Defining Hispanic Acculturation

In my role as a Hispanic market consultant I am often asked about the different levels of acculturation in the US Latino community. In conducting marketing research studies with Latinos it is certainly important to pay close attention to the different acculturation levels; failing to do so would result in data that does not truly represent the market. The problem is that many in corporate America seem to think that acculturation can be easily divided into very clear and distinct segments. This is definitely not the case! There are as many definitions of acculturation and acculturation segments as there are experts willing to offer an explanation- and the truth is that there is not really a right or a wrong answer when it comes to defining acculturation. In my case I tend to define acculturation segments differently depending on the client, the industry, the particular geography in question, and many other factors that affect the marketing of a given product or service. In this article I present my own views on acculturation and attempt to give the reader some guidance on how to go about defining acculturation levels.

First of all, let us explore what acculturation means in the first place. By definition acculturation means a “cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture” or “a merging of cultures as a result of prolonged contact” ( In the case of the Latino community in the U.S. acculturation means becoming more “American” by adapting or borrowing the traits of the American culture. While this seems like a straightforward definition that makes sense, in reality it is not that simple. Think about it- what exactly are the traits of the American culture that are borrowed in acculturation? Is there really a set definition of American traits? I will argue that the US varies tremendously from region to region and covers many different cultures. Acculturating to the New York culture is not the same as acculturating to the Los Angeles culture.

Let me offer an example that demonstrates how extreme the differences in American cultural traits can be. A couple of years ago I conducted a Spanish language interview with a Latina in McAllen Texas. Prior to the interview she had completed a screener questionnaire. One question in that screener asked about her country of origin and she had indicated that her country of origin was the United States. Another question in the screener asked about language preferences and she said that she spoke only Spanish. While she qualified for the interview in all other respects, my client wanted clarification. How could someone say that the U.S. is their country of origin and not speak any English? During the interview I asked for clarification. She explained that she had traced her family back several generations and they are all original residents of McAllen Texas. They consider themselves American- not Mexican, because they are indeed American. However, her family never left McAllen and most people in that area of the U.S. speak only Spanish- it was not necessary for her or others in her family to learn English. In fact, Spanish is an important part of the “American” culture in that region of the United States.

Acculturation also evolves differently depending on the region. Miami is a great example of a different type of acculturation. Third generation Cubans in Miami are in almost every respect completely acculturated. They speak English and act “American” in almost every way. However, most have also retained their Cuban cultural heritage. They can easily switch from English to Spanish and feel very much at ease when interacting with both non-Hispanic Americans and unacculturated Latinos. These individuals live in both cultures and are a good representation of the type of acculturation that is becoming more common in other regions of the country.

So… what goes into defining acculturation? Typical measures used include the number of years in the country, the age in which they entered the country, English language proficiency, Spanish media consumption, and other variables that are sometimes associated with acculturation like the type of sporting events they follow or their social drinking behavior (e.g. happy hour is an acculturated behavior). I do not believe, however, that there can be a set acculturation algorithm that can be applied across the board. Many of my colleagues have attempted to promote their “perfect” acculturation formulas and I feel that that has created more confusion surrounding this subject. My recommendation is to look at your own unique situation and define acculturation segments that fit your particular marketing situation.

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