Continuing Research on Latino Families: El Pasado y el Futuro

Linda Halgunseth. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Recently, Latinos have become the largest minority group in the United States. At 35.3 million in 2000, they make up 13% of the total U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003). Latinos are also the fastest growing minority group in the United States. Seventy percent of the Latino population is estimated to be younger than 40 years old; if current fertility and immigration rates continue for this relatively youthful population, demographers project that one of every four Americans will be Latino by the year 2050 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001).

Given the increasing number of Latinos, it is not surprising that the amount of research on Latino families has enlarged greatly over the last three decades. In this chapter, we will examine patterns of similarities among and differences between Latino families, describe the theories and research methods that have been applied in this field of study and evaluate their effectiveness in generating new knowledge about Latino families, offer suggestions for future policy and research, and envisage future trends for Latino families.


Over the last 30 years, a variety of ethnic labels have been assigned to what are now referred to as Latino families. The terms Latin Americans and Spanish were often used interchangeably until approximately 1980 when the term Hispanic then began to dominate in the literature. Hispanic literally means “of Spain” but is used to describe people of Spanish-speaking heritage. In the late 1980s, young Mexican Americans coined the term Chicano as a name for those who are of Mexican descent but who were born in the United States. This term was the first instance of defiance in that it was self-created and was intended to represent opposition to a power structure. However, some Mexican Americans considered the term offensive, and it soon faded from the literature (Fox, 2002).

Currently, Latino is the nomenclature most frequently used in the scholarly literature. This term (a) includes people from all countries in Latin America as well as parts of the Caribbean that have Latin-based languages but may not necessarily speak Spanish, such as parts of Brazil (Fox, 2002; Harwood, Leyendecker, Carlson, Asencio, & Miller, 2002); (b) disconnects the term from Spain, a country that is still not forgiven for its colonial past; and (c) disorients non-Latinos who have over time developed assumptions or generalizations regarding the Hispanic population (Fox, 2002). Most Latinos prefer to be identified by their specific ethnic background (e.g., Mexican, Colombian, Cuban).

In this chapter, I refer to specific ethnic groups (e.g., Cubans) when they have been identified by researchers. The terms Latino and Hispanic are used when specific ethnic group membership is unclear or when the information can be generalized.

Heterogeneity among Latino Families

Latino families come from approximately 20 countries, each containing its own history, culture, and reasons for emigration. In 2000, the largest percentage (66.1%) claimed Mexican heritage, followed by Puerto Rican (9%) and Cuban (4%). In addition, Dominicans (2.2%), Salvadorans (1.9%), Guatemalans (1.1%), Hondurans (0.6%), Colombians (1.3%), Ecuadorians (0.7%), and some countries in the Caribbean are represented by the broad term Latino or Hispanic (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Reasons for emigration or residence in the United States vary for Latino families from different countries. For example, after the Mexican-American War in 1848, a large portion of Mexico was annexed and many Latinos in the Southwest region were “acquired” as U.S. citizens. Later, during World War II, Mexicans were actively recruited to fill jobs left by American soldiers. This initiative, the Bracero Program, lasted over 20 years. The program allowed for the importation of 4 million workers (400,000 a year) and their families (Becerra, 1998).

After the Spanish-American War in 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. Puerto Rican and Mexican migration generally was and continues to be caused by economic hardships and better economic opportunities in the United States (Becerra, 1998; Sánchez-Ayéndez, 1998). This is in contrast to the immigration patterns of Cuban families. Fleeing political oppression in 1959, members of the elite classes of Cuba came to the United States for safety. Three distinct waves of Cuban migration have occurred since then (Harwood et al., 2002; Sánchez-Ayéndez, 1998). Central and South American immigrants have come to the United States for various reasons. Some are educated professionals who came for employment opportunities, and others immigrated because of war in their home countries (Harwood et al., 2002).

