Hispanics and Racial Identity

February 26, 2012 Author: Roy Eduardo Kokoyachuk

“I never dated a Hispanic before.” I heard these words from a girl in college that I was courting. Her words stopped me cold. I was wondering where this “Hispanic” was and realized it was me.

I’m Argentinean of Ukrainian descent on my father’s side and Slovenian, Spanish and Italian on my mother’s side. We moved to Chicago when I was four and lived in the Ukrainian Village where I attended a Ukrainian Catholic grammar school and was an altar boy in the Ukrainian church. For much of my childhood I identified as Ukrainian even though we spoke Spanish at home. I knew what it meant to be Argentinean and Ukrainian but I had no idea what being Hispanic meant.

Technically, however, as someone who was born in Latin America I was and am Hispanic so I spent the next few years of my life trying to figure out what that meant. Perhaps this personal search for identity is what led me to Hispanic market research as a career. I remember being ashamed at being offered a college scholarship for Hispanics since I was probably one of the whitest kids on campus. I suppose it would have been easier to be Hispanic if I “looked” Hispanic or had an accent other than the Chicago accent I seem to have. But that, of course, is also fraught with complications since there’s no agreed upon Hispanic “race” and accents are not indicative of a person’s level of acculturation. In terms of appearance, the stereotypical tanned skinned Hispanic look holds for a certain percentage of the U.S. Hispanic population but it’s not representative when including Afro-Caribbeans, Latin American Asians or European descent Hispanics from the Southern Cone such as myself.

I’m not the only Hispanic to be surprised by the label in the U.S.. A former co-worker of mine of Mexican descent once told me she didn’t know she was Hispanic until she came to the U.S. Outwardly she presents as an attractive woman with brown hair, dark brown eyes and light brown skin. In Mexico she considered herself white. Most Americans, however, would label her as Hispanic or Latina.

So what does this racial mix mean to U.S. marketers and those that wish to communicate with U.S. Hispanics? It’s certainly a complicated issue and one that few people feel comfortable talking about but it needs to be addressed otherwise mistakes and miscommunications will occur. I’m reminded of a news article a couple years ago of a Southern Californian politician holding a fund raiser in Miami and repeatedly referring to his audience as “people of color”. A Cuban American in the audience finally raised her hand and said “What color are you referring to? We Cubans are White.”

Recently, a Colombian woman told me she resented seeing so many “dark people” in U.S. Spanish language commercials. She said “We Latinos are not all Indians, there should be more whites.” Interestingly, television commercials in Mexico have a higher percentage of White actors in them than their proportion in the population would indicate. I’m told this is because for a large portion of the Mexican population the consumer goods they’re advertising are ‘aspirational’ and showing Whites using them makes the goods advertised more appealing.

It’s clear that there is no one-race-fits-all when it comes to communicating with U.S. Hispanics. Marketers need to be cognizant of what message the race of the actors/models used in ads are conveying. If it becomes obvious that only actors that have brown hair, eyes and skin were chosen for an ad this might elicit a negative reaction like the one the Colombian girl mentioned previously. If everyone is white, Hispanics might feel that the advertiser didn’t care enough to include people that looked like them. Therefore, I believe marketers should embrace the racial diversity that exists in the U.S. Hispanic community and portray a mix of races in their ads since this would be truly reflective of the U.S. Hispanic reality.

Roy Eduardo Kokoyachuk
ThinkNow Research