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O.C.'s Latinos Are Missing Persons at the Fair

The group makes up nearly a third of county population but less than one-fifth of the attendees. Organizers hope to change that.

August 03, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Fair ends tonight with Latin zest.

Bull riders will get bucked in an arena as part of Fiesta del Charro, an event that fair officials hope will draw Latino families to the Costa Mesa fairgrounds. Some of the fair's musical acts -- mariachi and salsa-funk -- are spicier this year for the same reason.

But surveys show that nearly two-thirds of fair attendees are white in a county that is almost half Latino, Asian and black. Like fairs across California, Orange County's is struggling to attract families not rooted in the traditions of rural America.

Other fairs, such as San Diego County's, have aggressively -- and successfully -- catered to Spanish-speaking families since the early 1990s. But the Orange County Fair, according to a 2001 marketing survey, still "is not reaching/serving a cross-section of the population."

Ask where the Latino displays are at one of the fair's information booths and you'll probably be directed to a sopaipilla or taco stand. The fair's headliner tonight at the Pacific Amphitheatre -- running at the same time as the bull riders -- is the classic-rock group Boston.

"It's the whitey fair. That's what we call it," said Linda Martinez, 28, of Garden Grove, a volunteer sitting at the fair's Democratic Party exhibit Thursday night.

The fair, the state's fourth-largest, attracted nearly 900,000 people last year, most from Orange and Los Angeles counties. In a 2001 survey, about 63% of fair visitors were white and about 18% were Latino, with Asians and blacks at less than 5% each. A survey last year found similar results; numbers for this year are not yet available.

U.S. census numbers paint Orange County as far more diverse: half white, nearly a third Latino, almost 14% Asian and 1.5% black.

The survey also found that fairgoers were older and more educated than the county population as a whole.

"The fair's the old Orange County -- John Wayne's Orange County," said David Willis, president of Texas-based Real Feedback Inc., which conducted the fair's 2001 survey, the first scientific study of Orange County's fairgoers.

The company recommended expanding Latino offerings and "frugal fairgoer" days to lure a crowd that better reflects the population.

Since then, the fair has boosted marketing to Latinos, said fair chief executive Becky Bailey-Findley. Two Spanish speakers were hired part time by the public relations department this year, and the fair translated its English ads for Spanish-language television and radio. It also advertised in Excelsior, a Spanish-language weekly newspaper.

In addition, the fair increased its Latin entertainment, including a mariachi festival and a concert by salsa-funk band Ozomatli. Of its $200,000 entertainment marketing budget, 20% was spent to promote them.

But the two Latin-themed concerts in the 8,000-seat Pacific Amphitheatre drew relatively small crowds. Juan Gabriel, a best-selling Mexican singer, performed for about 2,800 people; Marco Antonio Solis pulled in about 3,300.

"People didn't know about them," said Maria Rosa Ibarra, 50, of Santa Ana, who was sitting next to Martinez at the Democratic Party booth. "These guys could have sold out the Hollywood Bowl."

Most fairs are in a quandary when it comes to ethnic marketing, said Stephen Chambers, executive director of the Sacramento-based Western Fairs Assn. He recalled attending a fair in Mexico and expecting booming sales at taco stands. Instead, the star attraction was a sushi booth.

"We have these stereotypes," he said. Many fairs incorrectly assume that, "if we want Mexicans, we have to have Mexican food. If we want black people, we have to have soul food. A mariachi band and a taco stand does not make a Hispanic marketing plan."

Among the success stories is San Diego County, which has the state's second-largest fair. At least 20% of fairgoers are Latino, compared with the ethnic group's 27% share of the county population.

The fair started marketing to Latinos in 1994. Four years ago, it hired an information officer specifically for Spanish-language media, said marketing manager Peggy Anderson. Press kits are printed in Spanish. So are fair programs. Signs are bilingual, as are many of the people staffing guest services and information booths, she said.

On Sundays, the fair offers free Spanish-language concerts. This year, a well-known singer named Juanes packed the stands.

"I looked out at that audience," Anderson said, "and it was brown faces and black hair, and there were 16,000 people."

Orange County Fair officials have hopes for similar success. Bailey-Findley said that next year the fair wants to better promote acts such as Juan Gabriel. It also wants to expand its Latino attractions to arts and crafts and attract sponsors, such as grocery stores, that cater to the Latino community.

Progress will come, one Latino community leader says -- but it will take time.

"The fair can't all of a sudden light a beam that Latinos follow like a piper," said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, an Anaheim-based Latino rights group. "But they're trying. It's changing."

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