CHICAGO -- I, and I suspect many others, have a love-hate relationship with Hispanic Heritage Month. On one hand, it's fiestas and pinatas and school children learning about Cesar Chavez and how great Latin American culture is.
But on the other, it's a vivid reminder of the rest of the year's status quo. Though I've thought it myself a million times, I don't think I've ever heard it described as eloquently as Arlene Davila, a professor of anthropology, social and cultural analysis at New York University, did last week.
"I've learned to see it as what it is, which is a huge marketing tool. This is the time of the year when corporations and institutions everywhere carve a little bit out of their budget to do something Latino," she told the NPR program "Latino USA."
"More often than not it becomes translated into things that make us feel good, like exhibitions or talks ... about Latino history, which is really significant because it points to what we usually don't get during the year because what happens is that within the month we go back to 'normal.' And going back to normal, as you know, is going back to a state where it's OK to ignore Latinos, to not teach Latino history, and to not know (about Latinos)."
Like so many others, I take this time of the year to marvel at the bizarre lengths companies go to in their Hispandering. Blockbuster, the movie rental company, sent an email to inform me that it's adding a "Cine Latino" movie section "dedicated to celebrating the Latino genre of film" in more than 200 of its stores. Cool -- I mean, if they've run the numbers and think that will make their registers ding, that's fine.
My advice to them is to tap the German-American market next. There are 49.8 million people describing themselves that way and counting. It might be worth looking into for next year -- German-American Heritage Month also runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.
At any rate, after years of watching how both Hispanics and non-Latinos handle Hispanic Heritage Month, a few themes emerge. Some organizations "honor" Latin American culture, others highlight our cultural similarities, but until this year I'd never seen a quantification of how Hispanics have changed non-Latinos' preferences and habits.
Wing, a marketing communications agency, and Experian Simmons, a consumer research firm, recently released the results of what they dubbed "The Latino Influence Project." What was interesting was the methodology. The researchers surveyed more than 25,000 people: non-Hispanics who live in communities with large concentrations of Latinos, and non-Hispanics who live in areas with few Latinos. They then measured how Hispanic norms subtly affected non-Latinos' behavior.
The results were, well, weird.
OK, not all the results were surprising. For instance, non-Hispanics living in Latino-dense neighborhoods were three times more likely to be interested in other cultures and love the idea of traveling abroad. And they're five and a half times more likely to eat jalapenos and six times as likely as those not living in close proximity to Latinos to listen to and enjoy subgenres of Latin American music such as salsa and merengue.
But I had to scratch my head and wonder why non-Latinos living among Hispanics would, for instance, be twice as likely to buy recycled products, twice as likely to experiment with new clothing styles and say they want to "stand out from the crowd," and almost 2.5 times likelier to pay attention to the commercials in movie theaters.
Perhaps my particular majority-Hispanic community is just not as progressive as others. People here are not particularly "green," dapper, likely to crowd the local movie theater, or be very well accepted by their older, white neighbors. But I may just live in a statistical anomaly.
In his statement announcing the results, Andrew Speyer, Managing Director of Wing, said, "This study is the first to offer statistically significant proof that Hispanic attitudes and behaviors are permeating the broader culture." Unspoken was the presumption that it's a positive impact and not strictly the doomsday scenarios that some like to paint when Latinos come to town.
Though I'd like to think Hispanics will make meaningful long-term contributions to our society far beyond a love of spicy food and natty fashions, it's a start toward something more than sombreros and Mayan calendars during just one month out of the year. And at this point, I'll take what I can get.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at email@example.com.