Although 62% of Latinos were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993), researchers have differentiated between four generations because the immigration of many Latinos was relatively recent. The first or immigrant generation represents Latinos who migrated to the United States after the age of 12. Children under the age of 12 who migrated with their families are referred to as the 1.5 generation. Second-generation Latinos are individuals who were born in the United States but whose parents were not. Third-generation Latinos were born in the United States, as were their parents, but their grandparents were born elsewhere (Harwood et al., 2002; Rumbaut, 2001). It is not uncommon for first-generation Latinas to carry their father’s last name, even after they marry. Therefore, many first-and second-generation Latino children may share the same last name with their fathers but not with their mothers.

Research Methods and Conceptual Frameworks

Acknowledgment of Latino families as flexible units that adjust and adapt to their ever-changing environments has increased over the last three decades in the literature. The social adaptation framework has contributed to this improvement. Issues that are pertinent to Latinos, such as family structure, gender roles, and employment, are examined from the perspective that Latino families, like most families, are dynamic (not static) units that can and do accommodate themselves to the socioeconomic context (Vega, 1990).

A social adaptation framework has been useful in conceptualizing change in Latino families as a result of socioeconomic conditions; however, this orientation has not been useful in conceptualizing factors related to cultural changes (Buriel & DeMent, 1997; Zambrana, 1995). From a cultural perspective, two processes have been often used to explain Latino family functioning: assimilation and acculturation.


Assimilation is the adoption of the majority culture’s norms and standards while rejecting those of one’s own ethnic group. This most frequently used framework suggests a unidirectional process of sociocultural change and stems from the cultural-mismatch theory, which argues that the cultural practices and values between the home and school environment must be consistent in order for children to succeed (see Bernal, Saenz, & Knight, 1995). Cultural-mismatch theory and the assimilation framework imply superiority of the host culture. Cultural-mismatch theory was allegedly supported by findings that school performance was lower for minority children who spoke a foreign language than for minorities with English-language backgrounds (Steinberg, Blinde, & Chan, 1984), but it fails to explain why first-generation children have been found to have higher academic success than their later-generation peers (Bernal et al., 1995).

In the past, minority families were strongly encouraged by U.S. society to assimilate in order to be accepted. In fact, the American dream of career success, economic prosperity, and a comfortable lifestyle was often associated with the rejection of one’s native culture in order to be a part of the dominant culture. However, for many people, full assimilation is impossible to achieve. Some members of Latino families never become fully accepted into society due to their physical characteristics (e.g., skin color) or because they speak with an accent. These individuals feel marginalized and estranged (Steinberg, 1999; Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995).

Family relations are affected when individuals in a Latino family differ in their views about assimilation. For example, Latino children who think they must not identify themselves with Latino culture so that they can become successful in society often experience more detached and strained relationships with their less assimilated parents and siblings (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995). Family strains typically consist of conflicting values or the inability to communicate verbally due to language barriers.


Unlike assimilation, acculturation does not imply relinquishing native culture and values; it merely signifies the adoption of values from the host culture. Since the 1980s, acculturation, the process of learning, borrowing, or adopting elements from other ethnic groups, has been studied extensively from various theoretical perspectives (Berry, 1980; Padilla, 1980). Previously, acculturation was evaluated using simple models that assumed there were two polar extremes, strong ethnic identification and strong mainstream identification (Keefe & Padilla, 1987; Phinney, 1990). The traditional view that acculturation was a unidimensional process (Marina, 1979) has been rejected by most scholars because acculturation is based on the dynamic between the environment and personal choice, and unidimensional processes do not include factors that reflect a complex multicultural society like the United States (Garza & Gallegos, 1995).

Acculturation is usually operationalized as (a) the ability to speak English, (b) acceptance of and promotion of American ideals, or (c) generational status (Buriel, 1993; Rumbaut, 2001). Other ways to assess acculturation exist but are infrequently used, such as the Cultural Information Scale (CIS; Saldaña, 1988, 1995), which is based on both demographic variables (e.g., language preference, generational status, bilingual fluency) and psychological items (e.g., ethnic loyalty, cultural celebrations, ethnicity of close friends and dating partners).

