It is widely accepted that communication, whether presented as a manner of acting, a style of conversing, or a fashioning of language, functions in many modes to bring individuals to some awareness of each other as members of a collective. This conceptualization of modes as signifying forms of social activity is in contrast to the more general notion of channels or means of communication.
That researchers would seek to characterize Hispanic modes of communication is not surprising given the reported growth in the number and economic power of people ascribed to that demographic in the world. For some researchers, identifying modes of communication unique to Hispanics presents an opportunity to understand cultural biases that inform interactions and relations between Hispanics and non-Hispanics. Others find implicit assumptions about such modes as the source of strained relations between groups offensive. Still others find the notion of modes generalized to bodies of people classified as “Hispanic” to be politically suspect. These thoughts underlie and inform the inquiry as it pertains to cultural communication and intercultural contact.
Concepts And Contest
Research identifying Hispanic modes of communication can be framed by its contests. At one level, some observed communication practices and preferences have been challenged as overly generalizing and nonrepresentative. For instance, Mirandé & Tanno (1993) criticized research reporting Mexican-American themes of interethnic communication because survey data submitted by respondents who self-identified as Chicano, Latino, or Mexican were excluded from the study. One issue here is the extent to which communication preferences associated with one grouping (i.e., Mexican-Americans) can be generalized to other named but unexamined Hispanic groups. But an altogether different issue raised is the extent to which such groups can be represented on a continuum of Hispanic cultural identity at all.
Most researchers now seriously consider ideological differences between the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino.” For many people, the term Hispanic symbolizes an ascribed identity, a designator created by the United States government in the 1970s to define a disparate population by national origin, use of Spanish language, and Spanish ancestry as a common denominator. Consequently, an understanding of groups or individuals as more or less Hispanic becomes a summation of citizenship, language, and lineage. In contrast, Latino has come to symbolize an avowed pan-ethnic cultural identity for groups and individuals as connected to the heterogeneous origins, histories, and cultures of people indigenous to Latin America and the Caribbean. The hybridity and paradoxes presented by Latinidad enable an identity that is fluid, relationally defined, and dynamically responsive to changing social and political contexts. The concept is not without its own criticism, especially when scholars overstate Latino unity under a “Latinist” framing, leading many indigenous and non-Hispanic people (e.g., Portuguese) of Mexico and Central and South America to resist the term or its sense of collective consciousness (Mayer 2004).
At another level then, several modes of communication characterized as Hispanic, as well as the very idea of a Hispanic culture, have been contested as poorly represented in the research literature. For instance, machismo is often represented as a mode of communicating monolithic masculinity and honor in Latin America, but rarely described so as to present how masculine ideals of dignity and respectability within the particular communities and circumstances are activated. Similarly, the word macho (manly) can signify a host of meanings by Spanish interlocutors who speak in jest or with seriousness of what it means to be a man (ser hombre). Taken outside of these spoken contexts, the word becomes a signifier of the exaggerated male behavior and aggressiveness that typifies definitions of machismo as a generalizing image of Hispanic men and Latin American culture.
Delgado (1994) and other critical theorists question the construct of Hispanic itself as presented in both research and criticism. The concern is not simply with regard to nonSpanish speaking or non-Latinos engaging the inquiry, but to any person unaware of the histories and politics of ethnic identity. For instance, scholars who privilege US –Mexican or Spanish–Mexican relations for constructs of cultural identity often do so without regard to how the practices and customs of Mexico might be viewed with skepticism by nations and indigenous groups of Central and South America. Taken together, inattention to how modes of communication are often taken out of social, linguistic, and political contexts underlies some of the strongest objections to the inquiry as being complicit in strategies of essentialism and the construction of an ethnic other to justify social policy.
Within these contested terrains, a body of research nevertheless exists that presents complex and contradicting modes of communication notable among Hispanics and Latinas/Latinos, and to a lesser extent among indigenous peoples that share in historical, social, and political situation (e.g., Maya).
Among the more favorably received bodies of research are local knowledge theories of communication in a variety of speech communities and regions in South, Central, and North America. Local knowledge theories inform researchers of the varied ways in which people identify forms of social activity as signifying their collectivity. The significance of these modes is not always apparent to naïve observers as they are embedded in larger cultural schemes or codes internalized by participants. This embeddedness affords multiple layers of meaning for the social activity, only some of which is ever explicitly conveyed verbally. Researchers of cultural variability refer to such embedded modes of communication as high-context, and tend to regard Latin American countries as high-context cultures. Relationships between connectedness, familia, and the Spanish language illustrate this communication dynamic.
