What Marketers Can Learn from Stand-Up Comics

Human nature is complicated. Why do we think that culture is any easier to understand? Rather than acknowledge the complexities, Corporate America wants to put the cultural conversation in a neat little package and boil it down to superficial elements such as race-based casting, language versioning, and we-are-the-world Benetton imagery that validates its notion of diversity and inclusion.

When it comes to multicultural marketing, by and large, Corporate America continues to miss the mark. At a recent conference of America’s leading advertisers, CEOs and CMOs gathered to discuss the state of multicultural marketing and to celebrate the best examples of advertising addressing consumers from communities of color, the LGBT community, the disabled community, and others whom advertising has historically marginalized or ignored. A lot of complicated and convoluted buzzwords were tossed about as these successful and educated individuals tried to figure out why they couldn’t capture and bottle authenticity when it came to really connecting with multicultural audiences — their fastest-growing opportunity for gaining market share and increasing sales.

On the second day of the conference, the luncheon entertainment featured Aida Rodriguez, a stand-up comic who took the stage and gave a master class in cultural relevance and connection. That’s not what she called it. She called it a set, as comics do. That’s also not what the audience would say they saw. They were entertained. She was a really funny comic who made them laugh from start to finish. But when all was said and done, if you step back and look at what this comic accomplished, it was exactly what these marketers have been trying to accomplish with their multicultural marketing: connection, engagement, and relevance at both a macro and a micro level, meaning that the message can be enjoyed by many, while also having a heightened impact on a desired subset of the group.

What does Aida Rodriguez know that these marketers don’t? What are the lessons that marketers can glean from smart stand-up comics?

  1. Embrace Failure — Like scientists, stand-up comics not only expect to have some of their work tank, get rejected, not deliver, but they also understand that not failing means something is wrong. Are you keeping things too safe? Are you generating enough material to really grow and expand your act? Are you up at bat (or up at the mic) with the kind of frequency that comics require? Taking risks will result in material that falls by the wayside, material that gets cut from the act because it ultimately doesn’t fit. You can define that as failure or you can define that as testing and learning. Comics, like scientists, test and learn. Marketers can’t expect success in the multicultural space if they are afraid to try new things, accept “failure” as a by-product of growth, and learn from what doesn’t produce results with even more rigor than relying on those initiatives that do.
  2. Stay Connected — You can’t connect unless you really understand what makes those you are connecting to tick. Marketers often forget how insular their worlds become. They wind up talking to themselves and people like them, and then wonder why they’re not speaking the same language as their consumers. “Comics need to stay on top of trends, social commentary, and human behavior,” says Rodriguez. “We always need to think ahead.” Throughout her set, one could see Aida‘s focus on what’s now and speak to what’s next. It’s what makes her storytelling surprisingly fresh, even when she’s addressing topics that reach back in history and leverage the past in order to comment on the present and predict the future.
  3. Authenticity — The It word of the moment for marketers, authenticity tops the list when it comes to what millennials expect from marketers. You know it when you see it, but it’s challenging to define. Rodriguez’s life as a comic has taught her a very straightforward lesson: “Be yourself.” Authenticity starts with being true to who you are and how you see the world. That’s a challenge for marketers who are always bending their brands over backward as they try to be everything to everyone. Like audiences at a comedy club, consumers have a radar for brands that try too hard or purport to be what they are not. “Not everyone is going to like you,” says Rodriguez, “and that’s OK . . . in fact, it’s necessary.” Pleasing is not the same as delighting, and brands are better served by creating a delighted following of fans and ambassadors than by being pleasing and forgettable.
  4. Have Fun — Authenticity doesn’t always mean fun, but it does mean being comfortable in your own skin. The same level of comfort is essential for letting go and having fun. When you know who you are and, for marketers, who your brand is, you have permission to be playful and even to cross some unexpected lines. Rodriguez manages to speak to extremely diverse audiences, playing with culturally specific topics in a way that, in the wrong hands, would be taken as more of an insult than an insight. Her authenticity allows her to have fun and her ability to have fun allows audiences to listen and laugh, even when they’re not sure they understand the nuances of a joke. As an example, Rodriguez can play with tension points related to gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and release the tension. If you’re from the particular group being skewered, you’ll likely get the joke on several levels. If you’re outside of that group, you’ll experience the contagion of fun as it spreads through the audience.
  5. Speak to Universal Truths and Unique Specifics — Storytelling is about specifics, and today’s marketing is dependent upon storytelling. It has been said, “Content is king,” but recently marketers are adding, “Yes, but then context is God.” Comics use context to write material grounded in universal truths — about family dynamics, or relationships or satisfying hunger — things we all experience and understand. They then layer on specifics to point the material toward a certain audience and deepen the connective tissue. Marketers should take note. Certainly consumers have a lot in common, but to get the laugh, which is the comedy equivalent of consumer engagement and response, it’s rich specifics that create relevance, breaking through the clutter and moving consumers from head to heart.