In recent years, researchers have developed more complex acculturation models. For instance, Rueschenberg and Buriel’s (1995) acculturation model takes a family systems perspective to categorize families into three groups: unacculturated (all family members were born in Mexico, parents are monolingual Spanish speaking and have immigrated within the past 5 years), moderately acculturated (parents were born in Mexico, parents resided in the United States at least 10 years, children were born in the United States, parents were monolingual Spanish speaking or Spanish dominant, and children have English-speaking ability), and acculturated (both parents and children were born in the United States, and both have a bilingual or English-speaking preference). Their findings suggest that acculturation influences familial practices outside but not inside the home.

Research over the past two decades has found acculturation to be more of a risk factor than a protective factor for Latino families. There is evidence that Latinos who are less acculturated are in better health, have lower rates of delinquency, and less psychological distress and that they score higher on achievement tests than Latinos who are more acculturated (Anderson & Wood, 1997; Buriel, Calzada, & Vasquez, 1982; Burnam, Hough, Karno, Escobar, & Telles, 1987; Rumbaut, 2001). In addition, Rumbaut (2001) found that youth who were not fluent in the language of their immigrant parents exhibited higher parental conflict, higher feelings of embarrassment over their parents’ culture, and lower family cohesion than youth who were fluent in the parental language.

In an attempt to explain the negative association between acculturation and family well-being, Rumbaut (2001) argued that acculturation should be conceptualized as a dynamic process in which both parents and children need to be considered. The acculturation process is influenced by contextual factors (e.g., school, peers, and society); however, the pace of acculturation may differ between Latino parents and children. Three modes of acculturation were identified in the study: consonant, dissonant, and selective. In consonant acculturation, the learning process and gradual abandonment of the home language and culture occur at roughly the same pace for immigrant parents and their children. This situation is most common when the parents have levels of education sufficient to accompany and monitor the acculturation of their children. Dissonant acculturation occurs when there is a discrepancy in acculturation pace between immigrant parents and their children. This often occurs among immigrant families. Under these circumstances, linguistic and other gaps develop between parents and children that can exacerbate intergenerational conflicts or cause children to feel embarrassed rather than proud of their parents as the children try to fit in with their American peers. This can lead to role reversals if children prematurely assume adult roles (Rumbaut, 2001). In selective acculturation, there is a relative lack of intergenerational conflict, children have co-ethnic friends, and second-generation Latinos are fluently bilingual. Geographical factors, such as residence in a Latino enclave or neighborhood or proximity to Latin American countries such as Mexico, facilitate this type of acculturation.

Rates of acculturation may depend on patterns of residence (Harwood et al., 2002). Geographic locations with the highest concentration of Latinos are more likely to develop ethnic enclaves, areas where cultural preservation predominates (Harwood et al., 2002). The states with the highest concentration of Latinos are New Mexico (38.2% of total population), California (25.8%), Texas (25.5%), and Arizona (18.8%) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1993). Both positive and negative circumstances can arise when Latino families reside in an ethnic enclave. If the family has a weak association with the dominant culture and a strong association with its own ethnic group, then the family may not adopt elements from the dominant culture, instead emphasizing the preservation of its ethnic heritage (Steinberg, 1999). Some families choose to separate themselves from the dominant society in response to past experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Strong cultural preservation in families is quite beneficial in developing self-esteem and ethnic identity in Latino children; however, it is not without cost. Latino children who perform well academically or who succeed in an institution that is considered mainstream are often ridiculed by peers (e.g., called coconuts) and feel guilty or uneasy (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995). Thus, the original ethnic culture not only is preserved in some areas but has transformed into a counterculture (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995).

Bicultural Models

Families who choose to maintain the values of their native culture as they adopt values from the host culture are characterized as bicultural. Abalos (1986) conceptualized biculturalism as the synthesis of two cultures out of which arises “a third enriched reality that was not there before” (p. 94). Szapocznik, Kurtines, and Fernandez (1980) argued that to minimize the detrimental effects of adaptation to a new culture, individuals living in bicultural communities must become bicultural themselves. Becoming bicultural involves learning to communicate and negotiate skills in two different cultural contexts, each with a separate set of rules. Szapocznik and colleagues encouraged bicultural youths to be aware of the differences between cultures and to develop flexibility in order to implement different survival skills according to cultural contexts. In both bicultural and acculturative models, the transmission of culture across generations is individual and dynamic. It depends on factors such as available social networks and individual and family demographic variables (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001).

