannot bear the responsibility for their parents decision to come to the U.S. because they had no control over that decision.] Let us then agree that, according to our social system, all Hispanic children have a right to be educated- regardless of their immigration status. I’ll take that one step further and say that it is not only a matter of legality, it is a matter of necessity. Latino children are an increasingly large percentage of the U.S. children population and their educational attainment will undoubtedly affect the future of our country. I hope you will agree that it is important to pay attention to Latino education; now the question is, are we succeeding in educating Latino children? Many experts feel that we are failing miserably.

Latinos are not at fault. A combination of factors place Latino children are a significant disadvantage compared to other ethnic groups when it comes to education.

  • The statistics show that Hispanic adults have very low levels of education compared to other ethnic groups. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 60% of Hispanics age 25+ were high school graduates in 2004, compared to 89% of non-Hispanic Whites. The parents’ lack of education places the Latino children at a disadvantage. The U.S. Department of education says that the parent’s level of education directly affects their children’s academic performance.
  • Hispanics are poor. According to the U.S. census, the poverty rate of non-Hispanic White children in 2005 was 14%. In contrast, the figure was twice as high for Latino kids- 28%. Poverty means that Latinos have limited resources. What happens if a child cannot see the board in class but does not have a way to obtain eyeglasses? How does coming to school hungry affect their education? How about not having access to healthcare and coming to school with ear infections that go untreated? From lack of prenatal care to growing up in a home without educational toys and books; poverty greatly affects the children’s academic performance.
  • While Hispanics care very much about giving their children the opportunity to succeed, most new immigrants lack a very basic knowledge of what it takes to become successful. I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to college and was constantly reminded that succeeding in life was a very attainable goal. I had good role models. My father grew up poor in a small town in Cuba but managed against all odds to study at the University of Havana and to start his own business when he was still in college. Most Latino children are not that fortunate. Many Hispanic immigrants struggle to make ends meet and do not understand how the American system works or how to guide their children to succeed.
  • Latino children also lack role models in their community. They often live in poor neighborhoods that do not offer the opportunity to relate to successful individuals that can encourage and support their educational achievement. Even sports coaches and other leaders that work with Latino children often lack the ability to guide them appropriately.
  • Hispanic parents do not understand the importance of parental involvement. They do not know that in this country everyone has the ability to get involved and even battle the public education system. My daughter, who is turning four next month, has speech delays. My wife and I had her tested at an early age and she was receiving publicly funded speech therapy since she was two years old. When she turned three we enrolled her in the public school preschool for special needs. This year we noticed that she was not progressing adequately with the speech teacher that was giving her therapy twice a week. My wife argued about her lack of progress and backed everything up with copies of all communication with the teacher. After meeting with the school principal and the case manager we succeeded in getting her assigned to the best speech therapist in the building. Latino parents do not know that they have the ability and the right to advocate for their children that strongly. They often see the school as a distant and powerful institution that “knows” what is best for their children. They are also intimidated by their own lack of education and many who are undocumented do not feel they have a right to get involved.
  • The lack of Hispanic parental involvement is evident in many public schools. Teachers often complain about not being able to communicate with Latino parents and about their lack of participation in school activities, not providing student homework support, and not attending parent-teacher conferences. Parent associations like the PTA also have a hard time recruiting Latino volunteers. The problem is that many Hispanics lack very basic information regarding how the American public schools work. They do not think that it is right to participate because by doing so they feel they would be perceived as going against the school system. I am often told by Hispanics that I interview that they feel inadequate questioning the school on matters regarding education and believe that the school would think negatively of them (and their children) if they do so.
  • Latinos often live in neighborhoods that are dangerous. Safety concerns results in Latino children not participating in extracurricular activities that would necessitate coming home late from school. Drugs and gangs create negative social pressures that drive underachievement. It is a documented fact that children who succeed in school often hang out with other children who are also high achievers. Latinos do not have the opportunity to relate to high achievers in their poor neighborhoods.
  • Sending children to preschool is not the norm in the Latino community; yet many experts have argued that a preschool education is crucial in a child’s academic success. This is especially true if at this early age the children do not have good educational opportunities in their home environment.
  • Hispanic immigrants tend to be very hard workers. They often work hard with the hope of being able to provide a better future for their children. Unfortunately, Latinos often work long hours or at more than one job. Many mothers are single mothers who cannot afford not to work outside of the home. The children find themselves at a disadvantage because they do not have the ideal level of parental support.
  • There is a high correlation between student school performance and their participation in extra-curricular activities. Unfortunately, Latinos students tend not to participate in extracurricular activities because of safety concerns (as mentioned earlier), lack of transportation, and lack of parental support. Those who try to join find that most clubs and sport activities are made up mostly of non-Hispanic Whites and feel out of place being there.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of Latino educational disadvantages. There are many other issues that affect Latino education. If you are interested in this important subject I highly recommend the book The Latino Education Crisis, by Patricia Gándara and Frances Contreras. It is an extremely well written and researched call for action on what they identify as a national crisis. I would like to close this post by quoting a paragraph from this book.

As a group, Latino students today perform academically at levels that will consign them to live as members of a permanent underclass in American society. Moreover, their situation is projected to worsen over time. But as alarming as this is for Latinos, it is equally so for the U.S. population as a whole; neither the economy nor the social fabric can afford to relegate so many young people to the margins of society.