Lower East Side Library: A Love Affair

On November 18, 1966, I got my first library card. I had just turned six. We lived on New York’s Lower East Side and our branch was Seward Park. Built in 1909, the red and grey four-story brick building stood near the intersection of East Broadway, Essex Street, and Canal. Unless it was raining or really cold, the Seward Park Library was an easy walk from our apartment on Grand Street off the F.D.R. Drive. The Children’s Library was on the second floor. My parents followed me as I ran upstairs to the librarian’s station. When I had her undivided attention, I announced, “I’m getting my own library card.” She pulled out her stampers and a red ink pad and got to work. Then it was my turn. I concentrated on writing my name in big block letters. When I finished, I held the little yellow square card flat in my hands, careful not to bend the corners or smudge the ink, the way I held my hamster babies when they were old enough to touch.

Libraries-008-768x1024Like my first pets, the card was all mine, and it also came with responsibility. At first, I was only allowed to take out two books at a time, but, as I got a little older, the librarian trusted me with six. I agonized over which books came home and which books got left behind. How do you choose among Charlotte’s Web, Sounder, and The Phantom Tollbooth? I promised Harriet the Spy I would be back as soon as I had read and returned the others. I spent hours sitting on the floor of the Seward Park Library, or spread out at a table, oblivious to the shifts in light that came through the big picture windows as day became night. When it was time to leave, the librarian stamped cards she pulled from the pockets pasted inside of each book. I hugged the towering stack of stories to my chest as I walked carefully down the steep stone library steps and onto East Broadway. It’s likely my mother or father accompanied me, but, when it came to reading, I was in a world of my own. As much as I loved the Lower East Side, I knew nothing greater than lying in my bed, reading by flashlight, and escaping for long stretches at a time.

IMG_4697In the sixties, my neighborhood experienced a cultural transformation, as did the rest of the country. New York City public schools had heated debates about the pros and cons of integration and a host of related proposals, including racial balancing. Because of the Lower East Side’s ethnic diversity, integration was not an issue at P.S. 110, the elementary school my brothers and I attended. Instead, as outlined in a 1963 School Board report, “the comparative size of different minority groups” drove decisions on such things as busing and language curriculum. While going through my father’s clutter after his death, I found a file overflowing with his handwritten and typed letters on the subject, and newspaper articles with headlines like “School’s Racial Issues Called Public Matter” and “Schools In City Will Open Today Despite Boycott.” The articles, most from The New York Times, the New York World-Telegram and Sun, and The Village Voice, had been cut out and marked up. Select passages were underlined, circled, or asterisked in pen. They were often cited in his letters, serving to defend or destroy a given argument.

In a pre-Google, pre-Internet world, this type of cross-referenced critical analysis was no easy feat. The aforementioned 1963 document, formally titled “District Proposal for Integration,” laid out plans to address issues of disparity, most of which are unresolved to this day. One section stated:

The curriculum will be restudied on all levels. Greater emphasis will be placed on the job opportunities, diverse cultural groups in our city, and the role of the Negro and other immigrants in American history.

In English, there will be a new emphasis on books written by non-white authors, especially biographies and autobiographies. Books that include members of a minority in a real but favorable fashion will be selected for use.

In the reading program, as rapidly as possible, we shall develop material which is real and will therefore be of natural interest for children of various ethnic origins living in a big city.