Szapocznik and Kurtines (1980) typed Latino families on two dimensions: acculturation, defined as a linear process of adapting to the host culture; and biculturalism, the ability to relinquish or retain characteristics of the culture of origin. On the basis of these dimensions, a Latino child could be seen as (a) high cultural involvement and bicultural (an active bicultural child); (b) high cultural involvement and monocultural (a child who is fully involved in only one culture); (c) marginal and monocultural (marginalized child who is more involved in the Latino culture); and (d) marginal and bicultural (marginalized child who is equally involved or uninvolved in both cultures). Students who had high cultural involvement and were bicultural were perceived by their teachers to be better adjusted than children of the other three groups.

Ramírez (1983) defined biculturalism as the simultaneous adoption of the language, values, and social competencies of two cultures. Using data from previous research, he delineated four bicultural/multicultural identities. First, the synthesized multicultural identity is held by a person who has a positive attitude toward Mexican American and mainstream culture. This person is able to function in Mexican American, mainstream, and other cultures with ease. Second, the functional bicultural/mainstream orientation refers to a person who has positive attitudes toward both Anglo and Mexican American cultures but a greater acceptance of and comfort in the Anglo cultural setting. Third, the functional bicultural/Latino orientation characterizes a person who is like the functional bicultural/mainstream person but has a stronger commitment to the Mexican American culture. Fourth, the monocultural identity describes a person who is more comfortable with the Mexican American culture and has a strong commitment to it only.

Assimilation of mainstream cultural values and behaviors is uncharacteristic of many recent Mexican immigrants (Buriel & DeMent, 1997). Instead, an intermediate bicultural adaptation that incorporates aspects of the home culture with the mainstream culture occurs. Therefore, families may change more by adding new cultural competencies to their ethnic competencies, thereby becoming bicultural, than by assimilating (i.e., replacing their existing cultural values and behaviors). This bicultural adaptation represents the sociocultural change that distinguishes many recent Latino immigrant families from the European immigrants who preceded them.

Ethnic Socialization

Latino parents can facilitate their children’s development of biculturalism with ethnic socialization, the process through which parents teach their children about their ethnic identity and about the special experiences they may encounter in the broader society, given their ethnic background (Thornton, Chatters, Taylor, & Allen, 1990). Ethnic socialization is strongly predictive of ethnic identity achievement in adolescents (Quintana, Castañeda-English, & Ybarra, 1999; Umaña-Taylor & Fine, 2001). Ethnic identity achievement, in turn, is related to higher self-esteem, self-efficacy, and proactive styles of coping with discrimination (Phinney & Chavira, 1995; Umaña-Taylor, Diversi, & Fine, 2002).

Trends in Latino Family Values and Processes

Across ethnic groups and generations, Latino families share several values that stem from a collectivistic orientation to the world (i.e., a view that focuses on the betterment of a group rather than promoting self-interest or individualism). Sacrificing for the common good, maintaining harmonious relationships with close others, and believing that group membership is a central aspect to one’s identity are core components of a collectivistic orientation (Hofstede, 1980). Over the last 20 years, the collec-tivist model has frequently been applied to the study of Latinos (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002). In their meta-analysis, Oyserman and colleagues found that European Americans rated lower than Latinos on collectivism, but no significant differences were found between them with regard to individualism.

Traditions practiced in many Latino families, including collectivistic behaviors, are influenced by Catholicism (57% of Latinos are Catholic; City University of New York, 2001). For example, close friends of the family may be asked to be godparents or padrinos (from the word padres, “parents”). Padrinos are often assigned at a child’s baptism and are considered another set of parents to Latino children. A Latino child’s father and godfather refer to each other as compadres (co-fathers), and a Latino child’s mother and godmother refer to each other as comadres (co-mothers) (Vidal, 1988).