Modes of communication embedded in codes of connectedness have been noted in many Hispanic and Latino speech communities. Codes of connectedness in communities influenced by traditions of Roman Catholicism and Spanish colonialism tend to emphasize relationships between persons (personas), who can expect to be treated with a dignity (dignidad) and deference (respeto) that is not extended to animals or material objects. Such codes have conflicted and have been combined with indigenous codes that extend connectedness in mind, body, and spirit with earth and cosmos. Codes of connectedness presented in Latina/Latino speech tend to move between these and other discourses, placing emphasis on a sense of self that is defined by personal, spiritual, community, and socio-political ties. For instance, Fitch (1998) highlights the importance of connectedness by middle-class Colombians who summarize vinculos (bonds to others) that are derived in part by nature (e.g., ties to homeland) and in part by nurtured shared experiences (e.g., friendship) as a fundamental unit of one’s existence. The primacy of connectedness as a code is one reason Latin American countries are noted as highly collectivist by researchers examining cross-cultural communication.
The extent to which individuals are defined by and place value on family and community relations has been a central feature for assessing societies as collectivist. For many Hispanics and Latinos, modes of communication that revere la familia are constitutive of the connectedness that defines their communities. Mexican parents who insist their children affirm age, sex, and even birth order as statuses worthy of honor, for instance, may do so not simply to sustain the orderliness of respeto in la famila, but to publicly signify the family’s connectedness to local customs of culto (well-manneredness).
Modes of communicating respeto and confianza (relational closeness, trust and reliability) in la familia may be extended to close friends and in some degree to social relations. For instance, Fitch (1998) observes how acts of confianza must be balanced with acts of distancia (interpersonal distance) in professional relations between Colombians so as to communicate a familiarity that is appropriate in deference and personal respect. In other communities the importance of conducting daily interactions with personalismo (interpersonal warmth) is necessary so as to construct one’s person as simpática/simpática while affirming the dignidad of another. Milburn’s (2001) analyses of “Puerto Rican time” in social and work settings illustrates how calling up that mode is not only meant to break the constraint of “American time,” but to relax the “respect” rules among Puerto Ricans as well. These concerns for status, familiarity, and self-image help inform research which characterizes Hispanics and Latinos as preferring interpersonal conflict styles that are indirect, accommodating, and showing concern for another’s positive face.
Finally, numerous studies have reported the ability to speak Spanish as important for perceived ethnic and cultural identity. While much writing exists that examines relationships between language and culture and between linguistic and social structures, descriptions of talk regarding what it means to “speak Spanish” are informative of disconnectedness within and connectedness between communities. For instance, a failure to speak Spanish (habla) might be explained as an inability to demonstrate a knowledge or fluency of the Spanish language proper (e.g., Castillian). To “speak Spanish” then is to signify connectedness to a worldview or culture through a language proper, with greater fluency often serving as an indicator of class status. In contrast, a person lacking in knowledge and fluency may be evaluated as disconnected from the history and culture afforded by the Spanish language.
A failure to speak Spanish (hacen) might also be explained as incompetence in a social activity signifying of connectedness to others (e.g., familial, community, regional, political). To “speak Spanish” then is to assist in the “doing” of some activity, such as making conversation, where the expected amount and quality of Spanish spoken varies with the coded significance of the activity. For instance, in a bilingual household a child may only be expected to greet visiting elders in Spanish. Failure to carry out such activities as expected might thus be experienced as some disconnectedness between persons and their communities.
Both frames inform how “speaking Spanish” functions as a mode of communication. While the Spanish language is generically structured to differentiate relations by gender and formality (i.e., status and familiarity), studies of language use illustrate how forms of personal address (e.g., tú, usted) and directives are fashioned so as to indicate how relations are being assessed in particular communities. A phrase fashioned so as to tease the sexed status of a hearer may be taken as play in one community but as serious transgression in another. It makes sense then that plays on words, use of irony, joking, and teasing are frequently listed as misunderstood social activities between people who can “speak Spanish” but do not know how to “speak Spanish.” It also makes sense how growing up in a “Spanish-speaking” household in one community may mean something altogether different in another.
Calafell (2004) notes that, as townships, cities, and nations continue to grow more diverse in ethnic populations and social practices categorized as Hispanic, modes of communication notable in Hispanic and Latino speech communities will continue to be tested and contested as signifying of their collectivity. The paradoxes and dialectic between ideas and ideology, research and practice, as well as the connectedness/ disconnectedness between individuals and community should not be seen as problematic, but as conflict worth having.
- Calafell, B. M. (2004). Disrupting the dichotomy: “Yo soy Chicano?” in the New Latina/o South. Communication Review, 7, 175–204.
- Delgado, F. P. (1994). The complexity of Mexican American Identity: A reply to Hecht, Sedano, and Ribeau and Mirande and Tanno. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 18, 77–84.
- Fitch, K. (1998). Speaking relationally: Culture, communication, and interpersonal connection. London: Guilford.
- Mayer, V. (2004). Please pass the pan: Re-theorizing the map of panlatinidad in communication research. Communication Review, 7, 11–124.
- Milburn, T. (2001). Enacting “Puerto Rican Time” in the United States. In M. J. Collier (ed.), Constituting cultural difference through discourse. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 47–76.
- Mirandé, A., & Tanno, D. V. (1993). Understanding interethnic communication and research: “A rose by another name would smell as sweet.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 17, 381–388.