Some Sundays, my father and I went uptown to the Donnell Library, which faced the Museum of Modern Art. For a Lower East Sider, the subway ride uptown was a special treat,  but also intimidating, with a city-mouse/country-mouse feel to the experience. Things looked shinier on 53rd Street; buildings were newer and taller, streets seemed cleaner, sounds and smells were subtler, and everyone looked much more magazine-like than anyone on Grand Street. Way downtown, we were all children of immigrants, and we played a critical role in our parents’ American Dream. It didn’t look like uptown people had the same dream, or, if they did, perhaps they already lived it. The children’s section in the Donnell Library felt like a supermarket, its shelves filled with a wide selection of everything. In comparison, Seward Park seemed more like a bodega, much smaller, a little messier, but the librarians knew you and what you liked. While I was impressed with the Donnell Library, I never felt attached. Good thing too: it was torn down to build condos. In contrast, Seward Park Library was recently granted historic landmark status and remains as vital as ever.

There was a time when the Seward Park Library boasted the highest circulation of any branch in New York City. A 1913 New York Times article painted this picture of the library card-carrying immigrant:

Centuries of famine and dearth of knowledge, and of cringing subservience to those who have had it, have taught the east side immigrant two important things about books: that what they contain can feed a starving mind and a hungering imagination with such royal richness as their lives could never afford them; and that their contents can lead him, step by step, along the journey to success and power and dominance. It is not far-fetched to say that many of the statesmen of the future are now in the making at Seward Park Library.

Here, Eastern European Jewish families like ours gained access to the kind of literature and learning tools that both kept them connected to their culture and opened them up to all-things American, including English language proficiency. With the Forward building just across the street, home to the world’s leading Yiddish newspaper, the library was often the meeting place of socialists and intellectuals, including Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Trotsky. The library equally committed to serving the specific needs of the Chinese and Italian communities, with Chinatown and Little Italy only a few blocks away. By the ’60s, the focus shifted to the growing number of Puerto Ricans and African Americans. No stranger to bilingualism, the library quickly added Spanish language books and services, as it had done with Yiddish years prior.

Civil rights concerns were always part of the Lower East Side ethos. In 1909, the very first meeting of the National Negro Conference, now known as the NAACP, took place only a few blocks away from the Seward Park Library itself. The library’s history includes the work of two pioneering librarians, Pure Belpré, the first Puerto Rican to work for the New York Public Libraries, and writer Nella Larson Imes, the first black woman to graduate from the NYPL’s prestigious training school. Imes later took over the 135th Street Library’s children’s division and became a significant author and major figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

IMG_4696Along with a fifty-year-old library card, my files and piles are filled with evidence of my literary love affair that started at a very early age. I had crayoned my name and the words Books and Love on a ragged piece of paper torn from a composition book, the black and white marbled-cover kind. Further down the page, I had pecked out a story of sorts using my father’s Underwood typewriter. My little fingers must have pushed down as hard as they could on the silver-circled keys, each with a letter on top. With each strike of a key, I triggered inky levers to rise up and move toward the roller, transporting a piece of the alphabet, punctuation, or a symbol. Sometimes the levers jammed together before they hit the paper and left their mark. My first line:

i       read and i read i love to read books.

Notes from my father to my elementary school teachers support the sentiment expressed in this early work of non-fiction. On virtually every report card he signed, my father mentioned my passion. In second grade he wrote, “Rochelle reads continuously at home,” followed by, “constantly,” the next year. By fourth grade he wrote, “Rochelle is a voracious reader.”

IMG_4698In my 6th grade autograph book, I found another clue. Next to Favorite Author, I wrote Richard Wright. Looking back—all too aware that 1963’s goals of emphasizing diverse writers had yet to be met—I reflect on why Wright’s Native Son meant so much to me. I realize now that it spoke to a larger Lower East Side narrative about oppression, social justice, and fairness. These are the themes that so many of my favorite childhood books have in common—books as different as Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle.

Although the soundtrack to my Seward Park Library memories is all whispers and hushed tones, I have no question about its impact: the Seward Park Library, and the books I borrowed, amplified my world-view and my voice. I didn’t know it at the time, but with each book I borrowed, I kept so much, and was also entrusted with the responsibility of returning so much more.


Hold On To Your Hat

Two Hats. One Head. The Panama Hat is not from Panama. It’s from Ecuador. There is a hat that is worn by Panamanians – particularly in the countryside (el interior). It is called the Sombrero Pintao. Pintao is pintado (painted). Dropping d’s is quite colloquial. Dropping hats – not so much.


What Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ Can Teach You About Marketing

In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell asks, “Why are we so squeamish? Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mixture of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions can be so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from — and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.” The plane-crash reference is tied in to a chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” in which Gladwell analyzes how the culturally influenced communication styles of pilots have contributed to tragic in-flight missteps and fatal outcomes.

In an interview on his own blog, Gladwell states, “I was actually stunned by how strong the connection is between culture and crashes, and it’s something that I would never have dreamed was true, in a million years.”

While “Outliers” is positioned as a book about success, it is worth recommending in the context of the multicultural marketing dialogue. By including insights into Hofstede’s Dimensions and cultural legacies, Gladwell manages to reinforce the premise that cultural legacy is part and parcel of consumer behavior and should be embraced as such by marketers and their respective agencies.

So why are people in marketing circles so “squeamish” about culture — or, to paraphrase Attorney General Eric Holder’s controversial remarks, in things racial and cultural why are we an industry of cowards? Here are just a few thoughts on the subject.

1. We have trouble distinguishing legitimate cultural influences from stereotypes. Fear of stereotyping often leads to the decision to avoid any mining of cultural references in advertising. Hofstede’s work revealed four dimensions of culture: symbols, heroes, rituals and values. It is the overuse of these dimensions or the uninformed use that leads to stereotyping. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Latino respect for elders as portrayed by the abuela figure, for example, or the strength of soccer or the focus on family. It is when these symbols and heroes and values are used ad nauseam or used at their most superficial level that they lose value and may ultimately come to be deemed offensive. Not to mention that the depth and breadth of the totality of the Hispanic experience, both in the U.S. and abroad, demands a deeper appreciation and respect than is reflected in the superficial overuse of a few limited cultural cues.

2. We think cultural legacies are part of our past and not our present or future. Again, to quote Gladwell, “Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”

3. People gravitate toward what they can see, or at least to what they can hear. The color of people’s skin and the sound of languages are more tangible than culturally influenced value systems. It’s hard to see or hear a value system, but as Hofstede’s Dimensions illustrates, values are the deepest articulation of culture. Symbols are the most superficial. “What’s Hispanic about it?” is often asked by clients when Hispanic agencies have presented creative work without overt symbols or rituals. The answer is usually in the use of a core value that isn’t readily seen but can easily be understood when the right cultural filter is applied.

4. We think it is progressive to “see beyond” race and culture vs. to be at ease with acknowledging their existence. Finally, there are those who criticize the use of culture, ethnicity, race or other related variables as being inappropriate, racist, insensitive or segregationist, to name a few perceived drawbacks. In-school and at-work politeness techniques, sometimes taught in the guise of diversity training, encourage us to think of people “as one” vs. “as many.” Along these lines, there are those who assert that there is no race, just the human race. It’s simply not the case. Nor, in my opinion, is it forward thinking to believe it is. What is important for our collective futures is to acknowledge race, ethnicity and culture and to stop judging it. What gets in the way of unity is the need to classify cultures or languages or skin colors or rituals as better than or worse than — first world or third world, for example. As marketers, there is great value in targeting consumers from a cultural perspective rooted in ethnicity, heritage, race-related influences and the like. Don’t “see beyond” these things. See them. See them as integral to the total consumer picture. And don’t use the word “integrated” if what you really mean is “no longer distinguishable.”

“Outliers” uses stories about Jewish lawyers, Asian math students, Colombian pilots and Gladwell’s own Jamaican mother to drive home points about the relationship between success and cultural legacies. Since Gladwell is held in high regard by the marketing community, I’m hoping that the culture-based part of the success message is taken in by readers and that it has some affect on the way culture is viewed in the development of tailored marketing programs directed to the various segments of the U.S. Hispanic population and others.

Originally published in Ad Age/BigTent blog


Navigating Intersections In Panama City

I have always been struck by the fluid lane-changes and cultural mash-ups that are part of day-to-day life in Panama, but never more so than on this year’s trip—one of at least twenty that I have taken since meeting my Panamanian husband in New York over thirty years ago.

