Hispanics’ Web Identity Grows As Ads Target Diverse Audience

Alan Sipress, Washington Post, October 7, 2006

Alberto Otero moved from Puerto Rico to Washington as a boy and grew up listening to the old salsa records his parents played to remind them of home.

Five years ago, he began getting his fix of salsa from an Hispanic music Web site called Batanga.com. When a melody grew repetitive, he surfed across the other genres of Latin music featured on the site and soon discovered a taste for the loping, rolling songs from Colombia known as cumbia , the Cuban dance rhythms of cubanisimo and urban American Hispanic music called reggaeton. The offerings of the Internet, he said, helped reshape his sense of what it meant to be Hispanic.

“I’m thinking of myself as an American Latino,” said Otero, 30, an education counselor. “This has broadened me.”

Today, a contest over Hispanic identity is being waged on the terrain of the Internet. The proliferation of Web sites such as Batanga, which appeal to Latinos regardless of where they come from, is pulling in one direction, encouraging the emergence of a wider Hispanic identity that transcends the borders that long fragmented the group. But a countervailing trend, which taps into the endless specialization available on the Web, is pushing the opposite way, toward a narrower identity rooted in homeland and even in hometown.

“The Internet allows you to develop a greater identity, but you can still find out the weather in your parents’ hometown,” said Rebeca Logan, a former news producer at AOL Latino.

Motivated by commercial considerations, Web sites such as AOL Latino, Univision.com, Yahoo-Telemundo and Batanga are trying to capture as large an Hispanic audience as possible in a bid for advertisers. The interest in that market is soaring, with advertisers more than tripling the amount they spend online targeting U.S. Hispanics in just the last year, said Lee Vann, co-founder of the Captura Group, an online Hispanic marketing firm.

These Web sites, often with an emphasis on culture, entertainment and immigration issues, are accelerating an established trend among U.S.-born Hispanics toward a pan-Latino identity, researchers and marketers said.

“The Internet is facilitating a lot of interaction and learning from each other,” said Felipe Korzenny, an expert in Hispanic marketing at Florida State University. “Groups are becoming more flexible and more appreciative across countries.”

But the Web has also made it possible for Hispanics in the United States to remain plugged into the news and culture of their ancestral lands by reading the more than 700 Latin American newspapers now online. Other niche sites, along with e-mail, Internet telephone services, instant messaging and social-networking sites such as MySpace.com and Quepasa.com, are allowing Hispanics to stay in daily contact with their families—and their local identities—as never before.

“You don’t have to leave behind where you come from,” said Donald A. DePalma, president of Common Sense Advisory Inc., a market research firm. “You can assimilate . . . but when you go home, you can get your online equivalent of comfort food.”

Though many ethnic groups claim their identity runs in their blood, technology has long played a decisive role in how people see themselves. It was the advent of the printing press in the 15th century that shaped the European ethnic groups of today by introducing the mass publication of books in a limited number of standard European languages. Speakers of French, English and other European vernaculars increasingly began to identify with others who spoke the same language, planting the seeds for modern nations.

Since then, few technological developments have promised to reshape ethnic identities as dramatically as the Web.

Spanish-language television started forging a pan-Latino identity among American Hispanics more than two decades ago. Broadcasters, especially the longtime king of the Spanish-language airwaves, Univision, began introducing a standardized Spanish for news programs that would appeal to Latinos regardless of their home countries, Korzenny said. More recently, its main network competitor, Telemundo introduced a policy that actors in the fabulously popular telenovelas be coached to speak in a neutral, flat Spanish without any of the idiosyncrasies associated with one country or another.

The Internet is now accelerating this trend, he said.

Gustavo Paredes, 51, was raised in Adams Morgan, the son of immigrants from Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and had spent much of his life listening to the melodious, often breezy music of those two countries like salsa and merengue. But after he began experimenting with different channels on Batanga, he found he was unexpectedly drawn to songs from Mexico, which their unique rhythms and lyrics that often speak of pain, pride and loneliness.

This “cross-pollination,” Paredes said, “broadens the identity of Latinos.”

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But while many Hispanics are reaching out, others, like Francisco Maravilla, are reaching back. Maravilla, 42, moved to Gaithersburg six years ago from the small town of San Juan Nonualco, El Salvador, eventually got his green card and has never returned. But every day, he said, he logs on to the computer, calls up the sites of two main Salvadoran newspapers, La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy, and navigates to the pages with news from his home province, where the rest of his family still lives.

“How can I forget my country? I can never do that,” said Maravilla, who is employed as a school maintenance worker.

He also checks his hometown’s Web site about twice a month to keep up with local happenings and view photographs of local festivals. “No doubt about it,” he said, “the Web site keeps me feeling proud of my country and where I lived.”

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Yet online newspapers—there are more than 100 from Mexico alone—have emerged as the main way to stay connected. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center two years ago found that the Internet was one of the main ways that Hispanics in the United States kept informed about events in their country of origin.

Paula Avila, 24, came to Arlington nearly two years ago from Colombia and quickly turned to the Internet for news. Raised in the remote town of Yopel, she said she waits anxiously for the local monthly newspaper to update its site. More often, Avila turns to the Web site of the national newspaper, El Tiempo, published in the capital, Bogota, where she studied law.

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“I want to keep feeling proud of my country and my city and my people,” she said. “Following the news makes it easier to feel I still come from Colombia and to feel my identity.”

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