Hispanic Youth Treads Difficult Path

Coming of age is a complicated matter in even the simplest of circumstances. It’s that much more complex, naturally, when the country in which you’re becoming an adult isn’t the one in which your parents (or you) were born.

That’s the theme of a report released last month by the Pew Hispanic Center, under the title “Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America.” The report’s findings have significant implications for the way marketers address Hispanic 16-25-year-olds in the U.S. — a cohort that numbers some 7.5 million and accounts for 18 percent of all U.S. residents in that age bracket.

NO LONGER IMMIGRANTS…

As the report says, this is a life stage at which Hispanics in the U.S. “navigate the intricate, often porous borders between the two cultures they inhabit — American and Latin American.” Based on polling conducted in August and September, the report goes on to say “it is clear that many of today’s Latino youths, be they first or second generation, are straddling two worlds as they adapt to the new homeland.” It finds the survey’s respondents exhibiting “attitudes and behaviors that, throughout history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience.” The twist in the story is that, as the report emphasizes, “most Latino youths are not immigrants. Two-thirds were born in the U.S., many of them descendants of the big, ongoing wave of Latin American immigrants who began coming to this country around 1965.”

The survey finds ethnicity outranking current country of residence in the way Hispanic 16-25-year-olds perceive themselves. One question in the polling gave respondents a choice of terms and asked them to cite the one they use first to identify themselves — by their family’s country of origin, as Hispanic or Latino, or as American. A majority (52 percent) said they describe themselves first by familial country of origin, while 20 percent said they first identify themselves as Hispanic/Latino. Twenty-four percent said “American” is the one of these terms they use first.

…BUT NOT QUICK TO SELF-IDENTIFY AS AMERICAN

Even among the poll’s second-generation respondents (i.e., those born in the U.S., but with at least one foreign-born parent), just 33 percent said they choose “American” over the other options as their primary self-identification. A plurality of the second-generation respondents (41 percent) first identify themselves by their family’s country of origin; 21 percent use “Hispanic/Latino” first. “Only in the third and higher generations do a majority of Hispanic youths (50 percent) use ‘American’ as their first term of self-description,” says the report.

None of this makes things simple for companies that aim to sell their wares to Hispanic teens and young adults. Do marketers need to be wary of sounding an “American” theme in speaking to this audience? “Not necessarily,” says Christopher Campos, vp and managing director in the New York office of Bravo, an agency that specializes in addressing the Hispanic market. “The ‘American’ theme is not a turn-off. Clearly, America has changed. Young Latinos are growing up, adapting and influencing the world around them — they are defining what America is today.”

THEY INFLUENCE AS THEY ASSIMILATE…

At home, says Campos, their “Latino personality” is defined. But they’re influenced by a range of social factors in the wider world. “It is in this outside environment that he/she is exposed to other influences and starts learning and growing from those experiences,” says Campos. “Eventually, the young Latino contributes to the culture around him, converges with the American culture, and new identities arise. Thus, the American theme is part of what they experience, what is shaping them and what they are helping create everyday.”