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Culture, commerce tug at Latinos

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — In a documentary recently presented by a University of Colorado associate professor, a retired Latina woman brushed away a tear as she recalled her first painful experiences as an adult job seeker and consumer.

As a fresh high school graduate, in the 1950s the young San Antonio, Texas, woman had inquired at the local telephone company for work and was turned down because they flat-out did not hire Mexican-Americans. And outside her neighborhood in the city’s predominantly Latino southwest side, signs popped up in shop windows that read: “No Mexicans. No Negroes. No dogs.”

In early May, Lisa Peñaloza, an associate professor of marketing at CU, presented the 47-minute film — “Generaciones/Generations: Cultural Identity, Memory and the Market” — to approximately 30 viewers at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder.

The film project, she explained, endeavored to raise questions about how things have changed in Latino culture since that era due to marketing targeted at this group since the mid-1980s.

Today, Peñaloza said, 40 million people in the United States identify themselves as Latino and collectively spend a half-trillion dollars annually.

But despite this significant bloc and the recent infusion of “Latin chik” with widely recognized pop icons such as singers Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, a Latino family of four still makes a median income in the upper $20,000 range, according to Peñaloza. That same income in the general population is in the upper $40,000 range.

In addition, mainstream culture seems to send mixed messages. On one hand, it pushes Spanish speakers to learn English. On the other, it uses the language to market aspects of the culture to the mainstream.

“We’re punished for speaking Spanish now. But you look at TV, and there are dogs speaking Spanish,” another woman interviewed for the film said, referring to the Taco Bell Chihuahua.

Others interviewed by Peñaloza for the documentary said such marketing often reduces their culture to a caricature.

San Antonio’s tourism thrives, for instance, on an image of strolling Mariachi bands, margarita bars and other aspects of the culture that represent only the tip of the iceberg, according to Peñaloza.

Yet she chose this city to make her film because Latinos comprise 65 percent of its population and have long been caught in the crosswinds of culture and commerce.

One man in the film, the owner of a souvenir and grocery store, said it was so hard to succeed that he would now stay on the top of the mountain “with a club.”

That kind of competitive spirit is not, according to various other documentary speakers, an intrinsic part of Latino culture. Yet, marketing and the hoopla it has created around Latinos has changed both the American mainstream and the Latino subculture, Peñaloza said.

Boulder resident Dorothy Bustamante attended the film and could personally relate to it. Now 61, she moved to Longmont in the 1950s, she said, as a fourth-grade student when her father relocated the family from Las Vegas, N.M., to take a job in Johnstown at the Great Western Sugar Factory.

She remembers the “white trade only” signs hanging in local shop windows, and wanted to view the film, she said, to understand her own experience in light of the larger culture’s growing interest in Latinos.

But instead of seeing the market as a means to greater economic opportunity, she explained, she continues to view education as the key to improving the overall opportunities.

“My father picked a house in Longmont because it had a library,” said Bustamante, an NCAR employee and co-president of the Lafayette-based Boulder County Latina Women’s League. “And three of us five kids got college degrees.”

Another film viewer was Jerry Martinez, 56, president of Westminster-based Flatbread Success Inc.

“This frontier of economic development is comparable to the emergence of women in business,” he said. “But the old adage ‘It takes money to make money’ is still true.”