Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Spanish-speaking clerks new to wireless company

Growing up, Juan Martinez remembers his parents struggling to get help in stores because they didn’t speak English and the people behind the counter didn’t speak Spanish.

It’s an experience he’d like other families such as his own to miss. As a bilingual retail sales consultant with Cingular Wireless’ new West Side store dedicated to the two languages, he gets plenty of chances to do just that.

“I like to help people that just plain speak Spanish,” says the 23-year-old. “I kind of see my family in a certain way, how they were before. No one would help them because they didn’t know English.”

The new Cingular store at 3211 Coors Blvd. S.W. – joining about 430 around the country serving both Spanish and English speakers – is part of a long-standing but growing movement to target Spanish-speaking customers, said Jeff McElfresh, vice president and general manager of Cingular’s Arizona and New Mexico region.

“Wireless companies, smart ones, if you will, have been paying attention to that growing Hispanic customer base in multiple markets across the country,” he says. “It’s a segment that overindexes in the consumption of technology, predominantly in wireless. They talk more; they download more ringtones.”

Given Albuquerque’s demographics – the 2000 U.S. Census reports 39.9 percent of the population is of Hispanic or Latino origin – it made sense to target such customers, he said.

On top of that, some Cingular stores in other markets, such as Los Angeles, have been informally functioning as bilingual stores already.

“Two years ago, nobody in the store spoke English . . . yet all the collateral (marketing material) on the walls was in English,” McElfresh said. “This just doesn’t make sense.”

At Cingular’s new store – a part of town where undeveloped space still claims the sides of some roads and hay bales lie in fields a few miles from a Wal-Mart – the signs and brochures come in both languages.

A “Grand Opening” banner claims one side of the store’s facade, and the Spanish equivalent, a “Gran Apertura” banner facing Coors Boulevard, claims the other. A few other stores in the same shopping complex have signs in Spanish, as well.

Inside the store, it’s not just “business” a cell phone can help you with, it’s “negocios.”

It’s not just “talk & text,” it’s “voz y texto.”

It’s not just “entertainment & style,” it’s “entretenimiento y estilo.”

Leaning against a counter, a man used the store’s phone to conduct a conversation in Spanish. All of the staff members are bilingual.

On Fridays and weekends, McElfresh said, employees at Cingular’s bilingual stores are allowed to wear guayaberas, button-up shirts with, typically, four pockets on the front, a style rooted in Latin American culture.

“It’s not casual, but it’s not formal,” he said. “That’s the segment. Our employees find that to be very inviting.”

Martinez – who said he does not dress more casually toward the end of the week – came to the new store from a job at the Coronado Center Cingular store. He said about 20 of his Spanish-speaking customers from that store followed him to the new one.

“I was the only one (at Coronado) who spoke both languages,” he said. “When they come down here . . . they feel comfort. They know we speak fluently.”

Martinez said about 80 percent of his customers speak in Spanish. He has friends and relatives for whom Spanish is their primary language.

When it comes to choosing a language, he likes both equally, and believes it’s important for people to know English.

“It’s the primary language here,” he said. “Everywhere you go, it’s English.”

McElfresh said stores such as Cingular’s help bring Spanish-speaking and English-speaking culture closer together.

To demonstrate that the two cultures’ merger is already well under way, he points out Univision, the Spanish-language media company headquartered in Los Angeles.

In May’s TV ratings, it was the second most-watched broadcast network among adults 18 to 24 years old during the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. time period, Monday through Sunday, according to a Univision news release.

“I really think you’re starting to see a lot of cross-pollination between the two cultures, and I think that will just continue as time progresses,” McElfresh said.

It’s a gradual integration Alex Romero, president and CEO of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce, has seen, as well.

He worked in banks for years and saw a growing demand for Spanish-speaking employees.

“When I was doing this (bank work) say in 1990, we had two or three locations in Albuquerque where it made sense to have a person who could communicate in Spanish,” he said. “When I retired in 2003, pretty much if you didn’t have a bilingual person at every location, more than likely you were missing out on a business opportunity because you were going to get customers who came and preferred to do business in their language.”

He said it was “refreshing” to see Cingular’s dedication to the Spanish-speaking community exemplified by a store staffed with bilingual employees.

When it comes to the debate of English versus Spanish in the multicultural United States, he said, businesses conducting themselves in both languages do not create a cultural division between speakers of the two tongues, though such businesses may enable customers to remain in their lingual comfort zone.

“It is about making people feel better about doing business,” he said. “I don’t see any wedge or any division in any of that.”

Romero, who is bilingual, went to Catholic school and remembers speaking English in the classroom – as requested by the nuns – and Spanish outside of it.

He said trying to control what language people speak is like trying to control water.

“It (language) seeks its own level, and the communication is going to be what it is,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody can mandate one over the other. You’re going to do what’s comfortable to you. It’s (language) a part of who you are and what makes you up as a human being.”

Besides, he said, Albuquerque’s Hispanic heritage constitutes one of its greatest strengths.

“That’s why people come here,” he said. “That makes us unique. We ought to celebrate that.”

FACTBOX: Good city for Hispanics In its August issue, Hispanic Magazine calls the Duke City the third-best city for Hispanics in the country.

Albuquerque was behind Miami and San Antonio on the list.

“The culture of Albuquerque is, in great part, formed by the Spanish history here,” Mayor Martin Chavez said Monday in announcing the magazine’s list. “It’s part of who we are.”

The magazine, published out of Virginia Gardens, Fla., cited Albuquerque’s sunny climate, low unemployment, and cultural diversity that bridges Western, Mexican and American Indian customs.

The magazine also lauded Albuquerque for its National Hispanic Cultural Center, efforts to revitalize the city’s historic district, and the city’s ranking in May atop Forbes magazine’s annual list of Best Places for Business and Careers.

FACTBOX: NO SOLO

Cingular Wireless is not alone in catering to Spanish speakers with bilingual staff, brochures and account services.

For years, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel have offered their share of cell phone goods and services for Spanish speakers.

Verizon’s options include:

• Bilingual brochures and materials in all but one of its Albuquerque and Santa Fe stores.

• A Spanish-language Web site.

• Bilingual staff members.

Sprint’s options include:

• More than 735 company-owned retail stores – most employing bilingual employees – with Spanish-language merchandise.

• Three Sprint-owned retail stores in Albuquerque and one in Santa Fe, each employ at least two bilingual staff members and come with Spanish-language merchandise.

• Spanish-language customer support.

Source: Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel

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