News & Politics

English, Spanish, Spanglish

To reach our growing Hispanic population, you need to know more than the language.

Speaking Spanglish

Ten years ago, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus asked Luis Vasquez-Ajmac to translate its ads into Spanish. Vasquez-Ajmac wanted to go further: What if the circus hosted a bilingual night? He envisioned the DC Armory filled with Hispanic families and the ringmaster with a sidekick who talked in Spanish.

The circus decided to try the idea on Easter Sunday. Vasquez-Ajmac was skeptical–many Hispanic families are devout Catholics.

He put ads on Telemundo and Univision, the Spanish television stations. He booked spots in Washington's Spanish-language papers and on radio outlets. He called the event Noche Latino, or Latin Night.

At 3 PM on the day of the show, only 3,500 tickets had been sold–no more than on a typical Easter. Vasquez-Ajmac started to sweat.

Then, around 5, families started lining up. By the time the show started, 10,000 people were packed in.

Vasquez-Ajmac, 44, often convinces companies to trust his vision. Marketing to Hispanic consumers may be new to them, but he's been at it for years.

In 1990 he founded Maya, an advertising and communications firm, the area's first agency devoted to tracking Hispanic spending. He's since created campaigns for such companies as Verizon, Comcast, and Pepco.

Other groups, including government agencies, are scrambling to woo Hispanic consumers to buy their products or enroll in their programs. Many enlist Vasquez-Ajmac's help. Hispanic-Americans have $700 billion in purchasing power–$9 billion of it around Washington.

One-third of Hispanics, the biggest minority group nationwide, are under 18. The switch by radio station WHFS from alternative rock to Latin music–and the name El Zol–is the most recent sign of a shift.

"Five to ten years ago, everyone was clamoring for the youth market," Vasquez-Ajmac says. "The Hispanic community is where the dollars are now."

TO market to Hispanics, Vasquez-Ajmac says, you have to understand their sensibilities. They don't like scare tactics. They want to feel understood.

He often reminds executives that Hispanics aren't a uniform group: Ads directed at Latino soccer moms are going to differ from those aimed at a bicultural Hispanic teenager or a new immigrant.

Marketing to Salvadorans or Mexicans, who Vasquez-Ajmac says are proud and nostalgic for home, is different from ads directed toward Guatemalans or Costa Ricans, who tend to assimilate faster. That's why Vasquez-Ajmac used cartoon characters of llamas and quetzals in an ad for Pepco–the animals and birds would get the attention of Salvadorans.

In a TV commercial for the Federal Reserve Bank aimed at elderly Puerto Ricans, Vasquez-Ajmac had a woman dancing to the church hymn "Alleluia," with the words changed to "Ai bendito"–or "O blessed one," a common Puerto Rican expression.

The ad seemed too religious for the Federal Reserve, but Vasquez-Ajmac assured them: "Every Hispanic household has a cross on the wall."

When Pepco asked him to create a public-service ad to discourage kids from playing near power lines, Vasquez-Ajmac decided on a cartoon with a boy rapping in a mix of Spanish and English: Be careful, cuidado con cables tan cerca, which translates as Be careful, be careful with those wiresso close.

Says Vasquez-Ajmac: "Bicultural children speak lots of Spanglish."

LUIS Vasquez-Ajmac came to Washington from Guatemala with his parents when he was six. Growing up in Bethesda and Silver Spring, he was often the only Hispanic child in class. While at Kennedy High School, he went with his parents to Amnesty International meetings. The discussions got him thinking: Why weren't the papers covering conflicts in Central America?

At American University in the early 1980s, he volunteered with The Voice of Central America, a radio program on WPFW. He then was an intern in Univision's Washington bureau. An early assignment: covering the Air Florida crash near DC's 14th Street Bridge.

After a few years at ABC News–where his job included attaching a microphone to Charles Gibson–he grew more committed to getting Hispanics into the media. He worked in radio and started Maya advertising out of his Adams Morgan apartment. One of his first clients was DC's newly formed Latino Civil Rights Task Force.

Vasquez-Ajmac hopes his ads help young Hispanics: Scripts feature Latin actors playing doctors and police officers, not housekeepers and nannies. The community is portrayed as a diverse and integral part of Washington.

Says Vasquez-Ajmac: "Our story wasn't being told. I decided to tell it."