Understanding that Latinos in the United States are both 100% American and 100% Latino is the secret to cracking Latino consumer psychology and the Latino vote. Understanding our cultural duality will enable you to enter our hearts, minds, wallets, and gain our unwavering support. However, because our community is SO diverse there are a few exceptions. There are some who identify only as Latino (such as 1st generation Latinos like our abuelos and parents) or only American despite their Latino heritage (#imlookingatyoujessicaalba) but for the most part Latinos are immensely proud of their cultural duality. I’m not dissing the gorgeous Jessica Alba but using her as an example of 3rd+ generation Latinos that identify only has American. In actuality, I have always hated when Latinos have shamed other Latinos for not speaking Spanish or making it a complete blasphemy when they don’t identify as Latino even though they “look Latino” or have Latino surnames. I just want to remind said accusers that Latinos are considered an ethnicity. Think of ethnicity as a social category that organizes a group of people based on cultural identifiers such as a shared history, ancestry, culture, language, or other unique characteristics that are specific to a particular ethnic group. So, not speaking Spanish or identifying as Latino is a matter of culture and culture is not nature but nurture. Knowing what culture is and how it is shapes an individual is important to understanding how one ends up identifying as both Latino and American.
What is culture?
E.B. Taylor, one of the founding fathers of cultural anthropology, defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” People learn their culture from growing up and living among a particular group….[and is] necessary to make human individuals into complete persons.¹Cultural anthropologists often use the term culture to emphasize the unique or most distinctive aspects of a people’s customs and beliefs.² So in this case, Latino culture is the beliefs and customs that make our culture different from other people.
On cultura latina
The biggest problem marketers, politicians, or anyone interested in breaking into our market have is that they think of Latino culture in terms of stereotypes. Culture is not stereotypes. Understanding what culture is and how it influences individuals is the first step in understanding Latinos beyond stereotypes. Once you understand what culture is you know what nuances and subtleties to look for that will enable you to connect and resonate with Latinos. Latino culture is not familia, comida, música, fútbol and the other banalities associated with Latinos. To reduce our culture to something so trite is doing a disservice to Latinos and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of our rich culture, contribution, history, and who we are as people. To foster this absurdly oversimplified mentality is lazy and undeserving of our money and support. Latino culture, for bicultural Latinos, is a two-dimensional lens by which they view the world; it’s both an American and Latino a way of life and a way of thinking that enables them to create the Latino experience.
So how is it that you become 100% Latino and 100% American? You are born here or brought here during your early, formative years and you live two cultures simultaneously: one at home and one outside of your home. Straddling both worlds shapes you into who you are and equips you with a fluency in both cultures: one from your Latino culture which could be Puerto Rican, Mexican, Venezuelan, or Colombian, for example and the other an American one. Because of their duality, Latinos adjust how they behave based on who they are with. With family, it’s the kiss on the cheek hello, the usage of español to talk about how abuelita is doing, política de america latina, it’s all about the cultural references that tie us together. With friends it’s that fist bump, Calvin Harris concert, watching Game of Thrones, Instagramming that weekend trip, talk of career goals, and all those other hilarious groserías that would make their parents both weep and horrified but make for a tight-knit group of friends. Completely outside of their periphery, it’s the more guarded version of themselves with the cultural nuances and subtleties that only the discerning mind can pick up on. It’s the same person but the only difference is what side they express. Living in two cultures makes Latinos feel they have a stake in both which is why the American agenda is their agenda too. It is important to know that bicultural Latinos aren’t static, their interests change because American trends are constantly in flux.
In Defense Of Latinos Who Say “Soy Solamente Latino” or “I’m 100% American”
Don’t tell anyone who they are or who they aren’t. For Latinos living in the United States but staunchly identify as 100% Latino, understand that their upbringing is what enables them to take on this identity. Being from a Latin American country or being raised in a predominantly Latino environment equips you with a deeply engrained way of thinking, talking, and acting to the point that adopting American culture as a part of your DNA would be foreign and strange. This type of Latino views American culture as something that doesn’t relate to them. The United States is just where they happen to live and a land of opportunity.
For Latinos like Jessica Alba who identify only as 100% American, don’t shame them and accuse them of hating or “denying” a culture they weren’t even raised in and consequently don’t understand. Jessica Alba explained that she wasn’t raised to speak Spanish, had a very American upbringing, and never really identified as Latina because her grandparents and parents neither spoke Spanish or identified with Latino culture. She said that to identify a Latina actress would not be true and “insincere” of her to appropriate a culture she wasn’t raised in. The politically correct police charged her with being a “self-hating Mexican” and “denying” her Latino heritage. There would not have been such a backlash had people understood that culture is something acquired from the environment you were raised in and NOT how brown you are or what Latino last name you carry.
¿Y que de español? Speaking our language to connect with us is important but not as important as being culturally relevant. Sure, speaking Spanish brings you to our level and lets us know that you understand us in our language but not using Spanish at the right time, in the right context, and in a relevant way will get you no where with Latinos. Knowing who we are as a people, understanding our needs, and appealing to us in a culturally relevant way is what matters to us the most. If you do those three, Spanish then becomes a powerful medium to engage us in an authentic way.
With 55% of Latinos identifying as both Latino and American it is important to create content, products, and policy that is reflective of this duality. If you take anything away from this post is that you should not view Latino culture as something that limits and isolates those who are born in the United States or brought here at an early age. Considering yourself both Latino and American isn’t something mutually exclusive. This duality makes for a cultural fluency that enables us to connect with all living in the United States.
¹ ²Humanity: An Introduction to Cultural Anthropology (10th edition) by James Peoples and Garrick Bailey