Over time, Panama City has become my second home, and Spanish, my second language. My cultural fluency improves with every visit. Still, it always takes a few days before the personality and patois of the country makes sense to me, before I am able to shed an American perspective for one that’s transnational and transcultural—for one that reflects América. Panama is a complex mix of Afro-Antilleano, Afro-Colonial, Jewish, Chinese, Kuna, and other indigenous communities. As in all of Latin America, Spanish influences are everywhere and relations with the U.S. are complicated. Navigating Panama’s cultural intersections—and its particular blend of class, gender and race intersectionality—is not for the faint of heart. The same holds true for surviving Panama’s traffic clogged intersections (and occasional circles of death). I’ll never get used to driving here but, for the full Panamanian experience, it has to be done.

Day three of our trip, I decided it was time to get behind the wheel. Two of our nieces had recently graduated from high school and I wanted to swing by their homes to drop off presents. My reluctant husband handed me the keys. It was mid-day, a few days before Christmas, and traffic was already bad. In order to avoid MultiPlaza, the sprawling high-end mall in the middle of the city, I turned onto a narrow side street in a residential area. Cars were moving. There was a steady flow of traffic going in the other direction. My side of the road was almost empty. I gained confidence and picked up speed.

“Este Yaris es bien zippy,” I told my husband. My mind wandered as I tried to come up with a good word for zippy in Spanish.

“Hueco,” my husband warned. “It’s not an SUV, Rochelle.”

Photo Credit: R. Newman-Carrasco

Zippy would have to wait. A hueco is a cross between a pothole and a ditch. In the land of the Canal, also known as the Big Ditch, huecos can be very wide and very deep. In spite of oncoming traffic, I knew I should swerve out of my lane and drive on the wrong side of the road for a minute. My husband could do that without blinking an eye. I couldn’t. My Panamanian reflexes had not kicked into gear. Bam. The small Toyota Yaris sank. A loud thud was followed by a jolt and a metallic scraping sound. I winced, trying to act calm, and slowed down in case there were more holes to come. The driver of the giant Lexus SUV behind me started leaning on her horn. I cursed, in English, then accelerated and hoped for the best.

“Tranque,” my husband groaned a few blocks later.

Panamanian gridlock is impressive and can be caused by anything from protesters to broken down buses to cars spilling onto main roads from supermarket parking lots. No sooner had I become aware of the traffic jam up ahead than my attention shifted to the car in front of me. It was backing up while I was still moving forward. I slammed on the brakes in time to prevent a collision. I cursed in Spanish because it made me feel better. He was just doing what Panamanians do—changing directions, oblivious to what was going on behind him. It was just how things were done. The more fearless I got about sticking my car into oncoming traffic, cutting off buses, and ignoring signals and stop signs, the sooner I found my Panamanian flow. Assume nothing, I would tell myself. Cars were coming from every direction. They were not interested in playing by my U.S. driving school rules. It looked like chaos to me, but it was my job to drive, not to judge.

We arrived at my niece’s house. Alive. The anxiety of unruly intersections was replaced by a series of other cultural collisions the minute we walked in the door. Like driving, capturing the essence of a day in the life of Panamanians doesn’t work when I am in a U.S. state of mind, when I am relating to others as other, when I am not able to let go and, instead, cast myself in the outsider role. In spite of my bilingualism, I’m conditioned to expect monolingualism. In spite of my cultural fluency, I readily fall into the trap of the Single Story. It shouldn’t have surprised me that my trilingual, Sherlock Holmes-loving, Panamanian niece had a gift wishlist that included two Panic At the Disco CDs and the DVD of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Or that, upon hearing Panic At the Disco for the first time, her tío, my husband, immediately recognized a generational intersection and introduced her to Elvis Costello. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Panamanians don’t live by Ruben Blades alone. But on some level, it still did.

My youngest niece sat next to me on the living room couch, showed me her anime pencil sketches, and talked to me about the anime géneros she liked best. Before the list of genres appeared on her laptop screen, the word géneros reworked itself in my rusty bilingual brain like the subconscious rearranging of an anagram. Soon, my sister-in-law joined us, sporting her new natural hairstyle. Not only was she pleased that it made her look younger but, as an Afro-Panamanian, it also made her proud. Like most Latinas, she had learned about pelo bueno and pelo malo at an early age—only straight hair was good hair, everything else needed to be fixed. No more. Her daughters were going natural as well, she told me, before she switched gears and launched into a rave review of an award-winning documentary about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, directed by a prominent member of the Panamanian Jewish community.

