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TCK Rising

The Curve, CultureFirst, 2016—The sociologist Ted Ward’s 1984 prediction of “the prototype citizens of the future” has arrived: Meet Third Culture Kids, individuals who draw from their immigrant parents’ roots and their own contemporary American surroundings, along with various subcultural influences from geekdom to pop culture, to form a unique, individual, and custom-made third culture. TCKs are heralding an era in which cultural identification is niche, personal, and fluid and multiculturalism is an advantage. And Hispanics are at the forefront of a future in which we all exist as a culture of one.

Fourth-Generation Hispanics

For years, sociologists and marketers have been studying the first few waves of Hispanic immigration to the United States. Now we’re turning our sights on the next group: Generation Z Hispanics, individuals born after 1995. While defining one’s cultural identity isn’t easy for any generation—much less an immigrant population—young Hispanics are leading a profound social and demographic shift, as Gen Z ushers in the most diverse and multicultural population America has ever known. More than any previous generation has done, Zs straddle various cultures, languages, and ethnicities and are creating new ways to navigate, reconcile, and define their identities in this new era.

Andrew Leo Lovato, an academic whose Ph.D. focus was intercultural communication, writes books about cultural preservation and provides historical context for this generation. According to Lovato, the first wave of mid-20th-century Hispanic immigrants believed that success was assimilation (little wonder, when you consider the widespread discrimination in America in those decades and that teachers sometimes hit children for speaking Spanish in school). For the second- and third-generation Hispanics who followed, the pendulum swung back toward retro-acculturation as they sought to reclaim the cultural heritage they’d lost. Spanish classes were jam-packed with Hispanics looking to learn their grandparents’ native tongue. Now we’re seeing a growing population of fourth- and fifth-generation Hispanics who have a working understanding of both the new and old countries and can shift between their Hispanic and American sides. These young people feel that they have permission to be more inventive in defining who they are. The result is independently developed third cultures and a new class of TCKs. (To read about how Hispanics are navigating cultural identities on a collective level, see Recollectives.)

While it’s impossible to say exactly how many fourth-generation Hispanics identify as TCKs (two-thirds of the fourth- and fifth-generation Hispanics we surveyed self-identify as such), this generation will contain the largest number of people who identify with not just one or two cultures but with multiple cultures. Mateo Lugo, for example (see Tweeners), easily straddles five cultures, creating a truly unique cultural identity. As Lovato says: “No two people have the same culture. We have all become a culture unto ourselves.” While TCKs clearly can’t be put into boxes, we’ll explore three types that we came across in our research: cultural hybrids, “transculturators,” and “’tweeners.”


78% of Hispanic respondents agree: “I straddle multiple cultures and identities.”


 

Cultural Hybrids

“Blaxicans of Los Angeles,” an Instagram page dedicated to the exploration of Blaxican/Afro-Latino identities. Created by Walter Thompson-Hernández.

While there are a slew of stats that illuminate the multicultural tipping point of Hispanic Gen Zs (see Facts about Multicultural Zs below), the most interesting way to view this trend is through young Hispanics’ own words. Nyasia, 20, of Detroit, who is navigating her Mexican and black heritage, says, “I’m black and Mexican, so those things are always conflicted.” She’s part of a growing group of Afro Latinos who are integrating these two cultures and ethnicities to create a third culture they’re calling Blaxican. Walter Thompson-Hernandez, whose father is African American and whose mother is Mexican, has even created an Instagram page to document the experiences of hundreds of people he calls “Blaxicans of Los Angeles” Thompson-Hernandez, who has traced Blaxican heritage back to the original founders of the city of Los Angeles, says, “Being mixed is its own identity.”

This awareness of and pride in the hybrid Blaxican identity illustrates how this generation sees its multiple ethnicities as an advantage. Being Blaxican is about more than straddling two worlds; it’s also about how the melding of multiple cultures creates something unique that’s more than the sum of its parts. Supporting this point, 85% of Hispanics we surveyed agree: “Being mixed is its own identity.” It’s somewhat akin to how English plus Spanish creates a third language, Spanglish, which can convey more than either of its two root languages (just ask the author Junot Díaz, who was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that employs Spanglish to conjure “the two worlds his characters inhabit,” as Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times).

