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When the first credit union in the United States opened its doors in the early 20th century, it was known to its primarily French-speaking members as La Caisse Populaire-Sainte Marie.

Today, the only vestige of its founding at the Manchester, N.H. credit union is the English translation of its name, St. Mary's Bank. The textile mills and French-speaking Canadian immigrant workers have mostly disappeared into the melting pot of America as have so many other ethnic groups that also had their own credit unions-Russians, Italians, Lithuanians-where they did business in their own languages.

As will be readily apparent when the Texas league hosts its annual meeting in Dallas this week, a dominant theme will be serving Hispanic-Americans, especially in their own language. But unlike other languages that have melted away in the U.S., many expect Spanish to remain as a dominant first or second language among many credit union members due to the proximity to Latin America and continued population flows from south of the border. And nowhere is this more true than in Texas.

Rufino Carbajal, CEO of the 15,000-member, $41-million West Texas CU in El Paso, Texas, himself a third-generation American, knows this very well.

Spanish has been spoken in bordering areas such as El Paso for "generation after generation."

"My children are fourth generation and they are bilingual," says Carbajal, who manages the credit union's four branches in this 700,000-population city, where he estimates at least 80% of those living in this Rio Grande valley town are of Hispanic origin.

Many of the credit union members are Mexican citizens who live in Juarez, which is connected to El Paso by four international bridges that charge a toll of $2 for passage each way. "Mexicans want to invest here" because they feel their assets are more secure in the custody of a U.S. organization and denominated in U.S. dollars.

"A lot of our ancestors still live in Juarez, across the river," Carbajal said. Visits across town are very common and the passage can sometimes take more than an hour on occasions like Mother's Day.

The credit union has "everything bilingual, including newsletters, information services related to credit unions, advertisement," he added. A lot of outdoor advertising in El Paso, where crossing the border back and forth to Mexico can most of the time be done in a few minutes, is also in Spanish.

Most "resident aliens" in El Paso now work in construction, grocery stores and other service-related industries. To live and work in El Paso, where jobs in textile and assembly lines decreased due to cheaper costs in Asia, lacking Spanish skills is like being "one-leg behind," he said.

Four Years Into Effort

That point is backed by Lynette Rambo, a marketing official at Chocolate Bayou Community FCU in Alvin, Texas, some 30 miles away from Houston. Rambo expects that increasing immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries will lead to more Americans becoming bilinguals.

Chocolate Bayou only started to target Hispanics in Spanish less than four years ago. Back then about 20% to 25% of the new members were Hispanic, whereas now 40% of those joining the three-branch, 15,300-member credit union are Hispanic.

She finds that the most effective advertising to the community comes through the "Cinco de Mayo" (May 5th) festival, a Mexican holiday that is becoming also a day of celebration for all Hispanics in the U.S. The credit union, in association with Hispanic groups, is putting the annual festival together that brings in crowds of as many as 5,000 people.

"We are now working on more basic advertising material, like bilingual coupon books," she said.

Rambo estimated that taking into consideration the undocumented immigrants, the percentage of the population of Hispanic origin can be as high as 40%. She says that the bulk of the benefits of adding Hispanic membership is yet to come, as lending remains low and the credit union really doesn't earn much on transfers to Mexico.

"When we serve the undocumented, newer immigrant, in that case we don't have all services in place. Without a social security Number we cannot pull the credit report so we don't lend money yet and the money transfer is a service that we offer for social responsibility, it's not so much profit driven. But there will come a point when we educate members and then profitability will increase," she said.

She expects that the Spanish language will grow in importance.

"I think Spanish is going to become actually an even more dominant language in the U.S. than it is currently. In Texas, by the year 2020, 2027 somewhere around there, it is projected that Hispanics will become the majority," she observed.

Spanish will be mostly kept alive by new arrivals and efforts at some U.S. schools that put in place bilingual programs.

"I think that more and more immigrants want to transfer part of heritage and culture to their children," she added.

Some school programs in Texas put together Spanish-speaking and English-speaking kids "so they help each other learn the other language," she said.

Linda Webb-Manon, spokeswoman at the Texas Credit Union League, Dallas, agreed that the newly arrived may be more willing to hang on to their traditions than in the past.

She said that about 32% of the Texas population is Hispanic. The state has as many as 1.4 million undocumented immigrants, she said.

With the increasing immigrant numbers, assimilation may be getting harder, she said.

"My opinion, perception and this is not the league's opinion, is that in the past there was a strong urge to assimilate to be a part of the country but with the influx of Hispanics there is a resistance to completely assimilate and if anything they are blending but maintaining their heritage. I think there is definitely a difference with the immigrants coming now," she said.

