National Treasure

In dark-lit rooms across the country, behind a two-way mirror with a notebook in my hand, I have been listening as Latinos tell their stories. Like most two-way mirrors, this one both conceals and reflects. The people gathered around the polished conference tables drinking sodas and munching snacks are there to talk about their shopping preferences and habits in the American consumer marketplace. Comprised of men and women, young and old, married and single, the subjects in these focus groups talk freely and frankly about what they buy and why, who they do it with, and how they feel about it. They laugh and trade stories, in English and Spanish and sometimes a mix of both, glancing every once and a while at their reflection, unable to hide their curiosity about the invisible, nameless witnesses just a few feet away.

But the scene on other side of the looking glass is just as revealing. Hunched over laptops and clutching cups of coffee, executives from Fortune 1000 companies hang on every word and gesture. Their job is to unravel the riddle of the Hispanic consumer, an economic juggernaut that is fast approaching the trillion dollar mark. Faced with the inevitable reality of a nation in which one in every four Americans is Hispanic, their quest to understand what makes Latino consumers tick has evolved over the past two decades from indifference, to mild curiosity, to grudging interest, to a desperate, insatiable need to know. They have come to watch and listen because they realize that any company or corporation that fails to understand the multicultural markets of the 21st century is doomed.

The arsenal of cutting-edge research methods being trained on Latino consumers is qualitative and quantitative, anecdotal and anthropological. Latinos are being measured for implicit biases with the latest psychological techniques, followed into malls, stores and their own homes, their every move recorded, coded and dissected. But in their quest to crack the Hispanic market, the researchers have already encountered an unexpected and vexing obstacle: the Latino consumers are as diverse and complex—maybe even more so—than the old mainstream market that they are poised to replace.

More than 30 years after the U.S. government adopted the term Hispanic to identity individuals with common links to Latin America and Spain, the size and scope of the U.S. Latino experience has outgrown any single definition. As Latinos emerge and evolve, one of the first myths to fall is the notion that Hispanics can be categorized as a distinct ethnic group with an orderly set of identifiable traits. Latinos come from dozens of different countries and speak several languages. They are of any race, rich and poor, native born and newly arrived.

The only thing more dangerous than ignoring Hispanics is assuming that there is a single psychographic key to the Latino consumer treasure chest. Hispanics are anything but monolithic in their tastes and behaviors, and the linguistic and cultural roots that bind them can also mask wide social, economic and political differences. Do acculturated, bilingual Latinos really want their media and marketing served to them in Spanish or even Spanglish? Maybe not. Or maybe only at certain times and in certain ways. The answer is contextual, contradictory, conditional–anything but conventional.

As the 2008 presidential elections loom, some politicians could be on the verge of learning that lesson the hard way. In 2004, the assumption by Democrats that Latinos were naturally left-leaning overlooked the socially-conservative, family-centric values of many Hispanics and allowed George W. Bush to capture a record 40% of the Latino vote. This time around, the rabid anti-immigration rhetoric of the Republican right may be erasing those gains. Recent polls suggest that immigration has become a hot button for registered Hispanic voters , the majority of whom say that the Democratic party is doing a better job on the issue than Republicans. But any Democrat who thinks that Hispanics are in the bag could be in for a rude awakening. While a Pew Hispanic Center poll released at the end of 2007 found that 53% of Latinos worried that they or someone close to them could be deported, the number dropped to 32% among native-born Latinos. And an Economist magazine/YouGov study published the same week found that 29% of the Hispanics surveyed agreed with the statement “immigrants today threaten traditional American values and customs.”

Did the Hispanics who perceived a threat to “traditional American values or customs” identify with the values and customs being threatened—or did they view themselves as part of the threat? Never mind that when it comes to religion, patriotism and family values Hispanics are far more traditional than the Anglo nativists who find immigration trends so alarming. As Latinos continue the dance of mutual transformation with the American mainstream, the very definition of “American” will also morph and merge. Will the newfound visibility and commercial viability of Hispanics bolster a common Latino identity, or reveal a dazzling, neo-American spectrum of peoples and possibilities? It may be that the real opportunity, as we gaze into the two-way mirror and wonder who is watching, is the chance to finally see ourselves.

Guy Garcia is a New York-based research and marketing consultant and the author of The New Mainstream: How the Multicultural Consumer Is Transforming American Business.