Heritage Today, Gone Tomorrow

Remembering the Pioneers of U.S. Hispanic Marketing

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
On Sept. 12, in Beverly Hills, U.S. Hispanic advertising agencies concluded a successful two-day conference called "Look Who's Leading." The co-chairs, Pablo Buffagni of Conill and Florencia Davidzon of Casanova Pendrill, kicked things off with the Tom Peters quote "Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders." This was followed by an inspiring keynote speech about one of the most influential Latina voices in America today, Dora the Explorer.

That same evening, as the celebratory conclusion to the 10th annual conference of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies, the industry's best and brightest gathered for Advertising Age's Hispanic Creative Awards. A virtual who's who of creative and management leadership mingled with young, up-and-coming talent from throughout the U.S. and the Americas. I highly recommend you check out the winning work.

Meanwhile, in Washington, George W. Bush proclaimed mid-September to mid-October as National Hispanic Heritage Month. This would be his eighth and final proclamation for this national observation. It started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. It is often believed that this 30-day window encompasses the independence days of the majority of Latin American countries. In fact, only about eight Latin American countries celebrate their independence during that time. Dia de la Raza and Columbus Day also fall into this window, as do the Jewish High Holidays -- at least most of the time. While the Jewish reference may seem like a random digression, in my mind it is part of why I'm feeling particularly open to personal and cultural reflection at this moment in time.

Inspired by the intersection of AHAA's conference theme of leadership with the start of Hispanic Heritage month, I am moved to take a moment to "recognize the many Americans of Hispanic descent who have made outstanding contributions to our Nation." It is with these exact words that the 2008 Hispanic Heritage Month presidential proclamation begins. And, since I'm writing this on Sunday night, as "Mad Men" is about to begin, I am further moved to recognize the outstanding contributions of Hispanic Americans from within the advertising community, specifically the pioneers who all too often are left out of the conversation.

They are unknown in so-called general market circles. Left out of museum and library exhibits celebrating their non-Latino peers. And even within our own Hispanic marketing community, many have either been forgotten or have all too often been unfairly characterized as hucksters and shysters; too often viewed as con men instead of honored as Mad Men. I'm all too aware that our industry's early history is filled with stereotypically smoke-filled rooms, sexual harassment and a loyalty to the Spanish language that is often ridiculed as shamefully manipulative and old-school. Having been part of this history, and being well aware of the good, the bad and the ugly, I still feel moved to celebrate our advertising heritage and suggest that we need to own our history and embrace our past, flaws and all.

The leadership of yesterday fueled the leadership of today, and judging by the level of work shown at this year's dynamic Ad Age Hispanic Creative Awards and the insightful HispanicAd.com Planning awards, a fine group of new leaders and new talent has emerged. Yesterday's leaders did a great deal right, but they are rarely given credit. Instead they are criticized for their role in creating an image and identity of Hispanic USA that makes us wince with a degree of embarrassment and shame. Watch "Mad Men." The Anglo consumer was pretty one-dimensional back in the day as well. In spite of how early Hispanic agencies are often portrayed, the fact is that they were Spanish-language shops by choice not by lack of competence.

Does anyone really believe that these early agency owners were not aware of the English-speaking Hispanic consumer? For goodness' sake, who do you think was on their staff? It wasn't an exclusively Spanish-dominant reality. These weren't uneducated men and women. They understood the numbers and the politics and the priorities of business ownership and client challenges, budgeting issues and simple segmentation at the consumer level. They chose to be Spanish-language agencies. They chose to make that their focus and leave the English-dominant Latinos out of the equation. Not because they thought they didn't exist, but because the business model of the early Hispanic ad agency was highly targeted -- it was designed to cater to the untapped, often marginalized or invisible Spanish speakers. It was designed to give clients access to that very specific and, at the time, demographically dominant world. These pioneering men and women knew exactly what they were doing, wrong or right. And it wasn't long before there were those who opted to expand the business model and employ bilingualism and biculturalism as a competitive edge. The founders of this industry weren't losers or lunatics. They were leaders. I don't think that gets said often enough. OK -- some were lunatics too. For god's sake, to do what they did, you had to be.

It is said by some that "heritage" is whatever each one of us individually or collectively wishes to preserve and pass on to the next generation. If we want to preserve something, then it is our heritage. In honor of Hispanic heritage month, I want to preserve the ingenuity, innovation and inspiration that came from those who came before us. Names like Alarcon, Anselmo, Barba, Caballero, Castor, Conill, Cubas, Diaz-Albertini, Dillon, Echevarria, Egas, Font, Lozano, Sosa, Villar and Zubi are just a few that come to mind. These were just some of the men and women, living and deceased, who truly were the first to do things that we often think are being done for the first time today. They made their share of mistakes. As do we all. But they navigated uncharted territory and paved the road on which we now travel with relative ease. Even if it's just for the month, find time to speak to someone who was there. As an industry, it's time that we reflect on our heritage with pride and celebrate our progress without putting down our past.
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