• by Abel Carmona, B.A. • IDRA Newsletter • January 1996 •
Recently, a friend of mine, who is in retail sales, was approached at work by a Spanish-speaking women wanting help in selecting a dress shirt for her husband. My friend wanted to know her husband’s shirt size, and so he very confidently asked if she knew the size of her husband’s pescuezo. When he asked this, the women gave him a strange, peculiar look and then burst into laughter. My friend could not understand why she was laughing. She informed him that the appropriate word used for a man’s neck is cuello and not pescuezo. Pescuezo was a word used to describe the neck of a chicken. When the women told him this, he was very embarrassed and immediately apologized but could not help laughing himself. I laughed too when he told me, but I probably would have done the same.
Large corporations have made the same kind of mistake. Many years ago, the automobile maker, Chevrolet, marketed one of its new line of automobiles in the United States. The campaign was successful and many of the new automobiles were sold. Chevrolet then began to market the line using the same strategy in the Spanish speaking market, but the automobile did not sell nearly as well as it did in the United States. This puzzled the automaker, and it set out to discover why the car was not selling. The research found that the name of the automobile was contributing to the low sales. The automobile was called the “Nova.” In English, a nova is defined as a star that suddenly becomes intensely bright and then gradually returns to its original intensity. In Spanish however, nova does not have quite the same meaning. Loosely translated, it is used to imply that something “doesn’t go.” Spanish speakers, understandably, were not willing to purchase an automobile whose name was used to imply something “doesn’t go.” Why would anyone? Needless to say, Chevrolet changed its marketing strategy and learned something about the importance of understanding the Spanish language.
Although this incident occurred some years ago, the lesson learned may apply more today than it did then. Researchers, statisticians and demographers all agree that the largest growing minority group in the United States is the Hispanic population. In 1980, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, the Hispanic population totaled 14.6 million. In 1990, it numbered 24.6 million. It is expected that by the year 2050, one out of every five people in the country will be Hispanic, totaling 81 million people (US Bureau of the Census, 1993). The census bureau also reported that the number one language spoken at home in the United States in 1990, other than English, was Spanish. What some businesses, politicians and social advocacy groups have gained from these statistics is that, as the Hispanic population grows, so will its wants, buying power and strength.
Hispanic purchasing power is expected to reach $477 billion by the year 2000, and many small businesses, companies and corporations are presently implementing marketing strategies to directly cater to this potentially lucrative and relatively untouched, consumer market (Aspen Institute, 1990). Having employees who are able to communicate effectively in Spanish is one of the most obvious strategies and most important. Within the past few years, there has been an increase in the number of radio stations, television stations and newspapers whose formats are in the Spanish language. Many advertising campaigns have been produced in Spanish, not only those geared to increase sales and profit, but also those whose purpose is to increase support for particular issues, candidates or causes. The people responsible for these campaigns must either be fluent in Spanish or have someone who is consulting with them.
Politicians have also realized the strength that Hispanics have gained and are doing what they can to win their support, and more importantly, their votes. Many have appointed Hispanics to important and influential offices, and others have hired people to go into the Hispanic communities to rally support for their candidate and their respective agendas. In states such as California and Texas where the number of electoral college votes is high and the population of Hispanics is also high, politicians pay particularly attention to the issues concerning their Hispanic constituency.
The increase in purchasing power and increased demand for particular products or services will result in the creation of new industries and expansion of present ones. Many people in the business community have begun to explore these possible new business opportunities and have capitalized on them. Berlitz, one of the leading language schools that caters to executives, reported a 49 percent increase in enrollment from 1987 to 1992, with their Spanish course being very popular in the United States (Fortune, 1993).
The growing number of businesses expanding into the Hispanic market also attest to the growing importance and advantages that speaking Spanish can bring to a person searching for employment. In 1994, Dillards, in a joint venture with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Cifra SA, announced plans to open 50 stores in Mexico (Austin American Statesman, 1994). Within a 12-month period, Pier One Imports announced it would also open stores in Mexico. Other industries are taking notice of the Hispanic market and adjusting accordingly. More and more public relations firms are starting to see a greater demand for the services that target the Hispanic and Spanish speaking market. The book publishing industry is also seeing a rise in the demand for books and other reading materials in Spanish and is reacting accordingly. In 1993, Waldenbooks announced that it too would be courting the Hispanic market by expanding its Spanish-language section in 10 percent (140) of its stores (Kinsella, 1993).
Along with the increasing Hispanic population and purchasing power, the passage of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the resulting increased relations between the United States and Mexico will open new and lucrative employment opportunities for people who speak Spanish. In the first 10 months after NAFTA went into effect, US exports to Mexico reached a record level of $42 billion, an increase of 22.8 percent. During the same period, US imports rose to $40.3 billion, an increase of 23.5 percent (Federal Reserve Bank, 1995). As time passes and the trade increases, businesses will expand their market further into Mexico and possibly into other Latin American countries, as some are doing already.
Although in the past, speaking Spanish was discouraged and punishable, today it is a skill that is very marketable. As an advocate of bilingual education, IDRA realizes the important role educators have in preparing students to better meet the needs of this growing population, “To be able to express thoughts and feelings in more than one language is an advantage; one that is becoming a necessity in our multicultural, global society” (Gonzales, 1995).
Businesses are realizing the potential purchasing power of the Hispanic market and their increasing need for products and services, and thus they are looking for people who speak Spanish. More importantly as the revived sense of pride in the Hispanic culture and the present trend in which, as a friend recently informed me, “speaking Spanish is no longer viewed as a hinderence but rather something that we should embrace,” the need for businesses to reach Hispanics through people who speak Spanish will continue to grow.
Aspen Institute. “Strategic Importance of Hispanics in the United States,” Handsome Dividends, A Handbook to Demystify the Hispanic Markets (Aspen Institute, 1990).
Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “Business Frontier” (January-February 1995).
Fortune. “Business Tongues” (October 4, 1993), p. 18.
Gonzales, Frank. “Blessed with Bilingual Brains: Is it a Fact or a False Belief?” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1995), p. 9.
Kinsella, Bridget. “Walden to Expand Spanish Sections,” Publisher’s Weekly (October 18, 1993), p. 21.
Austin American Statesman, Staff and Wire Reports. “Dillards Plans to Open 50 Stores in Mexico” (October 15, 1994), p. C1.
US Bureau of the Census, Population Reports. Hispanic Americans Today (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1993), pp. 23-183.
Abel Carmona was a research assistant in the IDRA Division Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]