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Categorizing Markets by Surnames Is Misleading

June 24, 1996|R. HUNTER GARCIA

Arbitron's attempt to determine the breakdown of the "Hispanic radio market" between Spanish-surnamed people who speak only English, Spanish-surnamed people who are bilingual or Spanish-surnamed people who speak only Spanish is a long-needed move in the direction of acknowledging the inaccuracy and inherent racism of America's methods of categorizing people for marketing or sociological reasons ("Arbitron Poll Will Seek to Clarify Who's Listening," Calendar, May 28).

Myself, I was born Ricardo Garcia in Lake Charles, La., the son of an Air Force sergeant of Mexican American descent, from south Texas. My mother, whose maiden name was Hunter, was also in the Air Force at the time. She came from Danbury, Conn., of a vague WASP background, the details of which I've never been able to uncover. Most of my growing-up years were spent on air base assignments, primarily in Turkey and Spain, with brief assignments here in the United States. In the wake of my parents' divorce, I adopted my mother's maiden name as my middle name, becoming Ricardo Hunter Garcia.

Twice in my life I have lived in a city where my last name categorized me inaccurately with regard to my marketing, consumer or sociological traits. When I was in the 10th grade, we were assigned to Albuquerque, where many primarily Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed students took a course called Spanish III as a "gut course," or "easy-A" course. I took it because I was still learning to conjugate Spanish verbs with an accent inherited from my mother. (She actually used to pronounce the H in "Hola"!) I was an anomaly because I was the only member of an entirely Spanish-surnamed class who was actually there to learn Spanish. Ironically, the teacher was an Anglo woman who spoke Spanish pretty badly in comparison to the other Spanish-speaking students. Similarly, since moving to Los Angeles, I have been receiving a lot of marketing mail addressed to me exclusively in Spanish.

More to the point with regard to radio marketing, I recently lived in a small 10-apartment building in West Hollywood. In addition to me, there were three other Spanish-surnamed tenants, none of whom would constitute traditional notions of members of a Hispanic market. With regards to radio, two of the Spanish-surnamed tenants (Acevalo and Gutierrez) would clearly only listen to KROQ or any English-speaking hard-rock or jazz-related station. The third Spanish-surnamed person (Morales) would be more inclined to listen to an English-speaking pop/R&B station, if anything.

Myself, I rarely listen to the radio. When I do, it has always been exclusively while in the car and primarily to "The Howard Stern Show," which I follow as both a media observer and as a fan of much of his humor. More recently, I have occasionally turned on the rock station KSCA-FM (101.9) and the college/alterative rock station KXLU-FM (88.9). Most often, I listen to my car stereo.

The article on Arbitron particularly struck me because it came only a week after a friend taking a UCLA Extension course on radio marketing had brought up this precise topic to a guest speaker. The woman was understandably unprepared to address what is a complex issue but defensively remarked that she was "half-Hispanic" although her married surname was not Spanish. Ironically, by pointing that out, she illustrated an even more complicated aspect of assessing a demographic by surnames: the adoption of non-Spanish surnames by women who marry non-Spanish surnamed husbands.

There are other reasons for not categorizing huge population groups by umbrella labels. One of my favorite quotes on the subject came from Whoopi Goldberg, who declines to call herself African American.

"I don't hear people calling themselves Russian Americans. Everybody calls themselves American," Goldberg said. "My family and their grandparents and their grandparents built this country. This is mine. Four generations, five generations. I have a huge root that goes to the core. I've been to Africa. Completely different culture. This is my culture."

I would just add that as a Garcia, I continue to speak Spanish badly, although my love for my primarily Spanish-speaking grandmother and relatives in Laredo, Texas, remains constant. What the marketing executives need to know, and what the Arbitron study is trying to point out, is that my grandmother and I would never, by choice, listen to the same radio station.

* R. Hunter Garcia is a television critic at the Hollywood Reporter and a book critic for Publishers Weekly. He also does stand-up comedy under the stage name Gay Boy Ric. His e-mail address is:

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