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The Beauty of Cultural Meaning-making: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

What does it mean to be Hispanic American today? For National Hispanic Heritage Month, we looked across past studies to understand how Hispanic Americans make and remake their identities relationally and geographically. What we uncovered revealed what this means to them at a deeper level.  

Here are four things we’ve learned from stories shared by our respondents: 

  1. Heritage carries fascinating & emotional stories

We heard moving stories like that of a third-generation Mexican American tracking their ancestors’ long and difficult immigration journeys on and through family archives of letters, photos, and oral traditions. A first-generation American woman talked about cherishing a black coral necklace as a family heirloom that links her both to Belize and its coral reef, as well as to a long line of women in her family who came before her. From a second-generation Honduran American, we were told of the labor and love that goes into making her family’s Christmas tamales – it’s a whole-day affair. Story after story highlights how family history and heritage are core to how they define themselves, their communities and future generations. 

  1. Labels can sometimes unite communities  

In our research, we’ve heard that what can be controversial categories of “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” (or more recently, “Latinx” and “Latine”) can also be important unifiers for the broader community of people of Latin American and Spanish descent, and our respondents across studies value this connection, especially in such a disparate geographic context as the US where their family members migrated to start a new life. Shared stories of displacement due to political violence, global trade agreements, unstable economic systems, and dwindling opportunities as drivers of immigration unite people from many different countries throughout Latin America. 

  1. But generalized labels can also perpetuate stereotypes and erase cultural difference

We see a thoughtful wariness of being lumped all together – a move that can reaffirm stereotypes and erase the unique cultural differences across different places of origin. Being seen as Mexican American or Peruvian American or Nicaraguan American reflects a deeper recognition of who someone is at their core – what specific experiences and traditions have shaped their lives, what music, food, dance, language, and rituals of birth and death mean at the level of country of origin as well as, for many, those traditions unique even to the small rural town where they or the generations who came before them lived. 

  1. Attention to even the most granular details can make or break a brand relationship

Practicing these traditions is at the center of what it means to be deeply connected to others and to place, and how moments of life-making and flourishing are expressed and enjoyed – sustaining, making, and remaking these most foundational aspects of identity. Across categories – food and drink, healthcare, skincare, automotive – we’ve found surprising depth even in what may seem to be mundane consumer choices as they reflect careful consideration of how advertising represents “Hispanic Americans,” what stereotypes and tropes get circulated again and again, and how brands can “get things right” by paying attention to specificity and core values of what community, connection, and identity mean in the lived experiences of specific communities and at the scale of the individual. 

The only way to get things right is to listen, to sit back and let people share what is most important to them, to enter into the process of research with an open mind and heart, a willingness to have preconceived ideas challenged and reshaped. Storytelling is at the heart of this practice, and across a rich tapestry of stories, meaningful themes emerge that will allow brands to connect with consumers at a deeper level – a level that honors their heritage and experience.   

What stories are you hearing when you sit quietly and listen? Where can these stories lead us in creating more nuanced, specific, and culturally relevant connections?