Article Empowerment

Acculturation Is Not A One-Way Street

Jul 14, 2011

“We want to target acculturated Hispanics.”  “Our general market campaign already reaches acculturated Hispanics.” “Spanish language advertising won’t be needed when Hispanics become acculturated.”  These are some of the common challenges to Spanish language media and Spanish language advertising, yet they represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the acculturation process among American Hispanics. Language use and acculturation are not synonymous, and the process of acculturation is fluid.

Acculturation – the result of contact between two different cultures – is not a binary characteristic like gender or employment.  In fact, with many variations, acculturation is multidimensional. Individuals engage in the process of acculturation in different ways depending on whether they are native- or foreign-born, their age, who they marry, their geographic location, their employment and many other factors.

Language is just one of a number of dimensions on which Hispanics, and other ethnic groups, adapt to the prevailing U.S. culture. This spectrum includes food, entertainment, political engagement, leisure activities, fashion and values/mores. Focusing on the growing use of the English language by Hispanic-Americans presumes that acculturation and English language fluency are the same, when they are not.

Our research is full of examples of a sort of “a-la-carte acculturation” in which Hispanics are quickly and eagerly adopting some aspects of mainstream American culture while holding on tightly to aspects of the Hispanic culture. Yankelovich MONITOR has found that 80% of Hispanics agree that “Immigrants to this country should be prepared to adapt to the American way of life” yet 87% also agree that they Feel need to preserve my own cultural traditions.”

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor perhaps expressed it best, in an interview before being appointed to the Court: “Although I am an American, love my country and could achieve its opportunity of succeeding at anything I worked for, I also have a Latina soul and heart, with the magic that carries.”

Marketers such as Kraft (click here to read Kraft’s “What We’ve Learned About ‘Acculturation’” viewpoint published in MediaPost) have found that understanding how Hispanic consumers interact with their brands is the first step in capitalizing on this growth opportunity.

A few illustrations of this dynamic in everyday life:

  • Walmart stocks its Hispanic Supercenters with both dried beans in bulk and Welch’s squeezable grape jelly, because Walmart has learned that Hispanic moms are shopping for family meals in which she values traditional foods and also shopping for her children who have acquired a taste for PB&J at school.
  • According to The Associated Press-Univision Poll conducted in 2010 by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, 41% of Hispanic-Americans observe Semana Santa (Holy Week) while 75% celebrate the Fourth of July. Two of the most popular foods among Hispanic-Americans are beans and rice AND macaroni and cheese.
  • One in five Hispanic-American men watched both the Super Bowl AND the World Cup tournament in 2010, again demonstrating that adopting some aspects of non-Hispanic American culture is not done at the expense of retaining an important part of Hispanic popular culture.
  • Hispanics are as likely to eat peppers (54%) as they are to eat pickles (53%), and almost as likely to eat bagels (53%) as tortillas (66%).

We also see examples of “neo-acculturation,” in which Hispanics experiment with some aspects of American culture, trying them on for size, so to speak, but then returning to their roots.  Marriage and parenthood is often a trigger, when Hispanic-Americans re-assert the importance of carrying on their language, values, cultures and traditions to the next generation.

Language use is itself conditional and is more accurately a reflection of a bi-cultural way of living than of the process of acculturation. Bilingual Hispanics (and most Hispanic-Americans have some fluency in both English and Spanish) switch between languages by setting and context. They may conduct business in English, listen to music on a Spanish-language radio station, attend a movie in English, worship in Spanish, and so forth. The explosion in technology over the last two decades has made it easier for Hispanic-Americans to retain their use of Spanish and their connection to their country-of-origin through email, online newspapers, internet phone calls and video. Maintaining the use of Spanish is natural and organic and provides a rich tie to the Latin culture.

Most of the more than 50 million Hispanic-Americans move fluidly between two cultures, adopting American values AND retaining an emotional connection with the Latin culture through language and content that they connect with.  Spanish-language media supports that emotional connection, which explains its continuing to have extraordinary power and reach.

Related Articles


Diversity at our 2017 Sundance Film Festival Panel


MassMutual and its Commitment to Hispanic Financial Literacy

By clicking submit you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of service.