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So You Think You Really Know Spanish

From Diestepedia: A Closer Look at 'Espanol' in the U.S. Market

Published on . 14

[Editor's note: Diestepedia is a wiki of Hispanic phrases and culture created by Dieste. From time to time, we'll pick up an entry as the agency works its way through the alphabet. "Authenticity" was the first entry and "Bicultural" the second.]

As Diestepedia moves along the alphabet, it is time to tackle the ever eloquent "E" for Español. The Spanish language is the second most-common language in the U.S. after English. According to the 2007 Census American Community Survey, Spanish is the primary language spoken at home by more than 34 million people in the U.S.

At first glance, "Español" may seem like a fairly straightforward word. But when we really explore the role that language plays in the U.S. Hispanic experience, the richness begins to emerge.

1) Language as Differentiator

Hispanic vs. American
There was a time when it was practically illegal to speak Spanish in public in parts of of the U.S. During the same post-war period that led up to the Civil Rights movement, there was a repressive and prejudicial attitude and in some cases, legal restrictions, in the West and Southwest that often prohibited, or at the very least limited, Hispanic citizens and residents from speaking Spanish in public. In a disturbing precursor to some of the arguments we hear today from anti-immigration activists, Minutemen border watchers and conservative Republicans like Pat Buchanan, it was believed that speaking Spanish was tantamount to being ignorant, uneducated and somehow flaunting the social imperative to "act like an American."

Generation vs. generation
As a result of this linguistic persecution, we see an entire generation of U.S. Hispanics born to parents who thought of Spanish as a private practice and a public liability. There are quite a few members of this generation who don't speak, or barely speak Spanish, trained by their parents to focus on English in order to get ahead and fit in better than they themselves had. As speaking Spanish has become more generally accepted and even valued, the linguistic gap that separates these generations is emerging as a source of cultural tension that is partly driving the "retro-acculturation" phenomenon we are seeing more and more frequently. Retro-acculturation is commonly defined as the practice of adult Hispanics wanting to learn or improve their Spanish, learn more about their family histories and to take ownership of Hispanic cultural practices that have either been co-opted as stereotypes or simply relegated to private "intra-family" practices.

The birth of a marketing industry
In the minds of some, the Hispanic marketing industry was born out of the proposition that there was a part of the population that was not being served through English-language media. Consequently, the U.S. marketing landscape was divided into those who speak Spanish and consume Spanish-language media and those who don't. While this binary framework has certainly evolved to take into account linguistic and cultural shades of gray and nuance, the model that most people in the industry still use to target, plan and place media relies almost entirely on a spectrum of degrees of speaking or not speaking Spanish to differentiate and implicate levels of progression along the continuum of acculturation.

Que dijiste?
For those of us who have lived in Latin America, or are originally from there, a discussion about colonial-engendered classism, indigenous discrimination and influence, social hierarchy and cultural and linguistic rivalries between countries will come as no revelation. And these social and cultural features define and shape the broad, diverse, nuanced thing that we call Spanish.

One word can have dramatically different meanings and pronunciations within one country and throughout Latin America. A Mexican sitting down to dinner with a group of Chilenos or Cubans may understand little more than a non-Spanish speaker if they are speaking in slang, colloquialisms and country- or region-specific aphorisms.

For years one of the biggest challenges for marketers targeting the Hispanic market has been about achieving a delicate balance between relevance and commonality. If we use Puerto Rican slang, will we offend the Domincans, Cubans and Mexicans in the same market? If we are too "current" and popular will we seem to "Naco" for the older and higher income consumers? Famous cases of language slip-ups and lack of sensitivity haunt the halls of most all Hispanic agencies that have been around any significant period of time.

2) Language as Unifier
While Latin America is very diverse and the immigrant population in the U.S. is extremely diverse, increasingly issues like immigration, labor laws and Pan Latino political power have created a sense of unity among Spanish speakers in the U.S.

A pan-Latino stand
Most of us remember the immigration reform protests that took center stage in the cultural and media landscape in 2006. Millions of people, with 500,000 in Los Angeles alone, participated in protests over a proposed reform to U.S. immigration policy which would raise penalties for illegal immigration and classify illegal immigrants and anyone who helped them enter or remain in the U.S. as felons. Key figures in Spanish-language media, like radio personality Eddie "Piolin" Sotelo, rallied listeners to attend planned protests and take a united stand.

These protests marked a kind of cultural sea change in that they reached across the diverse Latino population in the U.S. to unite classes, countries of origin and socio-economic levels in taking a stand against legislation that criminalized immigrants. The role of Spanish-language media and the role that the Spanish language played in the protests themselves, with signs proclaiming "Somos Americanos!" and "Justicia y Dignidad" were critical in defining and mobilizing the movement.

Obamanos! Si Se Puede!
The Latino population, particularly Hispanic youth, played a pivotal role in the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Much like the 2006 immigrant rights marches, a unified Pan-Latino movement swept across the U.S. provoking strong participation from all echelons of the U.S. Hispanic population. We were witness to the flexing of Hispanic political power in the form of a national Hispanic get-out-the-vote effort through grassroots and Spanish-language media channels.

3) Language as Culture
Language is more than just a way to communicate, more than just a means of transmitting information. Language, in and of itself has meaning, style, and personality. We joke that you can tell someone is speaking Spanish even if you can't hear them from the way they move their hands and their expression. This is more than a different way of saying things. This is a manifestation of culture, this is an act of culture. And you can say things in Spanish that you simply cannot say in English. You can try to translate, you can even come close, but you cannot fully arrive at the meaning, the energy, the cultural richness of some terms, some phrases, some ideas and because of this, we see an increased need to think about language as a cultural tool. For example, in the Pablo Neruda poem below, you can see that the translation is close, it tells us about the same thing that the Spanish original does, but it misses something. Some energy, texture and even meaning is lost in translation. Culture, sometimes, cannot be pried apart from language

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

I like it when you're quiet. It's as if you weren't here now,
and you heard me from a distance, and my voice couldn't reach you.
It's as if your eyes had flown away from you, and as if
your mouth were closed because I leaned to kiss you.

4) Language as currency.
When did it become so cool to be Latino? In our increasingly multicultural environment, it's important to be able to bring something to the cultural table. Language, music, style, cultural practices -- these are the currencies with which people define their identities and establish social capital. Particularly among the Hispanic youth population, we see language play a key role as part of a cultural awakening. Language is becoming a medium through which to experiment with style, play with bilingualism, and broadcast a certain kind of multicultural plasticity that is pushing Latino culture to the forefront of American culture.

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