San Antonio — Recently, five competing American companies went to Mexico City to vie for a major order from a Mexican government agency. The Americans, most of whom spoke no Spanish, found themselves dealing with Mexican officials who spoke no English.
But one of the companies, an electronics firm from California's Silicon Valley, is headed by an American Hispanic able to converse readily with his buyers. He was already touring plants and negotiating details while his competitors were hiring translators.
The deal is not yet sealed, but the Hispanic-led company has the inside track.
This is just the kind of case that Americans advocating bilingualism and biculturalism appreciate. In an international age, they say, cultural diversity has an economic payoff.
For American Hispanics, making a Latino heritage pay off in international trade can be a complex matter.
The Cuban emigres who settled in Miami in the early 1960s have done it best. Miami is second only to New York as an American center of international finance. The Cuban community there is a major reason.
But can Mexican-American and Puerto Rican businessmen use their linguistic and cultural background in the same way?
This question comes up more often now as Hispanic business leaders concern themselves more with competing, not as ethnic minorities serving ethnic markets, but in the economic mainstream.
With the emerging economic importance and fast growth of Latin America, the notion of trade relationships between Latin Americans and American Latinos could be a lucrative one.
Stories of the American cultural clumsiness in international trade are well known. Yet the edge held by American Hispanics in dealings south of the Rio Grande, says Richard Arellano, a business consultant on Mexico, ''is an overstated one, in my opinion.''
''In fact,'' he adds, ''what you sometimes find in Latin America is almost a reverse discrimination.'' Latin Americans often associate American power and technology with Anglo-Americans, Dr. Arellano explains.
This prejudice has worked against Cubans in the US as well. Francisco Hernandez, president of Agritech International in Miami, notes that Cubans have succeeded chiefly as middlemen, ''creating a sort of pipeline'' for American products to Latin America.
''As a salesman or a vice-president, you can grease your way around, especially in dealing with government bureaucracy.'' A Hispanic often has more rapport with his Latin American customers than an Anglo. ''They confide in you more.''
But products and equipment often need to be made by Anglo-Americans, in Latin American eyes. When establishing a plant in Venezuela for his company, Dr. Hernandez says, he was careful to bring an Anglo partner or technician along - ''someone who speaks only English'' - to give the technology more credibility.
Likewise, he adds, ''the chairman of a corporation would not get the same kind of respect as a Cuban than as an American.''
Mexican-Americans especially can encounter prejudices in Mexico City, where there is a strain of resentment or disdain for them as Americanized Mexicans.
Nevertheless, most businessmen agree that, all else being equal, a keen understanding of the Latin culture and language is a clear advantage in doing business in Spanish-speaking countries.
The most common mistake Americans make is to take selling trips to Latin countries without being able to speak Spanish, says Luis Botifol, president of Republic National Bank in Florida.
But nearly as important, he adds, is ''knowing what the way of life is and the way they are.''
This often means creating friendships and doing personal favors, such as helping Latin contacts to buy American TV sets and refrigerators at bargain prices.
''I think the Hispanic community here can be a bridge to the Latin American countries,'' says Hector Barreto, president of the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Kansas City. ''It's an asset we haven't used.''