This was my first trip to Panama since graduating with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. In fact, the degree was just a day old when we arrived. As soon as we were off the plane, I found myself observing and mentally recording each unfolding moment with a heightened sense of responsibility. I was in official “writer” mode and I had placed pressure on myself to capture detail and search for meaning in every scene. To make matters worse, my recent graduate presentation, entitled The Problem with Privilege, had me hyper-focused on ways in which I could constructively contribute to the literary conversation on white hegemony—on ways that I could encourage writers to consider their blind spots. Was I truly able to detect my own?

Panama is all about intersections and disruption. The isthmus united continents but divided oceans. Here, the single story is virtually impossible to hold on to for long. There is bound to be a collision or an overlap or an unexpected turn or twist; it’s built into Panama’s DNA. The country’s cultural diversity was fuelled by its position as the narrowest spot between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the 1500s, the Spaniards were intent upon leveraging this strategic advantage. They weren’t alone. The Scottish tried, but failed, to become a world-trading nation by exploiting Panama. With the Spaniards came black slaves, some of whom, upon escaping, formed their own influential communities. Chinese and West Indian immigration started with the construction of the world’s first Transcontinental Railroad. Then, of course, there was the Panama Canal, which was started by the French and finished by the U.S. Over 100,000 workers came from Jamaica, Barbados and throughout the West Indies to build the Canal, and many died in the process. This feat of engineering also attracted immigrants and adventure seekers from around the globe, including Sinclair Lewis and Paul Gaugin. Panama’s indigenous populations include at least six distinct cultures. As an example, The Kuna (also known as Guna), are Panama’s second largest indigenous population. They were granted political autonomy and maintain their culture on their own terms, on their own land, adding yet another layer to the diverse Panamanian population. Cultural intersections abound.

Before our visit ended, my niece told me something she had learned at Panama’s new Biomuseo, the first biodiversity museum in the world. The museum was designed by architect Frank Gehry, who is married to a Panamanian. “Somos todos Panameños,” my niece said. Then she pointed me to an online article from a dated issue of Discover Magazine entitled We are all Panamanians;” it makes its case based on the hypothesis of Steven Stanley, a paleobiologist at John Hopkins:

The uplift of this skinny little neck of land between the Americas set in motion an enormous oceanographic change that allowed the Arctic to cool; that had an enormous effect in Africa, by drying the climate and leading to the evolution of Homo. In other words, we would not exist if this little neck of land had not risen up across the ocean from where our ancestors lived.

I had arrived at my sister-in-law’s in Panamanian-driver mode. By the time I left, according to my niece, I was Panamanian. As a writer, I want to be open to this and many other possibilities. As a reader, I want the same. Diversifying and adding dimension to the literary landscape is in all of our best interests. We are all connected. We all intersect. Collaborate or crash. The problem with privilege is that it narrows perspectives, shrinks sightlines, and creates blind spots. Deluded into believing that we own the road, we see no reason to merge, yield, or get out of the way.

Biomuseo. Architect: Frank Gehry.

Carlos Fuentes once wrote, “The United States has written the white history of the United States. It now needs to write the Black, Latino, Indian, Asian, and Caribbean history of the United States.” Although best known as a Mexican writer and essayist, Fuentes was born in Panama. He lovingly refers to the country as “… a scar in the sea in the middle of the jungle,” as he reflects on the scope of Panama’s motto—Puente del mundo. Corazón del universo. Bridge of the world. Heart of the Universe. It’s what Panama is as a country. It’s what we are as writers.

Originally Printed in Lunch Ticket, January 2016

About the Author

Born on a small island near Puerto Rico called Manhattan, Rochelle credits her Lower East Side roots with her love of culture, humor and language. She lives in LA, has over three decades of U.S. Hispanic marketing experience, and is a recent Antioch MFA graduate. She holds a BFA in Theater from UC Irvine.


Dog Dreaming

Dog dreams

Panama. Rio Chagres. Embera Village. A boy and a dog. They were speaking to each other. They were very much in tune. I didn’t want to interrupt. But they knew that I was listening. They knew that I was there. And so they stopped talking. They looked at me. I looked at them. They let me capture a piece of their conversation. They also let me know, with those stares, that I was intruding. Really, lady with the camera? Can’t you see we are busy?


