Chiqui Cartagena is managing director of multicultural communications at Meredith Integrated Marketing in New York City.  She has served as the senior director of Club Musica Latina for Columbia House, executive editor of the Spanish-language version of TV Guide, and as part of the team that developed and launched the Spanish version of People magazine, People en Espanol. Her book, Latino Boom!: Everything You Need to Know to Grow Your Business in the U.S. Hispanic Market, was published earlier this year. She recently responded to questions from Knowledge at Wharton through an email exchange.

Knowledge at Wharton:  Both from the book and from your professional experience, what would you say are the top three points to focus on for companies looking to increase the readership of their Spanish-language publications?

Cartagena: Contrary to popular opinion, Hispanics read magazines at approximately the same rate as the general market — about nine magazines a month, according to the Magazine Publishers of America. Their reading is divided evenly between English and Spanish-language publications, 50/50 more or less.

I think the three biggest obstacles facing magazine publishers are:

1) Lack of a national distribution network for Hispanic magazines. The current networks do not penetrate high-density Hispanic areas, so publishers are often forced to come up with alternate distribution channels, like supermarkets.

2) Lack among Hispanics of a subscription mentality. We come from countries where, in general, the mail systems do not work very well, so magazines have traditionally been sold via newsstands only. We are not used to signing up to receive magazines through the mail. We are much more driven to buy magazines if the cover strikes us; we have not really established a bond with magazine “brands.” To us, a subscription is like buying a magazine blind.

3) Most importantly, lack of relevant content in the Spanish-language magazines found in the U.S. If you look at the list of the top 25 Hispanic magazines, only three are produced specifically for this market; 12 are versions of magazines written for a general market audience and simply translated (and often not that well); the rest are in English. There is a dire need for more and better magazines for this audience.

Knowledge at Wharton: You argue that Latinos in the U.S. have been mislabeled as having a lower literacy rate, that the generally low quality of Spanish-language publications and their failure to comprehensively acknowledge cultural differences has led to low circulation for these publications. What kinds of changes would you like to see them make to address these shortcomings?

Cartagena: There are entire magazine genres that have no Hispanic magazines available. There are no magazines for teens, no shelter magazines, no sports magazines, no car magazines [LowRider is in English and chronicles the low rider car culture pioneered by Chicanos in Southern California], no music magazines, no food magazines. If you give this audience topics that interest them, they will buy and read. Most of the [currently available] magazines are very fashion/female or celebrity oriented.

Knowledge at Wharton: You say “retro-acculturation” is one potential reason that Latinos may not “melt” as previous immigrant groups have. It’s the idea that many U.S.-born Latinos may reject their heritage in early childhood but rediscover it in adolescence or later. “Being part of an ethnic group is in,” you write. Is there a danger to marketers that this may prove to be a pendulum swing that will go back the other way?

Cartagena:  I think that being Latino is particularly “in” now. Will it be as cool in five years? I don’t know; maybe not. So yes, the pendulum may swing a bit on that, but as this population grows and as corporate America and Hollywood start including us more, I think the Latino identity in the U.S. will continue to grow. I think Spanish will stay alive because of the big immigrant flow (every year 400,000 immigrants come to the U.S. legally, countless more illegally) and because of the geographic proximity of Latin America, which allows for travel and communication.

I do fear a growing backlash towards Hispanics and Spanish coming from radical groups which are intolerant of change and of foreigners. But who is the foreigner really? Mexicans were here long before the Founding Fathers came to the Americas. 

Knowledge at Wharton: As you point out, one of the difficulties of marketing to Latinos, both in the U.S. and abroad, is that the degree to which they constitute a unified market is arguable. There is a wide cultural gulf, for example, between Cubans and Puerto Ricans, even though they are geographically close and share a good deal of history. What do you see as the “sweet spots” that marketers can aim for where there is broad overlap?

Cartagena: That is going to vary depending on the product or service you are selling, but again messages that appeal to our culture and heritage [will sell]. For example, Heineken has ads that capture this well.

Knowing how to tap the cultural relevance regardless of what language you are advertising in, or conveying a message that taps into the religious and family values we [Latinos] all grew up with, are some of the more universal [steps marketers can take to find] the “sweet spots.” Also, they can tap into popular things like Reggaeton. [Originating in Panama and Puerto Rico between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, Reggaeton synthesizes elements of Jamaican reggae and dance hall with hip hop features, Spanish lyrics and a host of other influences.] This [musical trend] will be a passing thing; it won’t be hot forever. But latching on to the “hot” new trend has always worked well.

Knowledge at Wharton: In one of the case studies in the book, Roberto Ruiz draws a distinction between dialects and “local variations” of Spanish. “We recommend using a variation-free Spanish when targeting the whole market,” he writes. To give just one example, the phrase “coger la guagua” can have radically different meanings from country to country. In Cuba it would be translated as “catch the bus.” In Chile, the most delicate translation would be “have sex with the baby.” How can one use “variation-free Spanish” and not neuter the language and thus alienate a significant part of the market?

