When Latin Americans return to the old neighborhood, but are not always welcome.
Last weekend, The New York Times got the attention of Latino trend spotters in a piece about the socioeconomic transformation of the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. The piece, which explores how middle class and other upwardly mobile Latinos are returning to working-class Boyle Heights (a phenomenon that some residents have called "gentefication"), poses a number of big questions about the fragile delicacy of the American dream:
"The transition has provided a jolt of energy and a transfusion of money, but it has also created friction with working-class residents here. And tensions over just whom this neighborhood belongs to are a clear sign that Latinos have come of age in Los Angeles, where they are expected to become the majority this year. The changes highlight strong class divisions that continue - or are even worsened - among immigrants….
Boyle Heights has historically attracted immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, Japan and Mexico. In the 1960s, it became a hotbed of Chicano activism, and many of the colorful murals over dozens of walls are a vivid reminder of the era. For those moving back now, the idea that they are pushing others out is the source of much consternation."
Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights. Source: Wikipedia.
I'll try looking at this phenomenon on ClickZ in the coming year. For now, there are three quick observations worth sharing for anyone tracking developments in Latino marketing.
First, the return of well-to-do Latinos in the barrio, of course, upsets the narrative we've long constructed about Latinos. Never mind that this has been happening for a long time. If The New York Times notices it, and others can begin chiming in, it will get the attention of general-market advertisers and spawn bigger efforts to target these groups.
Second, I say groups and not group because even as The New York Times piece demonstrates, we are not talking about a single demographic, psychographic, or generational cohort. It includes urban chipsters (Chicano hipsters), urban-life entrepreneurs (café owners, club owners, restaurateurs), and affluent professionals (doctors, lawyers, and a wide range of creatives). I expect we'll see a lot of attention placed on the chipsters, because the category, visually, is so irresistible. But savvier marketers will embrace the complexity and diversity of the protagonists (and antagonists) in the new Latino narrative.
Finally, savvier marketers will also embrace the complexities of the narrative itself. Here's one: that for many Latinos who are in fact returning to the old neighborhood there's a great desire to make things right. Gentefication, of course, is a play on gentrification, a derogatory frame for describing what happens to poorer people in urban areas when suddenly it's cool for others to move in. But what gentefication implies is that the people (gente) might actually care, and that there's an opportunity to reframe the story.
As I wrote in a blog post for Forbes over the weekend, Latinos are particularly well-poised for a new kind of marketing where instead of targeting a group, you look for better ways to mix with it. The opportunity for marketers is to find ways to enable the haves to better mix with the have-nots. It would not be the first time this opportunity has presented itself. The new revival of Harlem is perhaps the most striking example. But for Latinos in cities everywhere across the U.S. - a country in which they will represent one in three of all people by mid-century - the opportunity from a story perspective is fresh. Couple that with the recent trend of people fleeing the suburbs and reengaging city life and potentially, this is a narrative with a big, bold, beautiful arc. Someone is going to get this right.
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Giovanni Rodriguez is an author, consultant, and public speaker on organizational leadership and digital/social communications. The views expressed in this blog are entirely his own.
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