The changing face of the US Hispanic: Enter Latinx

At 59 million and counting, the Latinx population is one of the largest multicultural groups in our country.

I used to identify as a "white" Brazilian woman, but my check box changed when I moved to New York a few years ago. I became Hispanic or Latina. Interestingly, Brazilians don’t immediately identify with Latino and the definition of Latino in the Portuguese dictionary doesn’t have anything to do with Latin America. Instead, it’s related to the Latin language, the Catholic Church, and the old Roman Empire.

At 59 million and counting, the Latinx population is one of the largest multicultural groups in our country. Suddenly, I’m part of a larger community made up of individuals from different cultures and a different language (because Brazilians speak Portuguese). There’s nothing wrong with this. Today, I feel a wonderful sense of belonging, but it leads to an interesting aspect of this narrative: Hispanic and Latino are American definitions aiming to categorize a large group of people from diverse cultures, races, and beliefs. To truly understand, appreciate and champion this community, it’s critical that our industry acknowledge the evolving profile and cultural influence of this group and the emerging idea of Latinx.

To effectively engage with this essential demographic, marketers need to better understand the complexities and specific critical insights about where Latinx culture is today and where it is heading. Recent research has surfaced three critical areas for brands, products and services to tap into to do just that. 

1)   Identity: Recognizing the internal diversity of Latinx communities

The very emergence of the term "Latinx" speaks to the growing recognition of the population’s inherent diversity. A given Latinx person may identify as Afro-Latina, as Queer, as Xicano, as Vegan, or all of the above. As conversations on intersectional identity grow louder, so too does the demand that brands not treat Latinx audiences as a monolith.

As these intersectional groups try to strike a balance between paying tribute to their cultural heritage and carving out spaces for the entirety of their identity, they are challenging historical biases within the Latinx community, whether it is racism and colorism, homophobia, or misogyny. Meanwhile, these young, upwardly-mobile Latinx people are adding a new layer to conversations around urban development and gentrification, as they move to heavily Latinx neighborhoods not for the typical reasons such as low rent or urban proximity, but out of a desire to stay close to their own cultural heritage, in a phenomenon colloquially termed "gentefication" that is becoming its own sort of cultural battleground. In a similar clash of old and new, health and environment-conscious Latinx cooks are rethinking traditional recipes to fit vegan and vegetarian lifestyles.

As Latinx audiences continue to push the boundaries of the identities Latinx encompasses, there are opportunities for brands to work with them through Latinx engagement strategies, recognizing the diversity within the community through relevant, empathetic marketing. It has been five years since AT&T rolled out Spanglish commercials to recognize the fluid identities of the growing Latinx consumer market—the time for fresh, compelling recognition of Latinx diversity and fluidity is now.

2)   Entertainment: Platforming the right voices

On a recent panel on Latinx representation in the entertainment industry, independent filmmaker Alberto Ferreras pointed out a key problem with the industry’s relationship with Latinx audiences: they were not even talking to the right people.

"There’s a big difference between shows that are created and produced in Latin America with a Latin American reality and shows that reflect the reality of U.S. Latinos," he noted. "And that’s something that we’ve never really had."

We saw this gap in earlier iterations of nominally Latinx entertainment—bringing a few telenovelas from Latin countries stateside and leaving it at that. The golden age of television, however, is showing some bright spots for Latinx creators looking to tell distinctly U.S.-Latinx stories for the American-born population that is the largest source of growth for the Latinx population. Shows like Jane the Virgin borrow from the telenovela traditions of old while placing it firmly in the American present, while others such as Vida and One Day At A Time priotize the voices and experiences of Latinx characters who have only known the U.S. as home.

As brands look to engage with these communities, they stand to learn a lot from shows like Jane, Vida, and One Day, especially as these commit to showcasing actual Latinx voices to shine on screen, behind the camera, and in the writer’s room: true Latinx engagement will take place for those brands that create platforms for actual Latinx talent to shine throughout all aspects of the company’s business, from the final campaign to the creative team behind it. Finding ways to empower these communities will lead to a rewarding level of authenticity. 

3)   Wellness: Meeting Latinx consumers where they are

From an outsized effect of Type 2 Diabetes to Immigration-specific mental health challenges to the increased emphasis on familial caregiving, Latinx populations face a variety of distinct health challenges. These are often exacerbated, however, through a gap in understanding and empathy between the healthcare industry and the patients they wish to serve. As far back as 2014, studies were identifying the reluctance of Latinx people to visit the doctor’s office—as political and social climates have changed, these challenges have only become more pronounced, as undocumented patients fear deportation, language barriers limit communication, and consumer attitudes prioritize family and community over proper health practices.

In order to close this gap, smart healthcare institutions are adapting their own practices to the behaviors of Latinx consumers, and putting in the work to understand what those behaviors are. The mental health space is creating directories of mental health professionals of color, in efforts to connect care-seekers with therapy and counseling that has a better understanding of their nuanced experiences, while schools become the healthcare advocates for their uninsured students.

This empathetic approach to Latinx audiences by the healthcare industry has major implications for brands in any category seeking to build compelling, successful Latinx engagement strategies. As a population that will quickly call out superficial engagement attempts as pandering and waste no time in turning their back on the perpetrators, Latinx audiences will appreciate those brands that understand the unique cultural, political, and economic contexts in which they exist, and make active efforts to build bridges and meet the Latinx consumer where they are.

As my own experience can attest to, the census designation of "Hispanic/Latinx" is not enough to truly engage this audience, one that refuses to be treated as a monolith, or as interchangeable with the populations of their countries of origin. In their distinct experiences and contexts within the U.S., they are coming to recognize the value and importance of their distinct voices, and demanding to be fairly, accurately, and authentically represented by the brands they engage with. By tapping into the great wealth of Latinx’s internal diversity, by providing platforms for the people telling stories relevant to Latinx experiences within the U.S., and by meeting them on the ground in their communities and their lives, brands can achieve success in connecting with this crucial audience.

Laura Chiavone is the managing partner of business transformation at sparks & honey. 

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