Elmer Arias whizzes through 5,000 minutes a month on his cell phone, racking up at least $200 in charges, which include the cost of daily phone calls to his native El Salvador.

"As a business owner and as president of the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce, I call [El Salvador] maybe two times a day for 15 or 20 minutes each," says Arias, who owns La Hacienda Restaurant in Springfield. That doesn't include, of course, regular calls to friends and relatives, as well as his wife's calls to her family in Mexico.

Arias's cell phone rings and he pauses to answer it. "I get so many calls, you know," he says in lightly accented English.

On the other side of the Beltway, in Beltsville, it's almost a sure bet Charlie Rizzo's Nextel phone is either ringing or beeping.

"Hello? Hello? Helloooo . . ." he calls out through static on the other end, before giving up and closing the flip phone.

"This is probably from Ecuador or Nicaragua or something, because it says 'incoming call,' " he says, almost to himself, surmising that one of his vendors was trying to get in touch. The phone rings again, and Rizzo launches into a mix of Spanish and English.

Rizzo, a native of Ecuador and vice president of international food-distribution company Rio Grande Foods Inc., says he, like his employees, makes or receives a call every couple of minutes. Supplying the company's 45 employees costs, in an average month, about $2,000 for cell phone charges, $500 for domestic long distance and another $2,000 for international calling. That's a large chunk of the business costs for Rio Grande Foods, which imports jalapenos, pupusas and other Latin American goodies for U.S. grocers.

At home, Rizzo's monthly international bill comes to between $300 and $400 a month, because he calls family and friends in Ecuador at least three times a week.

"In Central America, mostly countries are still just getting up with e-mails and stuff," so the best way to reach out is still the old way -- by dialing, he says. Even after 18 years of living in the United States, he feels the pull of his roots, he says, echoing a sentiment often repeated by Latino expatriates and business people marketing to them. "We have the need to call."

Heavy reliance on phone service of all stripes -- basic local service through land lines, long-distance calling and cellular minutes -- is common among Hispanics like Arias and Rizzo, who say that strong linkage to families and business contacts back home have them getting on the horn constantly. The statistics bear that out: As a demographic group, Hispanics spend more of their monthly budgets on telecommunications -- 10 percent more than average on cell phones and $6 more on monthly long-distance phone service, according to Scarborough Research -- mostly, the experts say, to stay in touch with their far-flung families. Whether it's local calls to friends on the same block or international calls to those thousands of miles away, calling is a big business in the Latin American community.

It should come as no surprise, then, that telecommunications companies have joined the array of firms training their sights on the pockets of Hispanic families. For at least two decades, some businesses have seen potential in the Hispanic population, but now both marketers and consumers say they see the focus taking hold across more and more industries.

Latinos represent the fastest-growing minority population in the United States, with spending power expected to reach more than $1 trillion within four years. Roughly $4 billion is spent every year marketing specifically to the group, which makes up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Association of Hispanic Advertising Agencies.

"You see it everywhere -- some new entity deciding this is a market and going after it," says Alisa Joseph, vice president of advertising marketing services for Scarborough Research, a market research firm. Companies that sell banking services, packaged foods and cellular phone service are all developing strategies to sell specifically to the Hispanic populace. "They have large spending power, large families and a larger sense of loyalty" as a group than the population as a whole, which makes them ideal consumers, she says. "The marketer is looking at it as, 'If I don't start looking at it, I'll be so behind the eight ball.' "

Telecommunications ranks sixth on the list of spenders on Hispanic advertising, as it does in spending to the general market -- behind consumer products, the automotive industry, consumer electronics retailers, entertainment and manufacturing, according to the AHAA. Overall, 7.7 percent of the industry's 2003 advertising dollars went to television and print promotions targeting that market.

That percentage was lower than the 12.1 percent of telecom ad dollars the Latino market attracted in 2000, but the dollar amount was up, from $210 million to $241.3 million, according to market researcher Santiago Solutions Group. Consumer electronics sellers, by comparison, are trying harder: Those companies spent 19.6 percent of their overall advertising budgets last year on marketing to Hispanics.

