Are Brazilians Latino (and Does Anybody Care)?

I got a note this summer from an inquiring mind:

“Hi – I enjoy reading the take on marketing to Latinos, but I can’t help but to [sic] be curious – where do the Brazilian-Americans come into the picture? Are they counted as Latinos in writings on ClickZ? Brazilians aren’t Latinos according to the Government census, even though the AP thinks they are.”

Source: Wikipedia

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten this question. And I’m not talking about the more obvious, most frequently asked question – are Brazilians “Latino”? – but the more meaningful question – where do Brazilian-Americans come into the picture? In 2012, Latinos in America have truly come into their own, even earning a cover on Time Magazine as the one group most likely to determine the presidential election. But with close to 200 million in their home country alone – and close to one million in the U.S., according to some estimates – Brazilians matter too. Why have they been left out of the U.S. Latino marketing party, and does anyone really care? Does it even matter?

Depends How You Ask the Identity Question

Based on the note from my reader – and from what I have been able to glean from articles, blogs, and online forums – Brazilians in the U.S. do care about the Brazilian/Latino question (well, at least some of them do; more about that in a moment). But first let’s spend some time looking at the more obvious question about identity. What is a Latino, from a U.S. perspective? To answer that, we need to go further back when most folks in the U.S. used the term “Hispanic.” According to a landmark article in 2009 by the Pew Hispanic Center, “in 1976, the U.S. Congress passed the only law in this country’s history that mandated the collection and analysis of data for a specific ethnic group: ‘Americans of Spanish origin or descent.'” This helped to shape the way many Americans – and marketers – began to think of people south of the border. But “Spanish origin or descent” was rather limiting. A bit later – with influence from Hispanics from the Western half of the U.S. – we began to use the word Latino, which, according to Wikipedia, referred more generally “to anyone of Latin American origin or ancestry, including Brazilians” (emphasis added). But back to the U.S. government, the most persistent marketer to Latinos of all: the Census today has this to say:

“The terms ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ refer to persons who trace their origin or descent to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Spanish speaking Central and South America countries, and other Spanish cultures. Origin can be considered as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. People who identify their origin as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.”

There are three things worth noting here. First, the Census sees the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” as interchangeable. Second, the Census seems to be limiting both terms to include only people from Spanish-speaking countries, excluding Brazilians from the analysis. Third, and perhaps most important to this particular essay, the question of who really qualifies as a Hispanic or Latino is somewhat subjective. The language here provides some latitude – origin can be based on “heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States.” But in practice, as we shall see, citizens have an even broader lens with which to examine their Hispanic/Latino identity.

Depends Who’s Asking

Again, it’s important to note that the language in question here is coming from the U.S. government. We have a special history with Latin-American culture, and the Spanish-language filter has been enormously helpful to both government and commercial marketers. For despite the fact that Hispanics and Latinos don’t represent a single monolithic bloc (a subject that my co-columnist Gustavo Razzettii and I have written about often), the unifying influence of language has simplified (perhaps oversimplified) the work for marketers. In other words, limiting the terms Hispanic and Latino to refer only to people from Spanish-speaking countries is a convenient marketing fiction. But don’t blame the U.S. alone for this. This has been going on for years. When the Romans first conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they divided the territory into different parts, with Lusitania (then Portugal) recognized as a separate province. Language helps war-makers and marketers alike organize and engage people more efficiently, often with little precision.

But what if the question were asked of the people? This is, after all, the age of social, and people have a say as to who they are and where they are from. The 2009 Pew study uncovered a remarkable phenomenon: the Census gives people an astonishing amount of freedom to decide whether they are Hispanic or Latino. Pew provided a hilarious though somewhat troubling Q&A for its readers:

Q. I immigrated to Phoenix from Mexico. Am I Hispanic?

A. You are if you say so.

Q. My parents moved to New York from Puerto Rico. Am I Hispanic?

A. You are if you say so.

Q. My grandparents were born in Spain but I grew up in California. Am I Hispanic?

A. You are if you say so.

Q. I was born in Maryland and married an immigrant from El Salvador. Am I Hispanic?

A. You are if you say so.

Q. My mom is from Chile and my dad is from Iowa. I was born in Des Moines. Am I Hispanic?

A. You are if you say so.

Q. I was born in Argentina but grew up in Texas. I don’t consider myself Hispanic. Does the Census count me as an Hispanic?

A. Not if you say you aren’t.

But what if you find the definitions of Hispanic and Latino ambiguous, and your parents were born in Brazil? The Pew study suggests that you could very well say you are Hispanic or Latino. But how many Brazilian-Americans would say that? Says Pew: “In the 1980 Census, about one in six Brazilian immigrants and one in eight Portuguese and Filipino immigrants identified as Hispanic. Similar shares did so in the 1990 Census, but by 2000, the shares identifying as Hispanic dropped to levels close to those seen today.”

The Brazil Brand

The fact is, not a whole lot of Brazilians care for the Hispanic or Latino label. As one reader noted on Quora:

“Brazilians are Brazilians. Brazilians are South American. Brazilians are Latin American. Brazilians are awesome. Brazilians are a lot of things. But they are not Latino. Latino’s [sic] only exist in the US context and come from Spanish speaking countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. And no, Spaniards are not Latino.”

I don’t disagree, necessarily. But what’s interesting to me as a marketer is that Brazilians are not the only people who reject the terms. A more recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that a majority of Spanish-speaking Americans prefer to self-identify from their country of origin. The study got a lot of press. But the flip side to the story got less attention: despite the rejection of simple labels, many respondents expressed “a strong, shared connection to the Spanish language.” In the end, the binding effects of language provide a great number of different people – from different origins – a sense of unity…and power. For so many years, marketers have been picturing Latinos as a single group because it was convenient. Increasingly, Latinos are beginning to do this themselves. We may not like the labels, but we do like the power (why not?).

If you’re a marketer that might explain why you haven’t found a way to fit Brazilians into the “picture,” as my reader suggests. But perhaps it’s time to reframe that picture. The force known as Brazil in Latin America is formidable. The last time it made itself felt, perhaps, was the days of bossa nova, when Americans had a nice and expansive idea of what it meant to be a Latin lover. It was a romantic notion, in every sense of the word. But today, the Brazilian brand is a lot more real. It’s about facing a staggering number of challenges in one of the world’s most racially diverse geographies. It’s about a country – despite its invisibility in the U.S. – that is seen globally as one of the world’s emerging economies, the “B” in the new order of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) nations. It’s about a country that will soon showcase its assets and its problems on a world stage: the 2016 Summer Olympics.

I know something about the Brazil brand – I was one of many U.S. marketers who assisted the city of Chicago in its bid to be the host city for the 2016 Games. Chicago lost, Brazil won. But I suspect that both marketers and the Brazilian people will need to work harder to frame the opportunity to better fit into the pan-American narrative. If it’s just a matter of language – English vs. Spanish vs. Portuguese – the opportunity will be forever obscured, despite the fact that Portuguese is the most spoken language in the entire Southern Hemisphere (yep). But if it’s a matter of geopolitics and commerce – South and North – Brazil will be a huge part of this story; it already is. Time for Hispanics, Latinos, and Americans in general to notice.

This column was originally published on July 24, 2012.

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