All of a sudden, Latinos are hot. We say that somewhat facetiously because all the elements behind this newfound recognition among media and political types have been around for years. In L.A., the Latino culture is truly a part of the city's heritage (even if many of us are just now going beyond the stereotypes of Latinos being either gardeners or gang members).
But it's more than just a cultural issue it's big bucks. Various studies have placed the buying power of Latinos in Los Angeles at anywhere from $50 billion to $70 billion a solidly middle-class, home-owning portion of the community that corporate America now covets.
It's also a community that's increasingly melding itself into the mainstream, a point made clear in recent weeks by the efforts of local English-language television stations to introduce more of a Latino presence. This includes the selection of a Latina sportscaster on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and the programming of a late-night, Latino-themed entertainment show on KCBS-TV Channel 2.
For several years now, these and other L.A. stations have seen KMEX-TV Channel 34 pick up the lion's share of the Latino market and in the process become L.A.'s No. 1 station in the key 18- to 49-year-old demographic. Meanwhile, viewership among the English-language stations has been languishing at best.
The trick, of course, is in reaching out to the acculturated Latino who does not want to be painted into a "Spanish-only" box someone just as likely to be watching "Friends" as a telenovela. This is the group, advertisers correctly recognize, that represents significant spending power.
It is not an easy transition. Several weeks ago, the Business Journal reported that a Spanish-language ad that Chevron Corp. had run on KCBS (with English subtitles) resulted in a number of angry phone calls, letters and e-mails. Chevron did not say exactly how many (and in a market as large as Los Angeles, it would not be unusual to receive a smattering of responses on almost anything).
But the visceral nature of those who did respond and who later amplified their comments on radio call-in shows illustrates the challenge of moving Latinos, or any large minority group, into the marketing mainstream. Language remains the lightning rod just as it was in the eventual passage of Proposition 227, which is expected to phase out bilingual instruction in California's public schools.
In the end, of course, the bottom line eventually prevails, meaning that the local stations will gladly risk the wrath of a few closed-minded viewers for the sake of the big bucks being promised by the Latino middle class. Whether that means more Spanish-language commercials on English-language TV is unclear, though in the end it may not matter. The number of Latinos who regularly use English at work and at home is steadily rising. The two languages are clearly interlocking, no matter how vocal the "English-only" extremists.
As Los Angeles reshapes itself for the 21st century (richly presented in the pages of this week's 20th anniversary issue), this interlocking of cultures, peoples and ideas is not only a plus for the community, it's a necessity. The demographic and economic realities insist on it as does the simple human need to get along.
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