GTE Corp., one of the predecessor companies to Verizon Communications Inc., was one of the first telecommunications companies to make its move.

Back in 1998 the company had "already hit the English-speaking market and was looking into the Spanish-speaking market," says Ed Miller, executive director of Verizon's multicultural marketing program. As it turned out, the early investment paid off because more than 60 percent of Verizon's Hispanic customers are recent immigrants, and heavy users of international calling customers who spend, on average, 18 percent more for Internet and telecommunications services, he says.

Cell-phone service provider Nextel Communications Inc. just recently hopped on the bandwagon, and is now trying to catch up to rivals such as Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless.

"Looks like there's an opportunity that others are capitalizing on that we're missing," Nextel executives told themselves about two years ago, says Miguel Avila, Nextel's senior director of emerging markets.

In April, the mobile-phone company launched its Hispanic marketing efforts in Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Diego, hiring Spanish-speaking staff in its stores, and translated its fliers and customer contracts into Spanish. The company rendered its "Nextel. Done" slogan as "Nextel. Ya." "Ya" means already or, in this case, now. Nextel skewed advertising more to Spanish radio stations in areas where Spanish-language newspapers aren't as heavily circulated. It sponsored a gigantic promotional booth at a recent festival in Miami and advertises in Spanish to a large Latino audience that watches NASCAR racing.

Last month Nextel, which has been building out its network in Latin American countries, launched an international version of its walkie-talkie service, allowing users here to communicate with friends and family living in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and eventually Mexico with a push of a button -- something that business users like Rizzo say he'd use every day to reach countries where he has vendors.

It's all worth the investment, says Avila, because of the large number of Hispanic small-business owners, and because of that high level of Hispanic telecom consumption. Nextel won't say how much it's spending or how many Latino customers it has gained so far, but Avila says it hopes eventually to increase its Hispanic base by 50 percent.

Karla Miliani, a Colombian journalist who lived in Northern Virginia for eight months last year, says the telephone was her lifeline then. Every week, she'd purchase a $5 or $10 calling card at a local gasoline station and use it to talk to friends and family back home.

"It's a cultural thing, I guess," says Miliani, who has since moved back to her hometown of Bogota. "I think we have a different sense of family. I think we need to talk more and communicate more with the people close to us."

That perception put marketing to Hispanics at the top of Cingular's short list of priorities this year, says David Garver, director of national marketing for the Atlanta-based Cingular, which is a dominant cellular provider in several big Latino hubs in southern and western regions.

"They have different lifestyles, different passion points," he says. "Their passion point tends to be more family-related," and this is one reason every cellular-phone company is touting family plans allowing customers to add additional phone lines, he says.

Telecom as an industry didn't just wake up one morning and think, Hmmm, let's go talk to Latinos, after 20 years of data showing the spending power and growth of Hispanics. Like the banking and consumer-goods sectors, telecommunications suddenly found itself a maturing business that had pretty much tapped the mainstream market. As such, digging deeper into specific market groups for customers is a common way to keep growing.

"The wireless industry is saturated," so now it's developing a more nuanced marketing message that appeals on a personal level, says Scarborough's Joseph. With more than half the population owning a mobile phone, the niches to plunder are the youth market, business users and minority ethnic groups, she says.

Embracing the Hispanic audience involves more than slapping a sombrero on the label and translating slogans into Spanish. And it's not uncommon for marketing newbies to miss the mark.

Take the famous, if cryptic, dairy industry slogan "Got milk?"

The direct translation simply doesn't work, says Ana Harvey, president of translation firm Syntaxis LLC in Vienna, which often translates marketing materials for U.S. corporations. "It almost sounds like, 'Are you lactating?' " Not good.