In addition, the Latino value of familism (i.e., all members strongly identify with their respective family units and feel a deep sense of family loyalty) stems from a collectivistic orientation. Latino parents implement many strategies to instill the importance of family in their children. Latino children are often expected to contribute by performing work roles within the family such as household chores, babysitting, transporting other family members by car, or helping their parents at their place of employment. Additionally, the emphasis on interdependence among Latino family members ensures that familism is maintained. Latino parents may also foster feelings of familism by limiting the amount of contact their children have with others outside their immediate family environment (e.g., peers) and insisting that their children spend time with the family (Moore, 1991). Parental control over the extrafamilial behaviors of children is much more common for Latinos than for European Americans (Bulcroft, Carmody, & Bulcroft, 1996). Because independence in the U.S. culture is valued both within the family and across other social institutions, European American parents can rely on indirect societal assistance in the teaching of individualistic values. Thus, European American parents tend to use less direct controls over the extrafamilial behaviors of their children than Latino parents (Bulcroft et al., 1996).


In addition to the emphasis on familism, Latino parenting is noted to be nurturing and permissive in early childhood. Escovar and Lazarus (1982) found that Latino families displayed closer mother-child relationships and more open verbal and physical expression of parental affection than European American families. Latino parents also have a relaxed attitude toward individual behavior such as the attainment of early skills and achievement of developmental milestones (Zuniga, 1992). In addition, Latino children are socialized to reciprocate acts of kindness to individuals inside and outside the home (Leyendecker & Lamb, 1999).

The Latino parenting style fosters interdependence and relational learning, whereas the European American parenting style emphasizes independence and self-initiated learning. A major parenting strategy used by Latino parents in teaching their children is modeling. This differs from the commonly used European American teaching technique of inquiry and praise (Brice, 2002; Zuniga, 1992). For example, if a child is learning how to set a table, a Latino parent will teach the child through parental demonstration, whereas a European American parent will inquire (e.g., “Where do you think the glass goes?”) and then provide praise (e.g., “Very good. You did that all by yourself!”). Latino families with more than one child differ slightly in their mode of teaching in that parents assign older siblings the tasks of teaching and being socializing agents for their younger siblings (Valdés, 1996). The teaching and support that Latino siblings provide resembles the support given to European American children by their mothers (Volk, 1999).

To maintain harmonious familial and nonfamilial relationships, Latino parents often endorse interpersonal skills (i.e., warm, individualized attention and responsiveness) that can take the form of both verbal and nonverbal communication. These skills of interpersonal relatedness include interacting with others so that they will enjoy the child’s company, find him or her pleasant, and feel mutually respected. In addition, these skills are believed to maintain harmonious familial and nonfamilial relationships, a goal of many Latino families. Latino parents often focus on regulating their children’s affective states by directly dealing with their children’s emotional expressions (Maccoby, 1984). Positive emotional expressions are generally reinforced, and negative emotions such as anger and aggression are punished. For example, verbal arguments among siblings are quickly discouraged and are quite distressing to Latino parents (Goodman & Beman, 1971). In addition, Latino parents closely monitor nonverbal cues (i.e., body language). During parent-child communication, Latino parents reinforce positive body language (i.e., gestures and facial expressions that show respect) in children and admonish body language that they consider disrespectful (e.g., crossing arms, rolling eyes) (Zuniga, 1992).

The Latino family context fosters the acquisition of acute field-dependent skills in children (i.e., they become sensitized to the nonverbal communication cues and responses of others; Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1974), and children strive for non-conflicting interactions (Zuniga, 1992). In cross-cultural studies, Latino children were found to have more passive coping styles, to be more respectful to and dependent on authority, to have a greater need for affiliation, and to be more cooperative and group oriented than African American and European American children (Diaz-Guerrero, 1975; Holtzman, Diaz-Guerrero, & Schwartz, 1975; Kagan & Madsen, 1971; Rotheram-Borus & Phinney, 1990; Sanders, Scholz, & Kagan, 1976). Children belonging to cultures that emphasize family loyalty, achievement for the family, and respect for parents score higher on field dependency scores than children from cultures that encourage questioning of convention and an individual identity (Berry, 1966; Cohen, 1969; Dershowitz, 1971; Martinez & Norman, 1984; Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1974; Rand, 1971).

