Hispanics' Web Identity Grows As Ads Target Diverse Audience

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 7, 2006

Alberto Otero moved from Puerto Rico to Washington as a boy and grew up listening to the old salsa records his parents played to remind them of home.

Five years ago, he began getting his fix of salsa from an Hispanic music Web site called Batanga.com. When a melody grew repetitive, he surfed across the other genres of Latin music featured on the site and soon discovered a taste for the loping, rolling songs from Colombia known as cumbia , the Cuban dance rhythms of cubanisimo and urban American Hispanic music called reggaeton. The offerings of the Internet, he said, helped reshape his sense of what it meant to be Hispanic.

"I'm thinking of myself as an American Latino," said Otero, 30, an education counselor. "This has broadened me."

Today, a contest over Hispanic identity is being waged on the terrain of the Internet. The proliferation of Web sites such as Batanga, which appeal to Latinos regardless of where they come from, is pulling in one direction, encouraging the emergence of a wider Hispanic identity that transcends the borders that long fragmented the group. But a countervailing trend, which taps into the endless specialization available on the Web, is pushing the opposite way, toward a narrower identity rooted in homeland and even in hometown.

"The Internet allows you to develop a greater identity, but you can still find out the weather in your parents' hometown," said Rebeca Logan, a former news producer at AOL Latino.

Motivated by commercial considerations, Web sites such as AOL Latino, Univision.com, Yahoo-Telemundo and Batanga are trying to capture as large an Hispanic audience as possible in a bid for advertisers. The interest in that market is soaring, with advertisers more than tripling the amount they spend online targeting U.S. Hispanics in just the last year, said Lee Vann, co-founder of the Captura Group, an online Hispanic marketing firm.

These Web sites, often with an emphasis on culture, entertainment and immigration issues, are accelerating an established trend among U.S.-born Hispanics toward a pan-Latino identity, researchers and marketers said.

"The Internet is facilitating a lot of interaction and learning from each other," said Felipe Korzenny, an expert in Hispanic marketing at Florida State University. "Groups are becoming more flexible and more appreciative across countries."

But the Web has also made it possible for Hispanics in the United States to remain plugged into the news and culture of their ancestral lands by reading the more than 700 Latin American newspapers now online. Other niche sites, along with e-mail, Internet telephone services, instant messaging and social-networking sites such as MySpace.com and Quepasa.com, are allowing Hispanics to stay in daily contact with their families -- and their local identities -- as never before.

"You don't have to leave behind where you come from," said Donald A. DePalma, president of Common Sense Advisory Inc., a market research firm. "You can assimilate . . . but when you go home, you can get your online equivalent of comfort food."

Though many ethnic groups claim their identity runs in their blood, technology has long played a decisive role in how people see themselves. It was the advent of the printing press in the 15th century that shaped the European ethnic groups of today by introducing the mass publication of books in a limited number of standard European languages. Speakers of French, English and other European vernaculars increasingly began to identify with others who spoke the same language, planting the seeds for modern nations.

Since then, few technological developments have promised to reshape ethnic identities as dramatically as the Web.

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