Also, says Harvey, most foreign-language phrases are 20 to 25 percent longer than their equivalents in English, which makes it difficult to fit them on tiny cell-phone screens, like the ones sold by some of Harvey's clients, including Sony Corp.'s mobile-phone division and phone-maker Siemens Corp.

Spanish for on and off -- encendido and apagado -- were too long to fit on the screen, she says. "How on earth am I going to get those to fit?" she asked herself, then worked around the problem by simply using the words "yes" and "no" to accept commands.

In other cases, there are linguistic differences within the Hispanic market, Harvey says. Once, she had a contract with a pest control firm, and translated the word "bug" into bicho, which in her native Mexico works, but in Puerto Rico is the slang term for the male sex organ. Luckily, she says, editors caught the error before it went to print.

Advertisers say the Hispanic population is now large enough and diverse enough that it's important to pay attention to nuances within the community. One of the first things marketers must determine, they say, is whether the target population consists of native English speakers or people who prefer to read the back of a box in Spanish; then, whether they are Hispanic mostly in name and ancestry or are recent immigrants with strong Latin American ties.

Elvia Arias, Elmer Arias's wife, says most phone companies don't understand her family's needs. "There's a huge market out there that Verizon and MCI aren't getting because they aren't marketing correctly," she says. "We don't want long distance in the United States, we want international, because that's where we call."

Some small companies are getting it right, says Elmer Arias. When a Spanish-speaking representative of DigiLinea Inc., a Florida-based international phone-service provider, called to offer him a deal of 10 cents a minute anywhere in Latin America, he ditched his $1.10-a-minute MCI Inc. long-distance account and his complicated calling cards and snapped it up.

"It's the marketing: They call and explain in Spanish how much money we will save," he says. The language and the technology were both easier for him to understand.

According to a study by the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau Inc. this month, 45 percent of Hispanic households speak predominantly Spanish, while 34 percent prefer English, and 21 percent are bilingual.

Rizzo, who works at the food distribution company, says 97 percent of Rio Grande's employees speak Spanish but are from varied backgrounds, which, he says, is just as important for advertisers to understand.

"People like things that are made in their own country," he says. So his company wouldn't be caught dead selling jalapeno peppers from Chile to a Mexican grocery store, or stocking a Central American food product in the South American section. "They wouldn't touch it."

Multicultural marketing experts say the most successful campaigns are those that recognize the Latino market as a varied one with broad differences. Argentines, for instance, are heavily influenced by European culture, and may not share spending and lifestyle patterns of, say, Dominicans, who are strongly influenced by African culture.

Latin foodmaker Goya Food Inc. has dealt with this issue over the years by dividing the U.S. market regionally, marketing different products to the Caribbean, Mexican and Central and South American Hispanic communities. Accordingly, grocers in South Florida tend to stock more black beans for the Cuban-heavy audience there, while pinto beans may predominate in pockets of the country -- Texas and California -- where the Latino population is heavily Mexican.

Things like food are so specific to culture that in many ways it's easy to cater to those differences. Services like telecommunications, however, are harder to slice and dice to suit different cultural needs -- a minute of talk time is a minute of talk time.

"Some products are so generic and obvious that they don't particularly require their own nuance," like telecommunications, says Carlos Ordonez, director of business development at Cheskin, a San Francisco marketing and research firm.

Still, even among mainstream companies, executives are increasingly sensitive to subtler cultural differences, says Rosa Grillo, who heads Grillo & Co., a District-based public relations business.

Grillo, who is Cuban American, says a vice president at a bank recently told her, "I would never hire a Cuban firm, because I need to market to the Mexican American population."

"I'm not often speechless," she says, but the person's demand for detail caught her off guard.

Such subtlety may be rare, though, and its best efforts aside, corporate America hasn't yet reached people like Rio Grande's Rizzo.

"Oh, my God, they don't know how to reach Hispanics," he says, noting that he often sees signage in Spanish that get the national flags or slang expressions wrong.

"What do I think they should do? I think they should hire Hispanic executives -- hire people who really know how to get into the market."