Another Latino child-rearing value is personalism, an inner quality that emphasizes the inner importance (i.e., self-confidence), dignity, and respect of an individual (Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1974; Sánchez-Ayéndez, 1998). It includes an orientation to treating others with respect and dignity. Parents choose parenting strategies that contribute to their children’s becoming bien educado (i.e., well educated). In the Latino culture, bien educado, in referring to a child, implies not only school education or intelligence but also qualities of being tranquilo (i.e., calm), obediente (i.e., obedient), and respetuoso (i.e., courteous to others, especially adults). Calling a child mal educado (i.e., not educated) is considered a terrible insult to his or her parents because it implies that they have not provided him or her with the education valued by Latino families (Zuniga, 1992). Harwood and Miller (1991) contrasted Puerto Rican and European American mothers’ descriptions of a “secure child.” European American mothers liked how the securely attached child displayed self-confidence and independence, whereas the Puerto Rican mothers complimented the securely attached child’s demeanor, obedience, and quality of relatedness.

Latino parenting strategies attempt to inculcate personalism in their children. Latino parents require children to speak and behave with absolute respect to their elders. The slightest form of disobedience and disrespect is negatively reinforced or punished and is directly acknowledged as being disrespectful or disobedient. Thus, Latino children quickly learn the importance of these two qualities, and this endures in them well beyond childhood. Also, children are encouraged to be calm in their play (i.e., low noise level) so not to disturb others. In addition, the work roles that are required of adolescents are believed to instill a strong sense of responsibility and obedience. Finally, living a dignified lifestyle in the Latino culture promotes a self-purity theme that is reinforced by religious ideology. As a result, parenting strategies that highlight the protection of girls and restriction of their freedom are often found in Latino families (Sánchez-Ayéndez, 1998; Zuniga, 1992).

A Caution

Even though there are similarities in Latino values and practices, it is incorrect to assume that all Latino families adhere to the same goals and standards. Latino families adapt or change depending on the context. For example, a common characteristic of collectivism is that members of a group are concerned with conforming to external standards (e.g., appropriate manners, attire, customs). However, Okagaki and Sternberg (1991) found that level of acculturation influenced preferences of Latino parents: Immigrant Latinas preferred a child who followed rules, whereas Latinas born in the United States favored autonomous behavior.

In addition, the teaching strategy of modeling may change according to levels of maternal education or acculturation. In general, Mexican American, Puerto Rican, and Dominican Republic mothers used more modeling, visual cues, and directives during a teaching task than European American mothers (Laosa, 1980; Planos, 1993; Vargas, 1991); however, Planos (1993) found that more acculturated Puerto Rican and Dominican Republic mothers used more “inquiry and praise” techniques than less acculturated counterparts. Laosa (1980) also found that Mexican American mothers with higher levels of education and income used teaching strategies characterized by “praise and inquiry” and that those with lower education used more modeling.

Furthermore, Buriel (1993) detected parenting differences across three generations of Latino parents. First- and second-generation Latino children experienced a parenting style that enforced early self-reliance (e.g., performing work roles at an early age), adherence to family rules, and emphasis on productive use of time. Parents also tended to reinforce their children depending on the outcome of the child’s performance (success or failure), and they used techniques such as modeling to teach their children. Third-generation (highly acculturated) Latino children characterized their parents as emphasizing support and caring. These parents used a teaching style similar to that of the school systems that they had experienced: They reinforced children more on the basis of effort than on whether they completed the task successfully. Third-generation parents may emphasize different parenting strategies for three reasons: (a) Due to acculturation, these parents have acquired a European American parenting style that emphasizes support and less restriction on their children as they explore their environment; (b) these parents have experienced prolonged exposure to lower societal expectations for minorities, which has attenuated their expectation of child success; or (c) through personal experiences, these parents are aware that Latino children receive less praise, support, or acceptance from school teachers (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1973), even when they answer correctly (Buriel, 1993), and they consequently seek to compensate with a more supportive parenting style.

