As debate swirls over illegal immigration and assimilation, U.S. businesses are spending more than ever to engage Spanish-speaking consumers.
Wielding almost $750 billion in annual spending power, Latinos are captivating corporate America. The 500 largest print and television advertisers in the U.S. spent $5 billion last year in Spanish-language marketing - a 42 percent increase since 2003.
Those dollars translate into a greater presence of Spanish in mainstream media. Whether it's in telemarketing, customer service, billboards, product packaging or television, where you see or hear English, a Spanish equivalent usually follows.
Critics say Spanish-focused promotions and services undermine efforts to give illegal immigrants fewer incentives to stay in America and weaken efforts to get legal immigrants to assimilate and learn English.
"We need to encourage people to integrate into our society," said state Sen.-elect David Schultheis, a proponent of state laws that prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving state services.
"I think businesses have a responsibility in that area and shouldn't be putting profit ahead of that," said the Colorado Springs Republican.
Executives and economists say it's good business to cater to Latinos, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., particularly those whose dominant language is Spanish.
The census estimates that of the 42.7 million Hispanics living in the U.S., about 17 percent are undocumented and 40 percent are foreign-born.
"There are a lot of dollars coursing through the American community that are not being discussed as part of the debate in D.C.," said Carl Kravetz, chairman of the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies.
"Business appreciates (Latinos) as a labor force and a consumer of goods and services."
Still, companies have had their brushes with anti- immigration forces.
Companies are facing mandates to verify employees' legal status and hefty fines for hiring undocumented workers. In Colorado, voters approved a law last month that cuts tax deductions from companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers.
But business executives say critics of Latino-focused marketing only consider part of the equation - taxes and services - and fail to recognize the billions of dollars that both legal and illegal immigrants contribute to the economy as consumers.
That buying power has several major companies, including Wal-Mart, lobbying Congress for immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"We're a place where many people shop, including people whose status (is) unclear," said Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz. "Any issue that affects as many people as this does is an issue that affects our business to some extent."
U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who has helped lead the push for tougher immigration laws, wishes companies would scale back Spanish marketing but doubts they will ever suffer a public backlash for it.
"My task in the Congress is not to make sure that any industry has a robust bottom line," Tancredo said. "Likewise, their job isn't to oversee the assimilation process in America."
Latino families now outspend non-Latino families in food, apparel, health and beauty, long-distance phone and prepaid wireless products, according to several marketing studies.
Major companies are responding in a variety of ways:
Wal-Mart will begin stocking stores in high-minority markets with ethnic products. The retailer relies on marketing and signs in several languages and offers low-cost payroll cashing and money transfers, services that are particularly popular among Latinos.
Hyundai Motor America recently launched a new advertising campaign in Spanish called "Respect," its latest Spanish- language ad campaign in the U.S.
Wells Fargo Bank has opened 750,000 bank accounts since 2001 with matricula consular cards from the Mexican, Argentinean, Guatemalan and Colombian consulates. Foreign consulates issue the cards as a form of identification.
Ford Motor Co.'s investment in Spanish marketing has increased 100 percent over the past five years.
In February, Dex Media will debut Dex En Español, the company's first Spanish directory on the Front Range.
The Denver Post operates a Spanish-language news website called Al Dia and recently launched Viva! Colorado, a Spanish language weekly tabloid.
According to the census, 85 percent of Hispanics younger than 19 are second- or third- generation immigrants. They are bilingual - and will be primary shoppers within a matter of a few years.
Business executives say they see no need to wait for these potential customers to prefer English to Spanish - and that reaching them now in Spanish helps create a brand loyalty that could last generations.
"We believe that there is a viable market within first- generation as well as second- generation that prefer to consume media in Spanish and prefer to be connected via their native tongue," said David Rodriguez, multicultural marketing communication manager for Ford Motor Co. "Cultural relevancies are the key."
For people like Carla Beckman of Westminster, the multilingual signs and advertisements can be too much.
"It's getting to where you don't have to know English to navigate the business world," she said. "It bothers me, because I know (businesses) are profiting from illegals while the middle class takes it on the chin."
Studies show that the dominant language of nearly 50 percent of second-generation Latinos is English; the other half is bilingual. Of third-generation Latinos, 80 percent are English-dominant.
That still leaves millions of people who don't speak English adequately, Tancredo said, and too many companies are accommodating those deficiencies with multilingual services.
"Aggressive marketing to reach a bilingual or monolingual community ... is causing a problem," he said. "It makes it easier for people to be here without assimilating."
Others say multilingual marketing has the opposite effect: It helps immigrants find their way in America.
Having promotions in Spanish "helps ease immigrants into the culture, gives them access to necessities and creates a relationship between the individual and the company," said Rafael Rodriguez of Arvizu Advertising in Denver, who creates Spanish promotions for companies including Qwest.
Latino immigrants, too, scoff at the idea that Spanish- language ads make their lives easier. They say they recognize such marketing for what it is - a play for their spending dollars.
"They just want to sell," Hector de la Cueva of Aurora said recently as he purchased a refrigerator at Sears.
Success in America, many immigrants say, is synonymous with learning English.
"We are here, and we should make the efforts to learn English," said Guadalupe Acosta, 36, an immigrant from Mexico who helps build golf courses. "At the same time, (multilingual marketing is ) a benefit for the business, because they can sell what they need to sell."
Wells Fargo's program to allow accounts using matricula consular cards grew out of a request from police in Austin, Texas. Authorities wanted to get immigrants to use banks instead of carrying large amounts of cash, said Cristie Drumm, spokeswoman for Wells Fargo.
Bank tellers don't ask customers for proof of legal status, Drumm said.
"By reaching out and providing products and services, we want all of our customers to feel comfortable doing business with us," she said. "For us, it's customer service and it's good business."
But for others like Lary Vashon of Aurora, Spanish signs and product labels seem to be almost everywhere. Though weary of the practice, Vashon says he realizes why it's happening.
"I'm not surprised that the stores say, 'Let's put in Spanish too,' because they want their money whether (customers) are legal or illegal," Vashon said. "If I owned a business, I'd want their money too."
Elizabeth Aguilera, DenverPost.com. December 24, 2006
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