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Misunderstanding U.S. Hispanics?

When in 1984 I began working with U.S. Hispanics, I was not such a creature yet. To the best of my knowledge, I was simply a Cuban at that time. A friend of mine who had recently arrived from Mexico, felt the same. She saw herself as a Mexican.

Going deeply into the heart of the community as a journalist, making new friends from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Spain and other countries, I eventually became a member of this largest minority group in the United States. But over 20 years later, I still ask myself what a Hispanic or a Latino is. Is the Hispanic community a nationality? Is it a religious group? Is it a racial or ethnic group? Or as the romantic ones say, is it a sentiment?

If you are a professional trying to marketing something to Hispanics/Latinos, answers to these questions would pay off because there are over 43 million Hispanics/Latinos in the United States with a purchasing power of more than $800 billion a year. Almost 16 million U.S. Hispanics are on the Internet, a cyberpopulation that outpaces those of Mexico, Spain, Argentina and Colombia.

Obviously the Hispanic community is not a national group as it is made up by people from 20 nationalities. It is not a racial group since you can find White Hispanics, Black Hispanics, Asian Hispanics, and Indian Hispanics. Although they are mostly Catholics, they are not a religious group. You can also find other Christian Hispanics who are not Catholics, as well as Jewish Hispanics, Muslim Hispanics, Hispanics with African religious roots as Yorubas and Lucumies, and Hispanics practicing indigenous rituals as Mayans and Aztecas.

Of course, you have probably met Chicanos, New York Ricans, Cuban Americans or many other Hispanics born in the United States whose understanding of Latin roots may be different from Hispanics who immigrate to America. Do not take a Mexican American for a Mexican, because they are not alike. Stop thinking of a New York Rican as if he or she were a Puerto Rican.

If you are not a Hispanic and this is confusing to you, you are not alone. In the early 80s a Los Angeles newspaper printed a story on U.S. Congressman Edward Roybal, a Mexican American politician. The paper said Roybal was a Puerto Rican. It was so annoying because we are talking about a Spanish-language newspaper and about a story written by a Mexican journalist.

Most experts say the Hispanic community is an ethnic group. According to the World Book Dictionary the word "ethnic" means "having to do with the various racial and cultural groups of people and the characteristics, language, and customs of each..." Not enough, but pretty close to what experts say about Hispanics. The dictionary reminds that the word has Latin roots after 'ethnicus' and Greek roots after 'ethnikós,' and that 'ethnos' means nation.

However, we find that most Mexicans have nothing to do with the African roots of Caribbean nations, while most Cubans have no relation with Mayan roots from Mexico and Central America, and most South Americans have nothing to do neither with African nor Mayan roots. But you can find a Mexican loving 'salsa' music; a Cuban enjoying 'fajitas,' a delicious Mexican food; both a Mexican and a Cuban reading books by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez; and Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans watching movies made by Academy Award winner Pedro Almodovar, a Spanish filmmaker.

The point is that Hispanics coming from Latin America share a common language, Spanish; they share a common history as their countries were colonized for three centuries by Spain, a nation that left them a legacy of language, traditions that mixed with indigenous customs, a way to organize the society and do business, and a religion that was also a reference to understand the world. Spain also colonized Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. So those U.S. states had Spanish roots even before becoming Mexican states in the early 1820s, and before becoming American states in the late 1840s.

On the other hand, Hispanics of second and third generations use English as their first language and share traditions with Anglos, African Americans and Hispanic immigrants they live with, as part of the mainstream. They didn't grow up with "Chespirito" on their TV sets but with "I Love Lucy". They don't know Latin soap opera celebrities but they are pretty aware of what Andy Garcia, Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek are doing in Hollywood.

Two decades after sitting for the first time in a Spanish-language newsroom in Los Angeles, I prefer to believe that the U.S. Hispanic community is a cultural group made up by several ethnicities. Not racially nor ethnically but culturally homogeneous, Hispanics along with Anglos, African Americans, American Indians and Asians are building up a new mainstream across the United States. Corporate America knows it, politicians know it.

If you are non-Hispanic needing to learn how to deal with Hispanics, begin with a simple step used in 1976 by succesful businesswoman Tere Zubizarreta, founder of Zubi Advertising. It was a wise slogan for her company: "Erase Stereotypes."

But if you are a Hispanic taking for granted what you think Hispanics are, do two things: first, read this article once again; secondly, "erase stereotypes."

(Hernandez Cuellar is Editor in Chief of Contacto Magazine, Contacto News Service and Contacto PR News. Since 1984, he has also been Metro Editor of Noticias del Mundo, Diario de Los Angeles and La Opinion in Los Angeles, California, contributing writer with Spain's international news agency EFE and Instructor at UCLA's Department of Journalism and Public Relations.)

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