Finally, the field dependency skills of Latino children are suspected to decrease with acculturation. Ramirez and Price-Williams (1974) found that children from a community in Mexico that most identified with traditional Mexican values were more field dependent in cognitive style than children from less traditional communities that are located closer to the U.S. border. Therefore, parenting was not the sole influence on children’s cognition. Children, as well as parents, are influenced by and will adapt to their environments (Ramirez & Price-Williams, 1974; Vega, 1990).

Acculturation and Child Outcomes

The environment and levels of acculturation may influence parents and children; however, a review of the literature suggests that this change may not always be for the better. Among three generations, first-generation children exhibited lower rates of delinquency (Buriel et al., 1982), showed less psychological distress (Burnam et al., 1987), and performed better on achievement tests (Nielsen & Fernandez, 1981) than their later-generation peers. This may be explained by the parenting strategies that first-generation Latinos experience, which emphasize obedience and respect to authority, or it could be due to the fact that the home environment (e.g., Spanish-speaking parents and parenting strategies that emphasize traditional Latino values) may covertly enhance a strong ethnic identity in Mexican American children (Umaña-Taylor & Fine, 2002), which has been associated with many developmental benefits (Chavira & Phinney, 1991; Phinney, 1989). Therefore, information that higher levels of acculturation do not necessarily lead to better child outcomes has existed for over 20 years. Despite such information, however, mainstream institutions such as school systems commonly endorse English immersion programs to accelerate the acculturation process.

Changes in Latino Family Structure and Processes

The notion of Latino families as large units living in nuclear households is a myth that continues, despite changes in family structure. Between 1960 and 1980, the average size of Latino households decreased while the rate of marital disruption increased (Vega, 1990). Female-headed households are not uncommon among Latino groups (Angel & Tienda, 1982). In the 1980s, mainland Puerto Ricans had the highest fertility rates, were the most likely to have female-headed households with children, and had the lowest family income of any Latino group (Moore & Pachon, 1985). The rates of Puerto Rican female-headed households are twice as high than for Mexican American and Cuban American women, and Puerto Rican families have the highest poverty rate (30%) (McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, & Wilson, 2000; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999).

In the 1990s, Latinas (with the exception of Cubanas) were less likely to be married, more likely to be single heads of households, and more likely to have children at younger ages outside marriage (McLoyd et al., 2000). Migration has had far-reaching consequences for Latino family formation and family structure. Social, economic, and cultural stressors involved in immigration are possible reasons for increases in separation, divorce, and single-mother households (Bean & Tienda, 1987; Frisbie, Opitz, & Kelly, 1985; Muschkin & Myers, 1989). Maternal education has also been proposed as a contributing factor to marital disruptions (Cortés, 1995). Educational attainment was inversely related to marital stability among Mexican American and Cuban American households; however, for Puerto Rican families, educational attainment increases marital stability (Frisbie, 1986).

Male-Female Relationships in Families

The literature on Latino families often includes reference to the concept of machismo, which has characterized Latin American men for decades. Machismo is a system of behavioral traits marked by exaggerated masculinity (e.g., aggressiveness, courage, domination of women, and sexual conquests). It is commonly believed that because Latinos have the dominant role in a marital relationship and Latinas have the subordinate role of housekeeper and child-bearer, Latin American parents prepare their sons to be macho or independent and their daughters to be subservient.

These stereotypes have their roots in the 1500s, when Spanish conquerors set out to find gold and the Fountain of Youth. In countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Puerto Rico, the Spanish forced the natives to adopt their language and religion, and they also exploited the native women, forcing them to have sex and treating them like slaves. The native women’s children by the Spanish conquerors were called mestizos (i.e., half-Indian and half-Spanish). Because they grew up in an environment where their father had power and their mother was equivalent to a slave, the mestizos (i.e., both sons and daughters) learned that males were dominant and females were subordinate. As generations passed, Latin American men and women continued to fulfill those roles set by their ancestors (Penalosa, 1968).