And while Blaxican obviously isn’t the first hybrid culture—sure, there have always been cultural and ethnic mash-ups, from Hapa (half Pacific Islander or Asian and half white) to Nuyorican (Puerto Rican meets New Yorker)—digital is spreading the word and gathering more members of niche third cultures and identities. Take, for instance, Blasian (half black, half Asian), which has Facebook groups, Tumblr blogs, and Instagram hashtags dedicated to its unique racial makeup despite being a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the U.S. population. VICE reporter Zach Schwartz even did a recent article on the unique online “Asian Men Black Women” dating scene, and a quick Google search of Blasian culture brings up everything from AMBW parenting groups to the Ask a Blasian blog and Power Blasian listicles (with Tiger Woods at the top). Perhaps most notably, Mipsters, or Muslim hipsters, started as an in-joke among friends and grew into an international movement, social network, and consumer segment (see All-Things-D-Versified). The Blaxican movement could be just as powerful, judging from the way Thompson-Hernandez describes the moment when he first heard the term on the radio as a fifth-grader: “It just blew my mind. Up until that point, I was identifying, ‘Yeah, I have a black father, and I have a Mexican mother,’ and conversations would end there. But when I heard the term Blaxican, the word entered my racial consciousness. And it’s been the way that I have self-identified since.” Blaxican culture has not only provided Thompson-Hernandez’s identity, it has also fueled his popular Instagram account and the academic ruminations of his forthcoming Stanford University Ph.D. research. Three-quarters (72%) of Hispanics say that social media has allowed them to connect with a cultural identity that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

Transculturators

Mari Monzo, a 29-year-old Cuban American from Miami, has created her individual third culture, not through the marriage of inherited ethnic cultures, but by drawing on a chosen culture that she connects with on a personal level: geekdom. Says Monzo: “I found a place where I belong with nerds. I don’t see myself culturally as an American or a Cuban, although I am those things. But look at me, I’m a nerd. That’s my community: people who are highly intelligent and are really, really passionate about whatever it is, whether it’s computers, video games, or comic books.” In fact, she’d rather travel to Japan to pick up some “cute-ass clothes” in Shibuya than see her mother’s home country of Cuba.


“I’ve never hung out more with Hispanic kids or white kids or black kids. I always just hung out with nerds, and it never mattered what they looked like, as long as we had the same exact interests. I’ve developed myself culturally around this geek community.”

—Mari Monzo, 29, San Francisco


 

Monzo’s third-culture identity might be best explained as transculturation—she’s redefining herself based on ideas and cultures that resonate with her. Although the term became a dirty word in 2015 when Rachel A. Dolezal, then the NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Washington, was outed as white, it has actually been in use since the 1940s to describe the development of merging and converging cultures. Lovato ties this phenomenon of choosing one’s culture to the technology revolution; in fact, the biggest change he’s seen among his students during the last decade is that they now view their personal culture in a broader, non-ethnic context: “They have more of an attitude of ‘I’m part of this new movement, and it’s different from ethnic culture. It’s a global culture.’” Consistent with Lovato’s observation, 73% of Hispanic respondents—compared with 49% of non-Hispanic respondents—feel more affinity with global culture than they do with national culture. Fourth-, third-, and even second-generation immigrants like Monzo see no inconsistency in loving and respecting their families’ cultural roots and at the same time constructing their identities based on cultures from around the world with which they identify. One high-profile example of transculturation is the TCK rapper Drake. It’s entirely possible that his identity struggles as a child of divorce who split his time between the home of his Jewish white mother in Toronto and that of his black father in Memphis are what motivated him to take on a Dominican persona via collaborations with Romeo Santos, incorporate bachata-influenced dancing into “Hotline Bling,” and adopt the pseudonym Champagne Papi—he even flashes the Dominican flag in his Started from the Bottom music video.

One of the things that have drawn Monzo to geekdom is its radical inclusivity. She says: “There are a lot of Hispanics and black people at the anime conventions. Even in northern Florida, where people would probably get shot for being a little tan, they’re all at the anime convention and the cool parties, sharing drinks, talking about anime, and singing. And I love it. When you’re a nerd, your color doesn’t really matter. It’s just the things that you love.” Third Culture Kids can often feel like outsiders—after all, there’s no easy answer to the question “Where are you from?” especially when the question itself implies something more insidious, such as “You don’t look like you come from here.” (See Brownish.) As a result, many TCKs actively seek out inclusive cultures, cities, communities, and cliques—and überinclusive “Kumbaya” sessions, like Monzo’s anime sing-alongs. This may explain why we’re seeing a jump in Hispanic participation in historically non-diverse communities, from yoga to camping, and why Hispanics are moving en masse to friendly cities that have an ethos of integration, such as Charlotte, North Carolina (see Recollectives).


