Bilingual businesses

Within the halls of his small, cosmopolitan advertising agency overlooking Wilshire Boulevard, Eduardo Bermudez speaks Spanish about 60 percent of day. Mr. Bermudez, an urbane ad-man born in Mexico and educated at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has experience in major ad agencies on both sides of the border. His own firm specializes in producing Spanish-language advertising to reach the United States Hispanic community.

But with his clients, which include AT&T, Seven-Up, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Bank of America, among others, business is conducted in English.

A growing number of Mexican-American businesses - like Bermudez & Associates - are appearing on higher rungs of the economic ladder. As they do, will they carry the Spanish language with them - out of East Los Angeles, off the factory floors, out of restaurant kitchens and into the front office?

Not much, according to Mexican-American businessmen. Rather, they say, the trend among Hispanic professionals is toward using more English.

''I sense that from my dealings with people,'' says Dolores Sanchez, publisher of Eastern Group Publications, a group of neighborhood newspapers.

Across town on Los Angeles' east side, the Hispanic businesses are obvious: corner grocers with signs for ''melones'' or ''carne asada''; food stands where English is spoken little if at all; ''agencias de viajes'' touting their air fares to Guadalajara or Caracas.

But East Los Angeles isn't the whole story of the Latino business scene. Jesus Chavarria, publisher and editor of Hispanic Business magazine, says: ''Hispanic businesses are at a point where they are becoming regional and national, and they can't afford to speak just Spanish. There is a very, very strong trend toward dealing in the lingua franca of the marketplace, which, of course, is English.''

Hispanics in California, according to Mr. Chavarria, are leading this trend into English. Yet he points out that even Miami-based businesses that deal primarily with Latin America and the Caribbean maintain English as their business language for all their commerce in the United States.

The Hispanic community is often misperceived. ''People generalize about the community based on their perception of high-density areas (such as East Los Angeles),'' Chavarria says. But unlike blacks, he notes, Hispanics are widely dispersed into the suburbs and living outside mostly Hispanic neighborhoods.

Bermudez & Associates is a company that has succeeded by reaching well beyond the Spanish-speaking world at one end - with its Fortune 500 client list - and remaining firmly attached to that world at the other.

''Not many Hispanic businesses are large enough to afford our services,'' Mr. Bermudez notes.

Like many Hispanic agencies, this firm specializes in reaching the Spanish-speaking consumer in the US. Some marketers are beginning to consider that more Hispanics can be reached through English than through Spanish, especially those with the most buying power.

Either way, Spanish advertising has been a bullish field in the past few years. Bermudez & Associates sent out $7.2 million in billings last year and may double that this year, according to media director Fernando Favela.

Eduardo Bermudez started the agency in 1977. Since then, he says, there has been ''an incredible turnaround'' in his field. ''It was very, very primitive five years ago. . . . Most advertisers doubted that there was a Hispanic market.''

Now, he says, real professionalism is beginning to surface as both major agencies and smaller independents move into the market. ''It's fantastic to see it. It's very exciting for us, because it means we have to improve our quality to survive.''

It has also meant that Hispanic professionals in advertising have taken a second look at what they have to offer, Bermudez observes. ''Hispanics had very little interest in this (Spanish-language) world. They wanted to make it in mainstream English-language agencies. Now they realize they have a real asset in their multi-cultural background.''

Working in the offices here are Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Cubans, Mexicans, third-generation Mexican-Americans, and Anglos. ''Our criteria for hiring here at the agency is very simple,'' says Bermudez. ''Bilingual, bicultural.''

Copywriters and the creative staff must be thoroughly bilingual. Because their work is all in Spanish, they will spend around 80 percent of their working day speaking Spanish with each other. But Bermudez insists that English is important for them, too. ''I don't think you can successfully create advertising for the Hispanic in the US if you don't have some understanding of English.''

English, he explains, is the language of the Hispanic's ''objectives.'' But Spanish is the language that hits home, according to Bermudez. ''Hispanics are not monolingual. At home, I spend a good part of my (TV) viewing time in Spanish , and I am very, very comfortable watching English. So I can imagine that someone who is more comfortable in Spanish spends much more time viewing Spanish.''

Mr. Chavarria points out that Spanish-language agencies tend to specialize in reaching relatively new US arrivals, so their advertising audiences don't represent the full spectrum of the Hispanic community.

But in the agency's own market research, they have found that 65 percent of those they interview, prefer to be interviewed in Spanish. For these people, like himself, commercials are more effective when they use Spanish and show, Bermudez says, ''Yes, these people know who I am.''

Tomorrow: The growth of Spanish-language media

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