Hispanic Cannabis Entrepreneurs Chart a Path Forward
How to break into the industry, overcome stigmas, and increase representation.
National Hispanic Heritage Month started on September 15 and continues to October 15, marking the anniversary of Independence from Spain in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Mexico declared its independence a day later. And October 12 is Día de la Raza, somewhat translated as Day of the Race, or "Columbus Day" — a national holiday in several Latin American countries.
While I am in no position to decide the U.S. governments' thought process around grouping nearly 62 million American's with complex identities under a single umbrella, or whether we should use Latino or Latinx, I will note that I use the term "Hispanic" throughout this story for continuity. But I understand that language matters and that people have strong feelings about it.
I also want to get out of the way that while we call these 30 days Hispanic Heritage Month, the word Hispanic encompasses many different cultural and geographic designations. The four entrepreneurs I spoke with identified themselves as Mexican, Columbian, and Apache (Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma).
It's essential to understand this because not all histories or experiences are the same. People are not monolithic.
Why they got into the cannabis industry
Richard Acosta is the co-president and CIO at GreenTech Properties, a private real estate investment trust (REIT) focused on controlled environment agriculture (CEA) properties. He became interested in the cannabis business for several reasons: proximity to southern California, his background in the hotel, casino, and real estate investment, and seeing the cannabis investment opportunity in Colorado and California.
"Growing up in Southern California, the demand, benefits, and criminal justice issues around cannabis have always been obvious," says Acosta. "Taking all of this together [my background] with the opportunity to support the development of the industry, jumping in felt like a calling."
On the other hand, Mark Flores, the director of brand engagement at Receptor Brands, felt like a part of the cannabis industry since college but moved quickly in the legal sector when Illinois developed its medical marijuana program.
"I had been working in political consulting and the nonprofit world for years until I was approached to do multicultural work in the beer space," Flores says. "After my beer industry friends were recruited to work in cannabis, I started working at a small activation agency where I pitched a large MSO and won the business. That was my first taste of the legal cannabis industry."
Overcoming stigma from family and friends
The U.S. had more than one million Mexicans that immigrated to the U.S., according to the Library of Congress in the early 1900s due to the Mexican Revolution.
This wave of immigration created fear of losing jobs to cheap labor, which was stoked by anti-immigration propaganda and stigma that tied the evils of the "marijuana menace" to Mexican immigrants.
That stigma still lives on today, yet an honest sitdown with their parents made all the difference for some entrepreneurs.
Manuela Sanin is the co-founder of Cloud11, a cannabis confections company based in Los Angeles that focuses on low-dose edibles.
Sanin faced challenges explaining to her family that she was leaving fine dining to work in cannabis but overcame it.
She says, "I think once my family saw the manufacturing process and understood that art was a huge influence behind Cloud11's product and packaging, they were able to understand that this was a high-end product and not unlike what I was doing before."
Flores found contextualizing the plant's medical benefits and how and what it is used for to dispel the myth that only burnouts consume it.
"I asked my mom if she would be interested in a cannabis lesson, and she organized a mini-event at her house with some friends and family. I basically ran them through a Cannabis 101. It opened their eyes."
Flores did leaning into the stigma of "selling cannabis" for a living at family parties. But, he said, "Thank god I am the favorite nephew; otherwise, some of my aunts would not be talking to me to this day. But, now, all my uncles want to take walks with me at family parties.
Including Hispanic populations in marketing and products
Roseann Valencia-Fernandez doesn't mince words. When asked if cannabis brands are actively reaching Hispanics, she said, "No."
Valencia-Fernandez is the vice president of marketing at TILT Holdings, a provider of cannabis business solutions. She says that at her previous company L'Oreal, she led an initiative to partner with top Latino TV channels like Telemundo and magazines and created advertising specifically speaking to American Latinos, in English and Spanish copy, with success.
"Once Cannabis brands start to understand this approach, there will be a rise in the cannabis space with Latino consumers," Valencia-Fernandez says.
Even if companies start that work today, Sanin reminds us that "Latinx populations are not a monoculture."
Pointing out that Hispanic Americans make up nearly 62 million of the American population, Sanis says, "My experience in Southern California is very different from my time in Florida and New York. I think cannabis products have had a hard time speaking to specific cultures in general because these cultures' preferences are still just starting to shape a market," Manuela continued.
Acosta echoes that the Hispanic market remains largely untapped.
"There is clearly a story to be told and embraced via yet-to-be-formed brands and services supporting the same," he says.
But that is changing, according to Flores. His clients have started reaching out for translations. He admits companies technically should not target a whole market but rather should transcreate material to be relevant to the specific Latin communities where the business resides.
"I believe this is the tip of the iceberg as cannabis brands begin to figure out how to differentiate themselves in large urban markets where more and more competition is creeping up."
An untold story
The Hispanic population is underrepresented in the cannabis industry—from the executive suite to products and marketing—but they have made the most significant impact historically in the U.S. If not for Mexican immigration, we would not be using cannabis recreationally here.
Given that history, are we telling the story that needs to be told?
Acosta feels the most relevant and influential part of the story relates to modern-day issues that urban communities continue to struggle with, specifically relating to the war on drugs, communities of color, and the long-lasting impacts on families, specifically urban children and youth.
"We need to talk more about the generational devastation that occurs when a parent is incarcerated for their participation in the industry that many of us are benefiting from as professionals," Acosta said.
Sanin shares his sentiment. "There is an opportunity for us to confront the anti-Hispanic and anti-Immigrant sentiment at the turn of the last century that led to the prohibition of cannabis and organize to support the larger movement to end prohibition and the war on drugs and fight for social justice within the industry."
With this history of stigma to overcome, some wonder if we are even telling the correct stories. Valencia-Fernandez wishes the media would share more positive stories.
As someone who works in the media, I agree. Positive stories, images, and people can go a long way to changing the narrative - it is how we've been able to move the needle so far on cannabis legalization.
Marijuana vs. Cannabis
So what should we call the plant? As a population in the U.S. who've fought over-identifying language and have been the receivers of the blunt trauma by marijuana propaganda, the Hispanic entrepreneurs I spoke with prefer to use the term cannabis —albeit for different reasons.
But the conversation is nuanced, as Flores points out, even though he prefers the term cannabis.
"I lie in the same place I lie on the Latin, LatinO, LatinX, LatinE, Hispanic debate. It is for an individual to how they identify, not me. Personally, I prefer Latino. However, I have always advised clients and brands to use a more inclusive term in the multicultural space," Flores stated.
The cannabis industry has a long way to go to including Hispanic voices— not just voices but real equity. They deserve more than a month of praise and recognition - because without Hispanic immigration in the U.S. - who knows when or if we'd have an industry as we do now.
So take a little time, do a little research, learn about their history in the U.S., and think deeply about what we can do better.