The U.S. is more multilingual than it has been in 70 years.
Nearly 18% of the U.S. population age 5 and older spoke a language other than English at home in 2000, and over half of these were Spanish-speaking 1. Is your organization doing all it should to effectively communicate with the Hispanic population in the U.S.? If you're not sure, read on. There are significant differences between the Hispanic population and other immigrant populations in the U.S.
This article illustrates the differences in the context of developing an approach to these prospective clients. Interviews with Hispanic community leader Eliza May and business leaders Rick Burciaga and Jon Ragsdale provided a wealth of insights based on their experiences living and working in Texas.
Texas-based for 37 years, McElroy Translation Co. has enjoyed a front-row seat to the evolving cultural panorama in the U.S. Now the second most populous state in the U.S., Texas has a historically strong Hispanic culture and an interest in the demographic shift towards a growing Hispanic population.
Although the Southwest is still home to the largest Spanish-speaking populations, many states in the Midwest and South now have the fastest Hispanic growth rates, such as North Carolina, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee 2.
* * *
One way to shorten the path to understanding is to learn from those who know the territory. For Rick Burciaga, Regional President of Wells Fargo Bank, innovative business solutions have been based on these statistics. Result? Wells Fargo Bank has more branches along the Mexican border than any other U.S. bank.
In explaining the perspective many in the Southwest have regarding the Hispanic culture, Rick referred to Joel Garreau's book, “The Nine Nations of North America,” which posits that, although there are three political divisions in North American, there are actually nine regions identified by common cultural characteristics and bonds that transcend political borders. “For instance,” Rick says, “our community begins just north of Austin and extends to about 300 miles south of the Mexican border. People within this natural cultural region understand their commonality.”
Through long-term business and personal relationships with three Mexican banks, Wells Fargo has been able to offer more services to immigrants, as well as making money transfers to Mexico simpler and more economical. Rick Burciaga, notes, “It takes a lot of spade work to develop these relationships.”
* * *
So how does the Hispanic immigrant population differ from other immigrant populations in the U.S.? The U.S. Hispanic population is not assimilating as quickly or completely as have other large-scale immigrant populations. Following are some unique characteristics of the U.S. Hispanic population:
Size: The number of Hispanics in the U.S. is estimated at over 40 million 3. The U.S. Hispanic growth rate is increasing at nearly double the rate of non-Hispanics in the U.S., and this trend is expected to continue 4.
Reason for Immigration: About 67% of the U.S. Hispanic population is from Mexico. According to Eliza May, the reason for this immigration is overwhelmingly rooted in economics rather than religious or political freedom. “This population is making the 'American Dream' happen. They work hard, want to buy homes and send their kids to college.”
Immigration Rate: Ongoing immigration sustains a large population of first-generation Hispanic immigrants, with 2 in 5 born outside the U.S. 5 First-generation immigrants are less likely to use English as their primary language at home or feel comfortable basing purchasing decisions on English materials.
Media: Modern media allows Hispanic immigrants more integration into society while maintaining their native language and culture. In the past, many immigrant populations were forced to relinquish native-language interaction in order to move beyond immigrant communities. In contrast, Spanish-language television today reaches at least 90% of the Hispanic population in the U.S., and my informal internet research shows more than 900 Spanish-language print publications.
“For Mexicans, unlike most other immigrants, there is only a river, not an ocean that separates them from their homeland.”
~ Eliza May
Strong family ties, including the extended family, are traditionally associated with Hispanic cultures. Because family is the basic unit of identity, ties to family across time and distance are usually more tightly preserved than in many other U.S. immigrant cultures. Jon Ragsdale of Williamson-Dickie commented, “The Hispanic culture is very aspirational, working not only for themselves but for their families.”
Ease of Travel: The fluid state of migration between Mexico, Central/South America and the U.S. is sometimes viewed as a further barrier to integration. This population is more readily able to visit their homeland and has closer physical ties to relatives, especially in Mexico, than immigrants from Africa, Europe or Asia. This further reinforces Spanish language fluency among the second generation and those who immigrate as children.
