From Miami to Los Angeles to Chicago and New York, banks are beefing up branches with bilinguals to capture a bigger share of the fast-growing Hispanic market.

The reason: Most Hispanics who have arrived in this country over the last few decades feel more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.

According to a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, only 18% of Hispanics surveyed in the South Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago described themselves as proficient in spoken English, and 25% as moderately proficient. More than half spoke no English or spoke it very poorly.

The study also noted that Hispanics' inability to speak English was one of the main obstacles for them in dealing with banks, and that use of banks increased when English was not a problem.

In Chicago, which has a large and growing Hispanic community, First Chicago NBD Corp. spokesman Tom Kelly says his bank is "quite serious" about recruiting Spanish-language staff.

Banks are also increasingly attracted to locations where bilingual personnel are readily available. CoreStates Financial Corp., for example, decided to open a branch to handle international business in Miami.

"Seasoned bilingual staff in south Florida makes customer service a lot easier," said Carlos Perez, senior vice president.

In New York, Chase Manhattan Corp. now has a special markets unit that studies how to crack ethnic and minority markets.

"Unlike some other immigrant groups, who readily switch to English, the Hispanic community is very much into maintaining two cultures," observed Rika Levin, vice president in charge of the unit.

Figures on how fast the number of Spanish-speaking staff at banks is growing are hard to come by, since most banks shy away from classifying employees according to ethnic origin.

But what is clear is that the Hispanic community is rapidly is rapidly becoming one of the more new targets retail. Banks are stepping up advertising in Spanish-language newspapers and on radio and television.

"We don't have specific policy," said Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Citicorp, but the bank is finding that an increasing number of jobs require foreign-language skills.

"We are recruiting actively in many markets" for people with such skills, including bilingual people for phone-based services offered in both English and Spanish, he said.

For banks, the Hispanic market represents the single most important new ethnic market - and one they can hardly afford to ignore.

According to the latest count by the Census Bureau, in 1994 there were nearly 27 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States, of whom 17 million were of Mexican origin, 2.8 million Puerto Rican, 1.1 million Cuban, and 3.8 million from Central America. Two million more belonged to other Spanish-language groups.

In a report earlier this year, Charles Cranmer, a bank analyst with M.A. Schapiro & Co., noted that the number of Hispanic families more than doubled between 1975 and 1992, to 5.3 million. The number of Hispanic families with incomes over $25,000 also more than doubled, to 2.6 million.

Finding the right employees isn't always easy.

"We have difficulty finding enough bilingual people," says Tamara Baloun, who manages bilingual recruiting for First Chicago.

"It's really a challenge, because you need people who are bilingual but who also have the skills you need."

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