Archive for Acculturation & Assimilation

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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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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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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“U.S. Hispanics need to learn to speak English!” Says who?

Many people get very upset when they hear of someone who has been in this country for years and does not speak any English; and the failure to learn English appears to be increasingly more prevalent among Hispanics. It seems to be an issue that strikes a chord with many Americans. “Why are they not making an effort to learn to speak English like all other immigrants did?” I venture to say that the main reason why many Latinos are not learning English as fast as others did before is because our society no longer requires it. That’s right; my contention is that, as a society, we give Latinos permission to keep their culture and language; and consequently, learning English becomes much more difficult than what other immigrants experienced years ago.

When other big immigration groups came into this country a few generations ago the situation was very different from what it is today. Many early immigrants made the hard decision to come to America with an understanding that they were breaking ties with their old country. Learning a new culture and a new language was not a choice. Our society was a true melting pot and immigrants were expected to fully assimilate into the American culture. They complied. Ever wonder why the children and grandchildren of the Italian immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island in the late 1800s never learned how to speak Italian? These early immigrants understood the importance of becoming American in every respect; and that included speaking only English. Speaking Italian was not important; in fact, it was detrimental in a society that expected assimilation- but things have changed; and assimilation is no longer expected. We are no longer melting into one pot because we no longer believe in that antiquated idea of the melting pot.

It amazes me how the same people who are troubled when everyone around them is speaking Spanish will turn to me and remark on how “important” it is that I teach my children Spanish. “You should speak Spanish to them at home,” they will say. While I wholeheartedly agree that it is important for Latinos to teach their children how to speak Spanish, I want to emphasize that this was never important before. The American society now understands that we live in a multicultural world and that knowing more than one language is beneficial. Our society now also supports (and even exalts) diversity. It is now considered appropriate to uphold and celebrate diversity, especially when it comes to culture and ethnicity. Forcing everyone to melt into one homogeneous pot is no longer considered appropriate.

While our country was founded on the idea of diversity, the practice of diversity was never as alive as it is today. With diversity comes not only permission to speak the language of our ancestors, but also the empowerment to maintain every aspect of our ethnicity. The American society promotes this understanding at many different levels. At a commercial level Latinos see most product labels and instructions written in English and Spanish; ATM machines ask us for our language of preference; and telephone companies insist that we keep in touch with our relatives in Latin America. From a government perspective most services are also offered and/or communicated in Spanish. At a community level there are hundreds of neighborhoods across the country were everyone speaks Spanish. Can someone in one of these neighborhoods get along perfectly well without ever having to learn English? Absolutely! Our society allows it.

We cannot as a society promote diversity and the use of the Spanish language and then wonder why some Latinos are having difficulty learning English. Everyone knows that it is much easier to learn a foreign language when you live in a foreign country and are immersed in a society that only speaks that language. In our society we speak English; but we also speak Spanish. For some Latinos learning English while living in a neighborhood where everyone speaks Spanish is akin to an American student taking a foreign language in school and not grasping it because nobody around them speaks that language. We need to stop pretending that our society expects Latinos to speak English when everything is laid out to make it easy for these new immigrants not to learn the language.

NOTE: Please do not take this opinion to mean that I do not feel that Hispanics should learn the English language. I believe that speaking English in our society is extremely important and encourage everyone in our Latino community to make every effort to learn the language. Being able to speak English opens the door to a myriad of new opportunities for success and paves the way to achieving the always cherished American dream.

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Why do most Hispanics stay poor?

At our LinkedIn group discussion a member expressed his disagreement with my ealier post Latinos Are Too Focused on Material Success stating that “the numbers do not show it.”  That is true.  Interestingly, I just came across an article I wrote for Quirks Magazine, which was published in April, 1998.  Eleven years later some of what I wrote there still applies.  Here is a segment of the article pertaining to why Hispanics stay poor.  For the whole article please go here.


The U.S. is the land of opportunity. Over the years, immigrants from all over the world have come to this country and managed to work hard to improve their economic situation. What is different about the Hispanic immigrants? To answer that question, you have to take into account the fact that the times have changed. Today ’s immigrants do not arrive here by breaking all ties with their homelands. While just a century ago people would take a long boat trip across the Atlantic to get to this country, today’s immigrants can move here overnight and go back to visit the following week. They never have to lose touch. From the airlines to the telephone to the television and even the Internet, new immigrants can keep in touch with their homeland.

Even in this country, the Hispanic community keeps in touch by creating its own home away from home. Hispanics have Spanish television, can read most product labels in Spanish, can easily purchase their favorite ethnic food at the local supermarket or bodega, and can socialize with others who speak their language and share their culture. This is indeed very different from the old melting pot culture where immigrants forced their children to forget their mother tongue and become part of the new culture. Hispanics place a high value on being able to maintain their customs, language, and culture. The U.S. freedom allows it, and it is indeed attractive. Yet, I argue that not “melting into the pot” creates a difficult situation that leads to lower income.

By insisting on being “different,” Latinos are promoting discrimination. When Puerto Ricans wear their flag on everything from their cars to their T-shirts, they are making a statement that says, “I am proud of my heritage,” but it is often read as “I am not part of this country.” That leads to a common reaction: “Well, get the heck out!” which is also known as discrimination. Discrimination often leads to a lower income. This is especially true of Hispanic communities that consist of individuals with minimal education and labor skills. These communities depend on the jobs provided by members of an outside community. The number of Hispanic businesses that provide job opportunities to their own community is extremely low, compared to other ethnic groups like Asian Americans. There are exceptions. One, of course, is the Cuban community in Miami, whose Hispanic-owned businesses hire four times as many people than Hispanic- owned businesses in New York City.

Besides discrimination, there are other factors that affect income. To keep their culture, Hispanics often move near other Hispanics in typical Latino neighborhoods. Some of these neighborhoods have deteriorated — victims of crime and drug problems. To complicate matters, public education systems in many Latino neighborhoods are overcrowded and underfinanced. As a result, Hispanic young people are not receiving an equal education. Since English is not the language of choice in most Hispanic neighborhoods, and the schools are not adequate, many Latinos are not proficient enough in English to obtain decent employment. What is worse, because Spanish is not taught in school, many Hispanic Americans grow up not knowing how to read and write in Spanish.

Despite my contention that Latinos would be better off financially if they tried to blend into the American culture, I don ’ t agree with that approach. Looking at the situation from an economic standpoint you must give value to the desire of Hispanics to keep their customs, language and culture. I argue that this value is so high that it justifies whatever negative effects may occur — discrimination, lower income, or even bad neighborhoods. Since the Hispanic population continues to grow at a higher rate than any other minority group, these problems will eventually disappear. Even today, Spanish culture is quickly becoming ingrained into the American culture. Tacos are now as popular as hot dogs and hamburgers in the typical American diet, and Spanish words are becoming part of the American language — ¿Comprende?

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