SAN DIEGO — If Cinco de Mayo is about selling beer, then Hispanic Heritage Month must be about marketing Hispanics – or, as some prefer to be called, “Latinos.”
In 1988, Congress expanded what had previously been a weeklong celebration of Hispanic culture to a full month from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. It was meant to be a time to reflect on everything that Hispanics have contributed to this country. Instead, corporations, universities and political parties have used this opportunity to schmooze the nation’s 52 million Hispanics.
They say love blooms in the spring. But when it comes to courting Hispanics, a lot of folks show their love in the fall.
This week, PBS is airing a documentary called “Latino Americans,” which it is billing as the Latino chapter of the American Dream. In it, you’ll find the obligatory references to United Farm Workers Union President Cesar Chavez, the usual on-ramp to the Latino experience for Eastern liberal media.
Take it from someone who grew up an hour away from the UFW hub of Delano, that road is a dead-end. Chavez was a man of the fields; today, most Latinos live in the cities. Guess what? Latinos were busy working hard to achieve the American Dream long before public television discovered them.
My concern is that too many Hispanics may be buying into the hype. Like anyone else, they want to matter, to be relevant, to be a player in the American story. So it’s easy for them to mistake population figures for power, influence and respect.
Latinos have the first; they are among the fastest-growing segments in our society, clocking in at 16 percent of the U.S. population now and projected to make up as much as 29 percent by 2050. By comparison, the African-American population is 13 percent and, in 2050, it is expected to still be 13 percent.
Yet, the rest of the items on the Latino wish list have proved harder to come by. Numbers alone do not buy you power, influence and respect. Those things have to be earned and seized. You would be amazed at how skilled some in big media, big politics and big business have become at ignoring the elephant in the room.
For instance, just because televisions are no longer black-and-white doesn’t mean that much of what you see on television isn’t still black and white.
What about the color green? This year, Hispanics will spend an estimated $1.3 trillion on goods and services. That figure has been increasing by about $100 million per year. So by 2020, it’ll be $2 trillion.
But there is another side to the coin. Corporations may spend an increasing amount of time and money trying to sell things to Hispanics, but they need to spend more time communicating with them. Like most Hispanics, I spend my paychecks with a variety of companies every month. But I can’t think of a single one that I feel warm and fuzzy about because I think they care about me and my family. So I’m not brand loyal.
Politically, Hispanic voters have a big footprint in at least three crucial battleground states: Nevada, Colorado and Florida. Every month, about 50,000 Hispanics turn voting age. They helped decide the 2012 election, even before the returns came in from states such as Ohio, which we were told would be key to determining the winner. This trend will likely continue in 2016 and beyond.
There is another side to that coin, too. Hispanics don’t have nearly as much political power as they think, especially in Washington. That’s because the nation’s capital runs on cash, and Hispanics don’t often contribute to political campaigns or run the nonprofit organizations that dole out the street money that buys loyalty in Washington.
On immigration, which neither Democrats nor Republicans want to take on – and both parties were eager to put it on the back burner, using the Syria crisis as an excuse, Hispanic voters are alienated by Republicans and insulted by Democrats. They’re fooled, lied to and manipulated – including by groups that pretend to speak for them, often headed up by non-Latinos.
Yet, every year at this time, Hispanics strut around as if they’ve accomplished great things and are destined to accomplish greater things down the road.
Say, maybe we should change the date of this celebration – to April 1.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.