Money Transfers: An estimated $32 billion was sent by Hispanic immigrants back to their native Latin American and Caribbean countries, according to a recent study by the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund 6.
* * *
The following illustrates how business and community can combine to better serve the Hispanic immigrant population and benefit their own organizations.
What happens when you combine visionary leadership with a little luck?
In 2000, the Austin Police Department was concerned about the growing number of robbery victims identified as newly-arrived, Hispanic immigrants. Rudy Landeros, Assistant Chief Of Police, contacted Eliza May, then President of GAHCC for only three months, for help. A key factor in the crimes was that most illegal immigrants were known to be carrying cash on paydays because they could not open bank accounts with commonly-carried identification.
They made an appointment with Rick Burciaga of Wells Fargo Bank. Rick determined that Wells Fargo would begin accepting the form of photo identification commonly available to Mexican immigrants, the Matricular Consular Card, thus enabling many Hispanics working in Texas to open a U.S. bank account.
Eliza suggested a good way to spread the news to this predominantly male Hispanic population at an opportune time was to go to the Catholic churches, which are trusted locations, where they set up information posts and approached Hispanic male immigrants on a traditional family day.
Identity verification is critical to risk management in the banking industry, but use of the Matricular Consular Card as identification has shown to present no greater loss risk that any other segment of banking customers. Once Wells Fargo accepted this form of identification, other banks followed suit. Many accounts were opened, and robbery-motivated crimes against immigrants fell.
* * *
“The structure of Wells Fargo Bank is very decentralized compared to most other large banks, allowing each market to more readily take advantage of local opportunities than institutions having very centralized decision-making. For instance, in the banking industry, for branch distribution, central Texas is as hot as Vegas, and being decentralized, we can feel what the needs are and be very responsive to them,” explains Rick.
“If you operate at the community level, it’s right in front of you.”
~ Rick Burciaga
To learn more about their needs, Wells Fargo created a team of bankers to go into the Hispanic community. Rick shared an insight gained from this action. “We are challenged in one respect—in the U.S., we depend on customers coming to the bank, whereas in traditional Mexican culture, prospective customers respond better to banks coming to them. We must build smaller branches, so that we are near neighborhood stores, thus creating a presence familiar to many immigrant Hispanics. We've been at this for a generation and will seek opportunities where we find them.”
Advised Eliza, “And that means you can’t just translate the words. Your message must be crafted to appeal to this market. It has to 'move' and have bright colors—it must be appealing and catchy. You have to allow yourself to get out of your own skin to create the right message for a different audience.” Jon added, “It needs to sound natural, one Hispanic talking to another, not just words translated into Spanish.”
Just over half the Spanish speakers in the Census Bureau survey reported speaking English “very well.” That means, however, there is another even larger U.S. audience that should be considered—the population of English readers for whom English is a second language. Many of the same principles that apply to translation also apply to writing for non-native English readers.
Write for English to be read as a second language, as well as for translation.
Sentence Length: Very long sentences are more likely to be misunderstood by a non-native English reader. Long, complex sentences are also more difficult to translate than several shorter ones.
Sentence Structure: Avoid linguistic structures that are difficult to understand and may be challenging to translate. For instance, the double negative is a construct that does not exist in some languages.
Idioms: Idiomatic phrases may confuse non-native English readers or even translators. There are many idioms commonly used in business. Examples: bottom line, turnover, closeout. There is a great list of business idioms at idiomconnection.com.
Saying it in Spanish—how many versions?
Though the U.S. Hispanic population derives from many countries, for many purposes, providing content in business-neutral Spanish results in the best ROI, even if the translation contains some terms that are not used by all Spanish readers. Spanish readers expect that certain types of content created for Hispanics in the U.S. must be crafted in a single version for nationwide use and are tolerant of the occasional term that is different in their own dialect. It's also important to note that the Spanish used in the U.S. has evolved over time from that used in their native countries.