On Being An ‘Honorary’ Latina: Am I An Ally Or A Lie?

Colorful Chameleon on branch closeup

A chameleon can adapt, but no matter how they change themselves in order to survive, they remain a chameleon.

It was the middle of my workday when I received a call from Hispanic Executive magazine.

“We would like to do a feature story on you,” the caller said. “We have done our research and believe you are the type of person that our readers would like to know more about.”

“You do know I’m not Latina,” I said. Sadness accompanied my admission. I wanted to be Latina. I wanted to be featured in the magazine. Now it was the caller’s turn to hesitate.

“Let me get back to you,” he said. The conversation ended there.

When he called the next day it was to say they had reviewed my credentials and believed that my work in the Hispanic community was important and worthy of recognition. My story ran in Hispanic Executive. The caption below my photo described me as an Honorary Latina. I should have felt proud. Instead, I was bothered and wondered how I could delete it before sharing on Facebook.

Professionally, I use a hyphenated last name. I go by Rochelle Newman-Carrasco. Most people think this is for feminist reasons.

“It’s actually quite the opposite,” I tell them. “You may not know this, but the word hyphen comes from the Greek. It means to sleep with.”

Think about it. Isn’t that all a hyphen tells you? Who a person’s sleeping with? In my case, Newman, a New York Jewish girl sleeps with Carrasco, a Black Latino Panamanian. I hyphenate my name because professionally it helps to let the world know that. It makes me Latina by association.

The first time my father saw me referred to as Newman-Carrasco, it was on a newly printed business card. He wanted to know why he had not been invited to the wedding.

“Because there wasn’t one,” I assured him.

I took on the name, with my partner’s permission, for the sole purpose of brand positioning. People need a reason to believe that I qualify as a U.S. Hispanic Advertising and Marketing specialist. A simple hyphen does the trick.

A surname requiring one to roll their “rr’s” adds credibility to my somewhat implausible bilingual bicultural back-story. I grew up on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1960s, when it morphed from Fiddler on the Roof to West Side Story. Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans brought a new energy to the neighborhood. I wanted to be a Loisaida.

While my parents and grandparents were busy using Yiddish as “the secret language” when they didn’t want “de kinder” to understand, I learned Spanish. Bilingualism opened up my world. In high school, Advanced Placement Spanish led to college credits. Coming out of college, I fell in love with a Colombian sculptor, followed by a Panamanian actor. Cultural immersion was fun.

I didn’t intend to work in Hispanic advertising. I didn’t even know what that was. In 1980, when my career began, not many people did. There were only eight million Latinos in the United States. There are 54 million today. I stumbled into advertising because of a classified ad in the New York Times. I was an actress and a playwright who needed a part-time job. The ad read: Girl Friday wanted. Spanish helpful but not necessary. It turned out to be necessary.

Girl Friday was a title that meant glorified assistant, someone who could do a little bit of everything. Which is what I did. I worked for a Cuban entrepreneur starting one of the first U.S. Hispanic advertising agencies. I was bookkeeping, copywriting, and because I was an actress, it wasn’t long before I was presenting at new business pitches. Soon the agency had clients like Procter & Gamble, with brands like Downy and Jif peanut butter. Then, we merged with Grey Advertising, an iconic Mad Man-era agency, one of the largest in the country.

According to the media, 1980 was “the Decade of the Hispanic,” and it didn’t end there. Corporate America saw dollar signs. They were hungry to tap into the buying power of this young, growing community. Translations of English language advertising weren’t enough. Success depended upon cultural fluency, which a mostly white, male Corporate America did not have. CEOs needed a trusted advisor to navigate unfamiliar territory and I became that bridge.

“She looks like us, but she understands them,” a client once explained to a colleague.

What started as a part-time job evolved into a 30-year career. Socially and professionally, the majority of my time was spent with bilingual, bicultural Latinos. As my Spanish got stronger and my cultural understanding got deeper, I started to identify as part of that community. I began using the royal “we” when I spoke to clients about demographics and psychographics—the things that made Latino consumer’s tick.

We are family oriented,” I explained. “We are younger. We are U.S. born and foreign born.” Using “they” didn’t feel right anymore. It created a distance and a separation. It conflicted with where I belonged. I viewed myself as an insider, if not culturally, then in a community sense, an adopted sense. The word “we” wasn’t perfect, but just like my hyphenated name, I believed my cultural passions and commitment entitled me to “we” status.

