A Car's Symbolic Meaning To The Mexican-American

A Car's Symbolic Meaning To The Mexican-American A popular public middle school in a mid-sized Texas town near the Mexican border was grappling with traffic problems. The growing student body, with a significantly large population of Hispanics, meant that there was too much traffic causing long lines and delays in the mornings and afternoons. There were too many students in private cars and not enough in school buses. Neighbors began to complain of cars blocking their streets.

So the school devised a plan to increase school bus ridership and reduce the number of private cars. Parents were encouraged to leave their cars at home. And the school designated new drop-off and pick-up points farther away from the main entrance for parents who still chose to drive their kids to school.

After one month, results were evaluated, and the situation assessed. A high number of students switched to the school bus, and these were almost all the white students. As for the Hispanics, they chose to still be driven by car. The program, therefore, did not meet the target of car reduction. So the school decided to investigate and ask, "Porque?"



You see, the car has symbolic meaning for Hispanics, and it sends out a powerful message that having a car shows that this generation is better off than its parents' generation, which stayed behind in Mexico. It also serves as a badge of success on wheels, and part of the American dream.

According to a Yale neuroscientist, the brain functions in three parts, Cortex (logic and analysis), Limbic (feelings), and Reptilian (instinct).

These brain parts then create different values, Functional (Cortex), Emotional (Limbic), and Symbolic (Reptilian). The latter is considered the oldest part of the brain, with the least evolution and one that humans share with reptiles. It is also most powerful, as it deals with survival and reproduction. Apply this theory to culture, and you can understand consumer behavior more deeply.

The car's meaning to the Hispanic family is beyond the functional (a means of transportation) and emotional (I'm just like other American parents with cars. I belong to the same club), but strikes the rawest nerve in the symbolic meaning of success.

The Hispanics did, of course, had some company, with some white parents opting to continue driving their children. But their reason had a different symbolic meaning: "My car is the extension of my family dinner table. It's where we get together as a family and discuss things openly." Driving the children has become a symbol of bonding with the children, in an uninterrupted environment with no distractions.

So, imagine if GM or Ford could understand such reality and build cars that were "On-Code" with the Hispanic culture and their attached symbolic meaning.

Advertisers, marketers and brand-builders need to understand this first generation of Mexican-American car-buyers. Every target market is different, but the key remains the same: Understand both the consumers' symbolic value and their culture.

6 comments about "A Car's Symbolic Meaning To The Mexican-American".
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  1. Israel Serna, May 20, 2010 at 11:39 a.m.

    This article made me laugh-out-loud because it is so true and indicative of what’s going on in our culture today.

    Things were not like this when I was growing up but it’s very much a part of our new generation of Latino kids and parents.

    Jajaja. I'm curious to know if anyone else found the humor in it like I did.

  2. Richie Matthews, May 20, 2010 at noon

    There you go again Dian, talking about the Reptilian Brain.

    I can always count on your unique perspective to provide a truly insightful branding strategy, grounded in cultural relevance.



  3. Harold Cabezas from Cabezas Communications, May 20, 2010 at 12:27 p.m.

    Thanks, Dian, I really enjoyed this post. Well-written, well-told! :)

  4. Sergio Lemus from Disguise, Inc, May 20, 2010 at 12:33 p.m.

    It's important to highlight that this frame of mind of the car as a "status symbol" is very tied to socio-economic influences and may not be applicable to all first generation Hispanics.

    Also, the context of the school is very "familial," and knowing the strength of family values among Hispanics, I can assert that many still chose to drive their kids because the act itself is about family, spending time together, and having the satisfaction of knowing their kids walked safely into their classrooms.

  5. Sandra Brooks, May 20, 2010 at 1:31 p.m.

    Dian well-written and I would add one more point. Not only does a car symbolize success, I would argue that more importantly is represents the Americanization of Mexican Hispanics... Americans love to drive. Having a car means "I can do what Americans do, so I must be an American."

  6. Blas Giffuni from Blue Advertising Inc, May 20, 2010 at 4:58 p.m.

    Thanks Dian, to share this information, however, I feel that there's a big difference between U.S. Hispanics and Mexican-Americans. I agree that a car means a lot to us - remember that cars are way more expensive and more difficult to maintain - but it's also true that the meaning of a car and the behavior around it is completely different from General Hispanics than Mexican Hispanics.

    Also for families taking their kids to school is part of being a good dad/mom, so I don't feel that this relates too much to cars but to actual family culture.

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