In 2005, during my sabbatical in Mexico, I spent a period of time working in a Querétaro marketing firm as a designer. I decided to lend my expertise in exchange for the opportunity to experience day-to-day life in a Spanish-speaking work environment. One day, I was working on an assignment for a real estate client, developing layouts for a promotional print ad. As I had done many times before, I scoured stock photography websites for good images. I found one particular photo of a smiling young couple enjoying their recently purchased home. The couple in the photo happened to be of African heritage. I later reviewed the new designs with the agency’s director. When we came to the layout with the young couple, he pointed to the image and said, “I’m sorry, but here in Mexico we cannot feature images of dark complected people.”
He further explained the suggestion didn’t reflect his personal feelings, but rather it was based on his extensive experience as a marketing professional in Mexico and his awareness of what the country’s populace would or would not accept in advertising. I realized I was a guest within a culture different from what I was accustomed to and went along with his suggestion, but was disturbed by it. Suffice to say, from a purely business perspective, the agency’s director was correct. Based on the overwhelming majority of advertising I saw in Mexico at the time, marketers certainly did prefer featuring light-completed faces to those with darker tones. However, at the risk of “airing out dirty laundry” about our Latino nationalities, shouldn’t we as professionals seek to battle discriminatory attitudes that we may find in our communities both here in the U.S. and within our countries of origin?
Juan Daniel Castro, a very good friend and talented Grand Rapids, Michigan based linguist, once pointed out to me that it is imperative for multi-lingual professionals to promote gender equality through language. In Spanish, adjectives will end in either the masculine “o” or feminine “a” and can be interchanged depending on the related noun. However, when writing in a general context where no masculine or feminine preference has been defined, most Spanish users will write the masculine “o” in default. When Juan Daniel produces his Spanish, he will often opt to use the gender inclusive “o/a” at the end of adjectives. He believes the exclusion of female readers, be it intentional or unintentional, should not be tolerated and crafts his professional services based on these values.
The issue race in Latin America was recently featured in a PBS series by esteemed Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The series, Black in Latin America, explored the African influence in a handful of Latin and South American countries including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico where African heritage is mostly hidden. Professor Gates certainly did his research and sought to unveil some of the little known cultural idiosyncrasies that exist in African Latin America along with individuals that advocate bringing them out of the shadows. In the histories of these nations, most went through a period of “whitening” where African cultures were discouraged from mainstream society in favor of a more Euro-centric preference. While these nations are still in the process of recognizing the accomplishments and influence of their African communities, Gates paints an optimistic picture of a Latin American future that confidently showcases all the colors of its multi-ethnic backgrounds.
Although I have predominantly used examples of race and gender in this post, there are certainly other areas within our Latino communities that fall victim to discrimination as well. So, in closing, I would like to propose a manifesto with other multi-cultural professionals–especially marketers–and ask what we can do to advance our Latino communities beyond the attitudes of the past. Although we often must answer to client, market, and business demands, we are also influential professionals and can make a point of standing firm on discriminatory attitudes based race, ethnicity, orientation, and gender. Yes, Latinos are the most diverse and largest minority in the U.S., but that shouldn’t exclude us from accepting this responsibility. With regard to my original story about the agency director in Mexico, I still wonder if I should have further sustained my convictions against discrimination. Regardless, it was a learning experience and one that has formed stronger beliefs within myself to this day. Please join me.
Mexico and Latin America has always been obsessed with skin color. This is no surprise. The attitude of “I don’t make the rules, I just follow them” is an easy way out. But it’s more complex and deeply rooted than that. How do you unlearn the attitudes of a population that was once systematically and customarily categorized and discriminated by skin color? The Spanish caste system was imposed over 500 years ago, it only went away on paper not from the mind. I think that a stronger universal code of ethics in marketing can help guide the profession toward a more appropriate and equal demographic representation. We have laws against discrimination, unfortunately in marketing, and other communication practices, it seems that agencies and individuals can indirectly (and directly) discriminate and get around this lawfully because it is “good for business” and that is always their bottom line.