Recently, I found myself rethinking that entitlement. The Rachel Dolezal story hit close to home. She was the NAACP President who insisted she was black. In spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary, including a nationally televised interview with her clearly Caucasian parents, Dolezal stood her ground. She justified her claims by pointing to relationships, a deeply felt cultural connection, and community involvement—many of the same things I think about when my “Latino-ness” is called into question. While I have never called myself Latina, those who view the cultural moniker as a birthright have referred to me as such. Who am I to argue with a Latina? Is not correcting an error in cultural identification a lie? Or an omission? Or are those one in the same?

I tell myself that any cultural indiscretions I may have committed pale in comparison to Dolezal’s. I describe my actions as an expression of passion while judging hers as an attempt at passing. I take comfort in the distinction between race and culture. It gets complicated and for every answer I think I have, another question arises. I break things down, hoping to simplify my thoughts. Being Latino is not about race. Being black is. Both are cultural. Given the right circumstances, you can adopt a culture. Your race is your race.

I draw comparisons with my own Jewish identity. The NAACP’s history is connected to the Lower East Side. Early NAACP founders and presidents were Jewish. The organization’s first meeting was held at the Henry Street Settlement on Grand Street. Jews were allies to the black community. Unlike Dolezal, they did not purport to be anything but that. Allies.

Can a non-Jew say they are Jewish because they marry into the religion? Not if they don’t convert. And that’s a process. It has criteria. Can they lay claim to being Jewish from a cultural perspective? It’s a free country, so if one can align their gender with their authentic selves, why not their cultural identity? And yet, the latter seems less legitimate. But why? Motive comes to mind. The transgender journey appears to require great sacrifice, great physical and mental pain, not to mention great expense over an extended period of time. Whereas taking on a cultural identity, simply because it suits you, seems to be more of a matter of contextual comfort and convenience. As I search for concrete answers, I realize that I am also searching for ways to let myself off the hook, to alleviate guilt, although I’m not sure what I am guilty of.

A person identifies with a group other than their own, they are accepted by that group, so they choose to become one with that group. That works for their specific context, their social circles, those who know them and have accepted them as such, but they have not earned the right to be someone they are not in a broader context. Anyone can earn the right to be an ally, but when a person violates trust and resorts to lying in an effort to create alliances with strangers, a line has been crossed. Culture is not fixed, but it is also not a matter of convenience. A chameleon can adapt, but no matter how they change themselves in order to survive, they remain a chameleon. Not a dragon. Not a gecko. Not a leaf or tree bark.

I can’t speak to Rachel Dolezal’s motivations for having checked the black box and, in doing so, claiming a racial and cultural identity that wasn’t intrinsically her own. Her sanity has been called into question. Dolezal calls her delusions “creative non-fiction.” They’re just little white lies.

If black and brown lives are to matter, which they must and they do, then white lies have to matter too. White lies are more dangerous than we care to admit. We shift race-based conversations, we aspire to be post-racial, we call our millennials “color blind.” Until we can make America’s racial backstory just go away, we adjust the truth to make the uncomfortable, comfortable. In doing so, we miss the point. Allies need to be uncomfortable. Allies need to stand up, not blend in. Uncomfortable is where change lies. It points to what matters—to what really needs our attention.

My hyphen says I am linked to the Hispanic community. “Honorary” says I belong. Neither says that I am. Neither gives me the right to use the word “we.” I no longer do. With that, a part of me is lost. It’s a trade-off that often comes with the truth.

Originally Published in Role Reboot.

Rochelle Newman is an award winning playwright and US Hispanic marketing specialist. Her essays and blogs on multicultural marketing have appeared in Ad Age, AdWeek and other trade publications. Her work has also been included in literary publications such as Nailed, Lunch Ticket, and others. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Non Fiction at Antioch University, Los Angeles.




I never learned how to sew. I once took a sewing class in Junior High School. Home Economics, I think it was called. I made a pair of shorts with fabric that had some sort of a red, white and blue Stars and Stripes pattern on it. I wonder why I chose that fabric. I wonder how this Kuna decides what she will sew with every mola that she makes.