Following is a practical example of using a single version of Spanish. This company is very committed to growing their Hispanic customer base.
* * *
Founded in 1922, Williamson-Dickie has been a global supplier of workwear and, in more recent years, the company has expanded to outerwear, denim and children's apparel. In 2004, the company announced plans to launch a major Hispanic marketing initiative to gain share and solidify brand loyalty with the millions of hardworking Hispanics in the U.S.
With company-wide support, Jon Ragsdale, VP of Marketing and Merchandising, led this effort, “It was a fairly easy decision because Williamson-Dickie was already strong in this market. There is a large population of young, working class Hispanic males in the U.S. which reflects the customer base Dickie's has always had.”
Williamson-Dickie's first step was to translate the marketing materials on their website into Spanish to effectively reach the vast and growing Latino market which represents the backbone of the workforce in Texas.
Ongoing localization insures timely website updates. “This is an opportunity for Dickie's to further extend our reach into the Hispanic market in the most culturally powerful way,” says Bob Scott, Williamson-Dickie's senior Vice-President of Marketing and Merchandising. Double-digit growth expectations resulting from this effort have already been met, with some categories much higher than original estimations.
Dickie’s shares a traditional work ethic and family orientation with Hispanic customers."
~ Jon Ragsdale
More companies from more industries are reaching out to potential Hispanic consumers. I asked Jon how the apparel industry compared to other industries in serving their U.S. Spanish-speaking customers. “It is much improved over even 5 years ago, when the Hispanic community was largely ignored. Although the industry still lags in some areas, companies now see the tremendous opportunities in communicating with these customers.”
Laggards include pharmaceuticals, travel and entertainment, securities and financial services, and specialty retail. When asked her opinion regarding opportunity industries, Eliza May listed real estate and housing as those where there is a lot of business buzz.
Eliza emphatically notes that companies will benefit most by building long-term relationships with the notably brand-loyal Hispanic audience. To do so, they must look beyond presenting content in Spanish with a Hispanic aesthetic. The economic winners will be those that find ways to become involved in the Hispanic communities and establish a real presence. What do they need? How can your company help?
“You must cultivate today, the business of tomorrow.”
~ Eliza Mays
To summarize, there are good practices in writing for an ESL audience or for translation. A large portion of the Hispanic population in the U.S. identifies themselves as having limited English skills or preferring Spanish. There are important differences between the Hispanic immigrant population and other immigrant populations to the U.S. that impact assimilation and thus the most effective ways of communicating with this audience. Agreeing, Jon stated, “People who apply a broad brush to cultural communication are doing a disservice to the communities they hope to reach.”
* * *
About the author: In Austin and with McElroy Translation Company for eight years, Lisa Siciliani, Marketing Development Manager, appreciates the variety of responsibilities her job entails. Her marketing role often places her in the position of asking the same types of strategic growth questions as many of our clients. “I'm in a job and with a company where being naturally curious and inclined to think outside the box is actually a benefit!”
By Lisa Siciliani,
McElroy Translation Company,
Austin, Texas, U.S.A.
1. People: Origins and Language, Source: U.S. Census Bureau. See also Selected Social Characteristics: 2003 2003 American Community Survey Summary Tables, Language Spoken At Home
2. The Hispanic Population in the United States: March 2002, U.S. Census Bureau report, by Roberto R. Ramirez and G. Patricia de la Cruz
3. General Demographic Characteristics: 2003 2003 American Community Survey Summary Tables, Hispanic Origin And Race, Total Population, 39,194,837.
4. Hispanics: A People In Motion, The Pew Hispanic Center
5. Place of Birth by Citizenship Status, (Hispanic or Latino), Census 2000 Summary File.
6. IDB’S Multilateral Investment Fund To Hold Conference On Remittances In Mexico City, press release October, 2003.