Is There Such a Thing as Hispanic Identity? Despite All the Variety, Yes.

A Pew Study Shows That Certain Values Will Outlast Shifts That Come With Acculturation

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Is there such a thing as a common Hispanic culture? The Pew Hispanic Center just released a study suggesting that , considering how Hispanics identify themselves, the answer may be no.

We know there is great diversity within the U.S. Hispanic population. Pew's biggest finding is the paucity of U.S. Hispanics who identify with the label "Hispanic" or "Latino." Only a quarter. Half of Hispanics identify more strongly with their family's country of origin. And another 21% said that they use the term "American" most often to describe themselves. When asked whether Hispanics have many different cultures or if they share a common culture, 69% indicated the former.

Are we then fooling ourselves when we attempt to market to a segment that we call Hispanic, but that doesn't perceive itself that way? I don't think so.

Much in the study suggests that a common Hispanic culture does exist. Some 95% of Hispanics believe it is important for future generations of U.S. Hispanics to speak Spanish, an interesting finding given that less than half of third-generation Hispanics indicated that they speak Spanish. But 87% say that it is important for Hispanic immigrants to learn English.

Some things, like language and identity, change with acculturation. Two-thirds of Hispanic immigrants in the study say that they think in Spanish, while 80% of third-generation Hispanics answered that they think in English. Two-thirds of the native born responded that they think of themselves as typical Americans, while two-thirds of the foreign born said that they were "very different" from typical Americans.

Yet the study reveals that other things, such as attitudes and values, have more staying power. For instance, with acculturation, Hispanics are more likely to agree that most people can be trusted. Yet even third-generation Hispanics are much less likely to agree than the general population. Similarly, third-generation Hispanics were much more likely than the general population to agree that people can get ahead with hard work or that bigger government is a good thing.

For more acculturated Hispanics, it may be their values, rather than the traditional markers of ethnicity, such as language and cultural differences, that set them apart from the mainstream. First and foremost may be the importance of family. When asked to compare life in the United States to their country of origin, the United States fared better on all measures but one: "the strength of family ties."

As a higher and higher percentage of the U.S. Hispanic population is native born, the traditional approaches of targeting Hispanics -- language and culture -- will become more difficult. As the Pew study demonstrates, those born in the United States will identify themselves increasingly as American, especially as the term becomes less associated with "white." They will come to prefer English. But it will be a long time before family ceases to be a central part of their identity.

That Hispanics are family-oriented has become a well worn cliche, and the image of "abuelita" (grandma) has been overused by Hispanic marketers. Yet as we grapple with the question of how to target the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants now and in the future, it seems clear that appealing to Hispanic values will play a prominent role, precisely because they are the most durable aspects of Hispanic identity.

Yes, Hispanics are diverse, but there is much to be found in the Pew study to support the argument that despite the myriad variations -- country of origin, acculturation and socioeconomics -- there is a common culture. Central to that culture is a belief in hard work, the valuation of the Spanish language and at the top of the list, love of family. The art of developing targeted messages for Hispanics will evolve as the demographics of the population change. But it will take a lot more than three generations for marketing communications evoking these traditional Hispanic cultural pillars to lose their power.

David Morse is president-CEO of New American Dimensions and the author of Multicultural Intelligence: Eight Make-or-Break Rules for Marketing to Race, Ethnicity, and Sexual Orientation
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