Of all the cultures listed, from Hispanic and American culture to local, global, and religious culture, Hispanic and non-Hispanic respondents alike report that the most influential culture in their lives is “my own personal culture.”


These principles of cultural inclusion and ethnic mixing are fueling a continuous stream of pop culture mash-ups, from new music genres like Latino ska, Metalachi (heavy metal merged with mariachi), and flamenco krump to bold food fusions like Korexican (Korean and Mexican cuisine) and Café con Leche Milk Stout (see The Inclusionaries). And the fashion world, long an arena for mash-up style, is churning out some new multicultural mixes, from the cross-cultural boho-meets-Aztec-meets-Marrakech fast-fashion pastiches of H&M, Topshop, and Mango to more niche movements like Thai Cholos, a Bangkok trend inspired by classic SoCal Mexican gangster duds and tats. In an era in which multiculturalism is the norm and immersions in other cultures are readily accessible, mainstream pop culture will be increasingly characterized by multicultural mash-ups (but don’t expect Metalachi to hit MTV).

This is a fitting shift for a generation of Hispanics with an inherent chameleon-like quality. They’ve been negotiating between cultural worlds since birth, so adaptability is both central to who they are and essential to their survival: when asked to select which attributes were core to their identity from a list of 25 options, from “digitally savvy” to “traditional” to “experiential,” “adaptable” came in at number three among Hispanic respondents, right after “open-minded” and “independent.” Third Culture Kids, and Hispanics in particular, are hypersensitive to the changing needs of their surroundings and are able to adapt effortlessly, depending on the context—whether they’re shifting between Spanish and English, checking off the Hispanic, Caucasian, or Other box, or rocking out to Taylor Swift or cumbia. As the TCK-identifying writer Thalia Reus wrote in a Thought Catalog article, “Becoming used to constantly changing situations and new environments forces you to grow up very quickly. You know how to size up situations and make them work to your advantage.”

TCKs’ inherent adaptability is a crucial asset in a world that’s increasingly global, diverse, and ever in flux. In fact, some academics believe that TCKs will be our most talented diplomats in a globalized world. Not only is intercultural communication second nature to them, they also have an innate global perspective, social adaptability, and intellectual flexibility. In fact, 89% of Hispanics believe that they can get along with anybody. It’s even been theorized that President Barack Obama is our first TCK president and that being the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas and having spent his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii helped to shape his political viewpoint. Paulette Bethel, a Ph.D. who studies third-culture individuals, told The Daily Beast, “Barack’s been negotiating between cultural worlds since the day of his birth. No one will have to teach him this skill. It’s already second nature to him!”


Hispanics are more likely than non-Hispanics to say, “I am transcultural” (30% vs. 12%), reporting that they relate to multiple cultures. Why? Because they are multicultural (69% of Hispanics). 


’Tweeners

Then there’s the ultimate example of adaptability: Mateo Lugo, whose ethnic background includes Spanish, Puerto Rican, French, and Viking—or at least that’s how he explains his red beard—lives in Oakland by way of Venezuela, and describes his personal culture as “in between” and altogether abstract. “I don’t feel totally French,” he explains. “I don’t feel totally Venezuelan or Puerto Rican, but I have these influences.” Bethel would categorize Lugo as a wallflower, a type of TCK who strives to find a nonidentity rather than either assimilate or stand out as a foreigner. Lugo admits that he’s felt “in between” for as long as he’s had self-awareness: even when he was a child, although his parents were salsa dancers, he preferred the otherness of rock and roll. This in-between state extends to how he thinks and speaks. As a product of several cultures, Lugo says that he’s always thinking first in sensation and then has to find the right language—Spanish, French, or English—to translate. And while this may sound confusing, Lugo considers the fluidity of his identity and communication to be an asset, observing that when people have only one language, they have less flexibility.