Cartagena: This seems more difficult than it really is. There is a universal Spanish that we all understand and that doesn’t insult anyone. It may be a bit drier than our local variations, but it can be done and is done all the time. You need a good team of writers who have been working here [in the U.S.] and who know what pitfalls to avoid. It’s not that big a deal, but people focus on it because of the egregious mistakes made by others. Hire a Latino professional and avoid the problem.

Knowledge at Wharton: In arguing for the durability of attachment to Latino culture, you cite the Cuban community in south Florida. But that community is fairly unique in that they came here involuntarily and have clung fiercely to the idea of a return to Cuba. Yet even there, as the first and second generation of American-born Cubans come of age, their identity as “exiles,” rather than as Americans, seems to be fading. To what degree do you see the Latino market segmenting along generational lines?

Cartagena: Without a doubt generational segmentation will be critical in this market going forward. The second and third generations already show distinct behavior/consumer patterns. As more and more Latinos are born in the U.S., the next generation will also be different. Because so many are also young, there will be a big focus on these groups by marketers. The question will be how much they assimilate and how fast.

Knowledge at Wharton: One of the surveys you cite, published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2003, says that 100% of Hispanics born in the U.S. claim that they “speak Spanish.” In a nearby section, you cite Louis E.V. Nevaer: “Hispanics will learn English, to be sure, but out of self-respect, they cannot abandon Spanish.” In recent years, a number of colleges and universities have set up special sections of Spanish courses for Latino students who come into college claiming that they speak Spanish but really speak what has variously been described as “kitchen Spanish,” “street Spanish” or “Spanglish.” To what degree do you see a split between the connections people say they are maintaining, with both Latino culture and the Spanish language, and an on-the-ground process of acculturation that may be further along than people are comfortable reporting?

Cartagena: I do think people tend to report a greater language proficiency than they actually have, but I think the Spanish language proficiency of Hispanics in the U.S. will actually improve over the next 5 to 10 years. When I started in this business people could “fake it,” saying they could read, write or speak in Spanish [when they couldn’t], but no more. Now that the Latino market is booming and everyone wants a piece of it, I think parents and kids will actually put more emphasis on learning Spanish well because it will be critical to their professional success after college, especially as business with the “Americas” expands south. 

Knowledge at Wharton: Much of the focus in your book is on marketing to Latinos in the U.S. and the increasingly multicultural character of the U.S. market. In both Latin America and Spain, similar changes are afoot: A recent president of Argentina was from a Syrian family; a recent president of Peru was from a Japanese family; Spain, la Madre Patria, has been much more outward looking in recent years, prospering as part of the European Union. How do those trends impact the Latino market in the U.S.?

Cartagena:  I don’t think those trends will necessarily impact the U.S. Hispanic market. Multiculturalism is surely growing in Europe …. But Europe is much more fragmented by language, religion and race. The U.S. is dominated by race (even though Hispanics are not a race; we are an ethnicity). Only now are we starting to think about the “other” non-Christian religious and linguistic minorities.

Knowledge at Wharton: There’s been a trend in marketing in recent years that some analysts have dubbed “gay vague.” A print ad, for example, might show two men in their twenties with a baby. People with an expansive view of family see the three of them as two dads and a child; people with more conservative views see them as a father with his child and a friend, or as unrelated. The advantage is that you attract another market segment without running the risk of alienating the mainstream core of your customer base. Have you seen a similar trend in “Latino vague” advertising? Is this a strategy you would recommend?

Cartagena: I see this trend all the time, especially in women’s magazines where you will see a dark-haired woman, who could be Italian, American or Latina. I find it hard to believe that having people of color in an ad could be “alienating” to people in the United States, especially young people…. Just look at the mix you see on MTV or anything oriented toward youth. I am hopeful that the growing Latino population will force Americans to re-think their views on race. Everything in this country is dictated by black or white and that’s just so “last century.” Hispanics don’t identify with either. We are a mix and the world is slowly turning into a mix.

In today’s business environment, the focus needs to be on “who is my customer” and getting them to buy more, regardless of the color of their skin. As corporations start to really understand who is buying their products they will see that, more and more often, it is not predominantly white people. On average 22% of all births in the U.S. are Hispanic, and 15% are [African American]. If I’m Pampers, I’d better be selling diapers to these two markets if I want to stay in business.

Knowledge at Wharton: Do you see any danger that the U.S. market, or the broader culture for that matter, might become Balkanized by an increasing emphasis on ethnic differences?

Cartagena:  If there is any tendency toward “Balkanization,” it would be coming from those groups who see themselves losing power and who are intolerant of people who are different from them.