Am I less Latino if I don’t speak Spanish?

Earlier this year I was intrigued by an article on the NBC Latino website. In an opinion piece by Raul A. Reyes, a question was tackled that I’m sure many of us of Latin American heritage have heard before. If you do not speak Spanish, are you less Latino? Reyes brought up San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro who became well known on the heels of his Democratic National Convention speech. Apparently Castro is not fluent in Spanish and his lack of fluency implies, by some, that his Hispanic heritage may not be perceived as authentic.

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Huevos con aceite: Are you missing song lyrics or opportunities?

I remember listening to popular music as a teenager. Sometimes the way lyrics were sung gave much leeway to misinterpretations. Some of the most famous misinterpretations have become almost legendary and many can be found on the website The site is named after the popular Jimi Hendrix song Purple Haze in which the lyrics “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky” have often been misinterpreted as “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”. Kind of funny. What happens, though, when the layer of a second language defines how an individual interprets the letras of a song? The results can be amusing, if not somewhat clever.

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How important is language for Latinos?

Spending time with family this past summer, I was made aware of how multilingual Latino individuals can be. My mother-in-law came to visit from Puerto Rico a few weeks ago and we all gathered for a cookout one day. It was interesting to see the various ways everyone would communicate and interact. My mother-in-law practically spoke all in Spanish. My wife, who grew up both in Puerto Rico and the U.S., easily toggled between English and Spanish. The younger generations, who spoke primarily in English, would occasionally try their hand at Spanish with our visiting matriarch. Yet, despite our various levels of bilingualism, we all able to share together as a family. Assuming our family is just as common as many other Latino families, to what extent should language determine how companies and organizations connect to Hispanics in the U.S.?

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Connecting to the Spanglish speaking market

Last year while on route to Puerto Rico, my flight itinerary stopped in Miami for a layover. Sitting in the airport terminal, I overheard pieces of a conversation by two young Latinas. They spoke toggling back and forth between English and Spanish with ease. It was a great example of “Spanglish” being spoken fluidly between two completely bilingual and bicultural individuals. A conversation in Spanglish often ebbs and flows with little grammatical rules and few predictable guidelines as to when one tongue should be spoken versus the other. This creates a unique challenge for marketing professionals seeking to connect with Hispanic audiences. Although Spanglish is used frequently among many young Latinos, is it really possible for brand messages to communicate in this dialect?

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Lost in Translation No More

I’ll have to admit, the latest translation tools available on the Internet and mobile devices are looking quite impressive. Within the last year, some notable web and mobile translator apps have come forward with new and innovative features. 

Last year, Google upgraded its Translate web service to include real-time translation while you type. Clicking on sound icons will “speak” the words and phrases via a computerized voice. In December, QuestVisual released Word Lens, an iPhone app that uses the mobile device’s video camera to instantly translate words from one language to another. The Word Lens introductory video kept jaw-dropped viewers in awe for days.

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Should you hire a new translator?

At a recent meeting with a local Latino advisory group, I had the privilege of listening to a presentation by Carlos Pava, director of Voices for Health, a Grand Rapids, Michigan based translation service provider. Voices for Health serves many clients but specializes in the health care industry.

As Carlos presented Voices for Health’s list of capabilities, he explained the process used for screening translation candidates. On occasion, Voices for Health may reject a candidate based on lack of linguistic skills or knowledge of meaning between languages. Even candidates that are native, life-long speakers of a language can be rejected. The truth is, just because someone is a native speaker of Spanish or is of Latin-American heritage does not make him or her an automatic bridge to Latino culture.

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