Ultimately, the rise of bespoke third cultures may be more than the coping mechanism of a population straddling several cultures—it just might be an evolutionary trait that is part of our evolution into an infinitely more global population. After all, it’s this generation that has introduced into mainstream culture ways to communicate that transcend language: just scroll through Instagram or send a message using only emojis to experience a universal digital language.

And while Lugo may seem to have the most abstract and isolated identity of all the TCKs we met, most TCKs feel that their culture is highly individual to them. Thompson-Hernandez of the Blaxican movement says: “There’s no one way to be a Blaxican, right? It’s not this homogenous experience.” In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, only one-third (34%) of all multiracial Americans feel that they have a lot in common with others of the same racial mix, and half as many (17%) think they share a lot with multiracial Americans whose racial backgrounds are different from their own. This cultural isolation can be challenging for TCKs. Numerous studies explore the social isolation and loneliness that some of them experience. One TCK, Ruzan Sarwar, wrote in a Huffington Post article: “There are detriments to growing up without a clearly defined idea of who you are. Defining yourself provides a concrete sense of where your place is in this world.” On the other hand, if a TCK individual is able to cultivate a strong sense of self among the shifting tides, as Lugo has, he or she is better equipped to deal with a world in flux than any non-TCK.

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Characteristics of Third Culture Kids

Globally minded: Exposure to multiple cultures gives TCKs a broad and macro-level worldview. Young Hispanics are twice as likely as their non-Hispanic counterparts to rate themselves as “highly worldly” (40% vs. 22%).

Chameleons: TCKs have been shifting between various cultures since birth, so being fluid and adaptable is at the core of who they are: 89% of young Hispanics say they are cultural chameleons. There are pros and cons to this: they’re able to handle abrupt changes with ease, but there’s also a certain isolation that comes with not being sure where you belong.

Diverse: As the most diverse cohort within the most diverse generation, TCKs will evolve racial mores and herald a new era in which everyone has his or her own unique diversity story.

Inclusive: Since being an outsider is one part of who they are, TCKs covet warm, friendly, and welcoming niches where everyone fits in: 88% of young Hispanics say that being inclusive is one of their core values.

Cultural synthesizers: Making sense of foreign cultures is an innate skill, and TCKs feel that they have a better understanding of other cultures than do most Americans.

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Facts about Multicultural Zs

Gen Z comprises 25% of the current U.S. population.

Gen Z is the most ethnically diverse generation, and the last one in which non-Hispanic whites will make up the majority.

Gen Z is 48% multicultural vs. 43% of the millennial generation.

Gen Z influences $600 billion annually in family spending.

Most Hispanic youths are not immigrants, but their parents are. Ninety percent of Hispanic children were born in the United States, but for 53%, at least one of their parents was born outside of the U.S.

Hispanic children make up the majority of dual language learners, a growing group that is defined as those acquiring two languages simultaneously.

TCK Interviews

Meet some of the Third Culture Kids we spoke with and hear them explain in their own words how they see their own individual cultures.

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“We are moving into an age of increasing diversity; our country is becoming more multiracial, multilingual, and multiethnic, and people are finding new ways to self-identify.”

—Walter Thompson-Hernandez, 30, Blaxican


 

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“I’ve never hung out more with Hispanic kids or white kids or black kids. I always just hung out with nerds, and it never mattered what they looked like, as long as we had the same exact interests. I’ve developed myself culturally around this geek community.”

—Mari Monzo, 29, Transculturator


 

CF_website_deliverables47


“I identify as a TCK, or Third Culture Kid… you’re not just one plus one. You’re something in between two cultures.”

—Mateo Lugo, 20, ’Tweener


 

Brand Opportunities

MULTICULTURAL MASH-UPS WILL BE THE NEW MAINSTREAM.

In an era in which multiculturalism is the norm and immersions into other cultures are readily accessible, expect to see pop culture mash-ups have mass appeal (think Metalachi).

GO MULTICULTURAL.

Young people increasingly straddle not one or two, but several disparate cultures—so representing them will become increasingly complex. Understand that identity has become customized and younger individuals tend to see themselves as totally unique mash-ups of several different cultures.

“ALL STYLES WELCOME.”

TCKs are niche by nature and place a high value on warm, welcoming, and inclusive cultures, cities, communities, and cliques.

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