by Esther J Cepeda
Do you see a dollar sign on my forehead?
There’s a Mexican saying: “el nopal en la frente.” It translates as “having a nopal on the forehead –” a reference to the native prickly green vegetable. It means that your dark skin, eyes and hair make it obvious you’re a Mexican.
Merchants have turned the phrase on its head, so to speak. That “nopal” is now a dollar sign and rather than being a slam, it’s a target countless U.S. businesses are gleefully setting their sights on.
According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, Hispanics will wield $860 billion in purchasing power in 2007 and more than $1.2 trillion by 2012. Put into perspective, the 2007 Hispanic consumer market in the United States is about the same size as Mexico’s entire economy in terms of its gross domestic product.
Sounds impressive and — at a time when Hispanics in communities across the country are still trying to define their social and political power — it feels good to have cash-register clout. But at what cost?
The marketing blitz aimed at the wallets of this nation’s 49 million Hispanics seems like a win-win situation: a community is offered goods and services via culturally and linguistically sensitive messages and marketers make more money by tapping previously overlooked consumers.
More than that, there’s the implicit sense of legitimacy for a community currently besieged by negativity resulting from the immigration debate. Big businesses’ marketing message: “Never mind politics, we like you — and your money!” is a welcome relief from the barrage of cable TV talk shows and “letters to the editor” bemoaning this country’s “burden” of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants.
But aside from feeling good to be recognized, what are we getting in return?
Come-ons for ultra-cheap, jumbo-sized packages of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos at Wal-Mart to add to our staggering rate of obesity-related type-2 diabetes, cable programming packages featuring nearly limitless channels of Spanish-language soap operas even as we complain we just don’t have time to take English-as-a-second-language classes, and big luxury pickup trucks whose monthly costs would better serve a mortgage payment.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that we can buy empanadas and Cuban sandwiches at Yankee Stadium and send money to grandma with a debit card rather than by wire transfer. Who wants to complain about Verizon Wireless’s unlimited family calling plan? But buyer beware when it comes to tequila companies sponsoring Mexican art museum exhibits, slick celebrity gossip magazines “En Espanol,” and high-interest World Cup soccer-themed credit cards.
“As a Latino community, we can’t let the market tell us who we are,” Julia Alvarez told me last spring as she prepared to release her latest book, “Quinceañera.” It takes an unvarnished look at the multi-million dollar Sweet 15 industry which sells young girls the fairytale fantasy of a princess-like coming-out party and takes the focus off surviving the treacherous teen years.
“When marketers are looking at us, hoping to sell 400 million dollars in quinceañera products, and want to capture our population young so they can have them for the rest of their consumer lives,” said Alvarez, “we have to take the reigns to protect our young people. The market just wants to sell us stuff – it’s what they do.”
This is a crucial moment for Hispanic consumers. Now that we have choices tailor-made to us, let’s be smart about making them.
Realize that we can go to Hispanic Day at the baseball game without going overboard on the “new” salt and lime-flavored beer. We can take the kids to McDonald’s without making it our whole food pyramid. We can shop around for the best interest rate on a mortgage rather than rely on the place offering “press 2 for Spanish.”
Don’t let that “nopal” on your forehead become a sign that reads “sucker.”
(Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org). (c) 2007