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Please Stop the Senseless Mexican Discrimination!

Our poor Mexican brothers and sisters were the first to fall victim to the Swine Flu. Mexico City was not prepared; there was no alert from the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, the fatalities continue; and to add insult to injury, many in this country are taking the opportunity to blame Mexicans for the virus. I have received various emails and have seen numerous highly insulting comments on websites, articles, and blogs throughout the Internet. Here is what one ignorant poster commented as a response to commentary from an article on The Denver Post website:

I agree with your statement that their race has NOTHING to do with this. The fact that they are here illegally and eminate from a country that has now given us this deadly disease is what matters. The name of the disgusting country means nothing. The fact that our “leaders” allowed million of citizens from a swine-producing third world nation to infiltrate our country means EVERYTHING.

To make things worse on the discrimination front, the WHO has now changed the name of the virus to the Mexican Flu because “most recent research on swine flu has shown that the virus is not caused by pigs.” Many ignorant people, of course, are taking this to mean that the WHO feels it is caused by Mexicans.

The WHO name change comes after an Israeli official, Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, said at a news conference on Monday that the reference to pigs is offensive and “we should call this Mexican flu and not swine flu.” This was also reported in the news yesterday morning on MSNBC. While I appreciate being cognitive of religious sensitivities, Mr. Litzman is not being sensitive to the prejudicial implications of this name change.

At a time of crisis we should be uniting as brothers and sisters in humanity and not being divisive with a foolish show of ignorance and discrimination.

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Why are there so many Americans against Latino immigration?

The U.S. Census reports that the number of American Indians or Alaska natives represents 1.5% of the total population of the United States. The other 98.5% of the American people must, by definition, be composed of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. In a country where almost everyone comes from somewhere else, why are we so insistent on restricting immigration? Who decided that the people already here “legally” are okay to stay, but anyone else does not belong? Unfortunately, most of the resistance is directed towards Latino immigration because we are the newer immigrant group; yet, if you analyze this a bit, Latinos are perhaps more entitled to this land. Please hold on the casting of stones for a minute or two.

Most of the new immigrants coming to our country are Latinos from Mexico and Central America; and most of them end up settling in the Southwest. If you take a good look at the typical Mexican or Central American immigrant you cannot help but notice that they have dark skin, dark hair, and other features that are consistent with the characteristics of the American natives. Many are, in fact, direct descendants of two great native Indian civilizations: the Aztecs and the Mayas. In addition, most of what is now the Southwest was annexed to the U.S. in the 1840s under the so called Manifest Destiny- a mistaken and now outdated belief in which the U.S. was said to be “divinely ordained” to expand its territory by taking over land. Interestingly, most of the land that was annexed under Manifest Destiny was already inhabited by the people we now call Mexicans. Why are we so perturbed today in seeing Mexicans crossing over a border that we imposed on them to reach a land that was originally theirs?

I know, I know, I’m simplifying quite a bit; but I’m just trying to make a point. In reality, the conquest of the West was much more convoluted and one can argue that we were defending Mexicans against other oppressive conquerors like Spain and France. It is also a known fact that Mexicans were on both sides of the conflict. The Battle of the Alamo, for example, was fought by Mexicans on both sides… but I digress. What I’m trying to say here is that if we study the reasons behind the strong feelings against illegal immigration with our analytical side of the brain we may conclude that the only reason why anyone in the U.S. would be opposed to immigration is because it does not make economic sense. However, many analysts have concluded that illegal immigration does not pose a negative effect on the U.S. economy.

The most respected recent studies show that most Americans would notice little difference in their paychecks if illegal immigrants suddenly disappeared from the United States. That’s because most Americans don’t directly compete with illegal immigrants for jobs. … Illegal immigrants seem to have very little impact on unemployment rates. Undocumented workers certainly do take jobs that would otherwise go to legal workers. But undocumented workers also create demand that leads to new jobs. They buy food and cars and cell phones, they get haircuts and go to restaurants. On average, there is close to no net impact on the unemployment rate. … There are places in the United States where illegal immigration has big effects (both positive and negative). But economists generally believe that when averaged over the whole economy, the effect is a small net positive. Harvard’s George Borjas says the average American’s wealth is increased by less than 1 percent because of illegal immigration. (Excerpts from Q&A: Illegal Immigrants and the U.S. Economy by Adam Davidson – NPR / http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5312900)

I propose that the negative feelings against illegal immigration have little to do with what can be surmised using our analytical brain. My contention is that these strong opinions against illegal immigration are being fueled by an emotional response to the way Latino immigration is affecting the American culture. People have difficulty coping with change and it is always hard to simply accept unsolicited change. The Latino culture has grown very rapidly and many Americans feel that their own way of life is being threatened by what foreigners are imposing. And, as I mentioned on my prior post, immigrants are no longer melting into one amalgamated pot. Ignorance regarding the Hispanic culture also results in fear, prejudice, and discrimination.

So, if you are Hispanic and people say to you “why don’t you go back to where you came from?…,” remember that they may not be rejecting you as much as they are trying to protect themselves; but then again, you may have to answer as Paul Rodriguez did in one of his stand-up comedy skits- Do you mean El Paso?

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