Florida CU's Story

Mercedes Hanabergh, Latin Community Development Officer at the 190,000-member, $1-billion Eastern Financial Credit Union in Miramar, Florida, said that the credit union is getting ready to deal with a Spanish-speaking majority in its area.

"We started to translate brochures a few years ago. We are now advertising in local newspapers, have partnerships with Hispanic chambers," said Hanabergh, whose job was created last year when the credit union that originally had Eastern Airlines as its SEG intensified promotion to the market.

She said that currently, in about 30% of the calls Eastern Financial receives from members, callers opt for a touch-tone telephone option that allows them to communicate in Spanish. She said the number of Spanish speakers is set to increase, and not decline in the future.

"By 2010 the south of Broward (county) will be about 80% Hispanic, so if you want to stay in business here you have to address that population," she said. Miramar, just west of Fort Lauderdale, is located right in the south of Broward and home to many immigrants from South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Traditionally Spanish speakers in South Florida were mostly from Cuba and lived in the Miami area.

She said that so far, only about 10% of the total advertising budget is spent on Spanish media.

Three Segments

Hanabergh said that that she breaks down her credit union's Hispanic or Latino membership in three segments. "Hispanic" can be a broad category that includes people born or with ancestors born in North, South and Central America whose native language is Spanish as is the language of their children.

All races in the world can be part of this group because of past migration into Latin America.

"We have those that are acculturated (to U.S. lifestyle), speak English most of the time and they prefer to talk in English. Then we have those that know English but they prefer to speak Spanish at home and that do make an effort to pass their culture to their children. And then there are the ones that don't speak English," she said. The last group includes new arrivals as well as many older people.

Kelly Elarbee, Media Director at Echo-Media, an Atlanta-based agency specializing in advising advertisers which media to select to reach their target audience, says that age can be a determinant for how to target Hispanics.

"We do have a lot of advertising to the Hispanic marketplace. (Language) depends on generation. For older Hispanics the advertising is only in Spanish. For the younger market you need both English and Spanish," she said.

"It is a growing market and a young family market, growing faster than any other ethnic market in the United States. They tend to be more sub-prime audience, younger and second-generation English speakers integrated into communities," she said.

Echo-Media offers clients a choice of 215 different media targeted to Hispanics, from the Spanish language version of Cosmopolitan magazine to major dailies and even the back of pre-paid telephone cards.

Some advertising even reaches Hispanics as inserts in account statements of banks that operate in Spanish-speaking communities in places like East L.A.

Pricing depends on circulation and on the audience.

El Sentinel, a Tribune Co. weekly, has a 95,000 circulation in southeast Florida that reaches many upscale areas while the Spanish language version of the American Association of Retired People's Magazine called Segunda Juventud is delivered to 600,000 Spanish-speaking people nationwide who are over 50 years old.

Also, community newspapers and flyers combined can reach millions and get very deep inside Spanish-speaking areas by being distributed in places like ethnic restaurants, Echo-Media's web page says.

'Pay Off For Decades'

Pablo de Filippi, project manager of the World Council of Credit Unions' International remittance Network program (IRnet) that credi unions can use to help members make money transfers to Latin America, says that efforts to have Spanish advertising would likely pay off for "decades."

"Migrants from Latin America are constantly coming and there will always be market segments that will need services in their language," he said.

"Better economic conditions in the U.S. are a huge incentive both in the formal and informal systems. As long as companies and entrepreneurs are willing to seek cheaper labor costs, there will continue to be incentives for (Latino) people to come," he said.

De Filippi said that some industries, like agriculture, rely heavily to the point of dependence on Latin American manpower and the "temporary" immigrations that feed the industry would help keep Spanish language alive.

"In March I was in Michoacan (a region of Mexico) and you don't see any men on the street because they were, at the time, all here in the States for work," he said. After harvests are completed and they get paid, they return to Mexico, he added.

Mexicans, generally speaking, have a strong attachment to the language, he said. "For example for the Chicano population (California), they could be fourth generation Americans but they speak perfect Spanish and culturally preserve all their customs," he said.

Cubans in Florida also have a strong attachment to the language and many have professional careers, he said.

Other communities have fewer incentives to preserve the language.

"In my experience some people originally from Puerto Rico are not as attached to the language," said De Filippi, who was formerly CEO of Lower East Side Peoples FCU in New York, an area with a large Puerto Rican community.

He said that even in the case of those "Latinos" fully assimilated to the U.S. culture like Puerto Ricans, he has seen them resort to Spanish language explanations for matters that involved very important decisions "even if they spoke perfect English," he said.

He said that while he knows of no completed research on the number of Hispanics that are members of credit unions, they surely number into the "millions."

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