The concept of machismo was predominant in the literature until the early 1980s, when researchers on Latino families realized the danger of relying on monocausal explanations for family dynamics (Vega, 1990; Ybarra, 1982). The social adaptation framework became useful for conceptualizing the influence of social context on gender roles in Latino families rather than assuming that these were static and that Latinos families functioned in a vacuum (Ybarra, 1982). Hence, Latino families began to be portrayed as adaptive to their social environments so that gender role expectations would change as socioeconomic conditions required (Vega, 1990).

Despite some traditional descriptions (Bird & Canino, 1982; Gonzalez, 1982), the bulk of the literature on gender roles in Latino families rests upon the concept that socioeconomic conditions are met by flexible and adaptive Latino families who do what it takes to survive in their environment (Griswold del Castillo, 1984). For example, the availability of employment has been found to be the most important determinant of whether Mexican American and Puerto Rican women work outside the home (Moore & Pachon, 1985; Zinn, 1982). In another study, researchers reported that immigrant Mexican American women actively sought employment because they believed that their labor was required for family survival (Kelly & Garcia, 1989). As more Latinas entered the workforce, attained higher levels of education, and adopted North American ideals, more equal divisions in household labor also emerged (Cromwell & Ruiz, 1979; Rodríguez, 1999; Zinn, 1982). This pattern was especially evident in the 1980s, when the number of women who accompanied their husbands in migrating to the United States increased (Passel & Woodrow, 1984). External employment contributed to greater personal autonomy for Latinas; the consequences of this for families were related to whether this occurred in the context of socioeconomic marginality (Kelly & Garcia, 1989).

Latina mothers are revered; they are considered to be the heart of the family and enjoy lifelong reverence from their children (Brice, 2002; Rodríguez, 1999). Family decision making is either a joint process or primarily the job of the mother (Vega, 1990). Even though fathers are made to feel that they rule the home, Latina mothers are described as the ones with the actual power (Brice, 2002; Rodríguez, 1999). In addition, Latino fathers are more involved in child rearing than in the past, especially with regard to nurturing (López & Hamilton, 1997).

How Effective has Latino Family Scholarship Been?

Over the last 30 years, the steady growth rate of Latinos has continually motivated family researchers to learn more about this heterogeneous population. In the 1980s, researchers began to implement a social adaptation framework (Vega, 1990). Instead of relying on cultural stereotypes and myths, researchers started to realize that Latino families, like all families, are flexible units that change in response to cultural influences and challenging social situations. As a result, events such as immigration and internal migration became factors of consideration in the study of Latino families and family structure. Review of census data revealed evidence of similarities with regard to family structure between Latino and non-Latino families (Bean & Tienda, 1987; Griswold del Castillo, 1984). One consistent theme continued to appear in the literature, however: The importance and prevalence of the cultural value of familism seemed to be a feature more typical for Latino families than for non-Latino families (Harwood et al., 2002; Vega, 1990).

Research on Latino families in the 1990s continued to focus on the effects of social context. The process of acculturation from the perspective of family members became of interest (Suãrez-Orozco & Suãrez-Orozco, 1995). Acculturation models were refined, and the influences of acculturation were more commonly considered in studies of Latino families (Anderson & Wood, 1997; Bernal et al., 1995; Buriel, 1993; Rueschenberg & Buriel, 1995; Saldaña, 1995). Unfortunately, researchers seemed to be interested in acculturation only in relation to mainstream normative standards (Buriel & DeMent, 1997; Steinberg, 1999). Such comparisons maintained the assumption of unidirectional assimilation by immigrant groups.

Recent research on Latino families has improved in many areas. Rumbaut’s (2001) finding that the pace of acculturation differs across family members has furthered our understanding of dynamics in multi-generational Latino families. In addition, researchers are beginning to examine individual nationalities within the Latino population (Umaña-Taylor & Fine, 2001), without stereotyping or overgeneralizing findings across ethnic groups. However, more research that attempts to replicate these findings is needed.

There have been improvements over the last 30 years in the scholarship of Latino families. Whether these new findings and conceptualizations have influenced the practices of mainstream institutions toward Latino families is less clear. Unless the scholarship improves the lives of Latino families, it is difficult to say whether it truly has been effective.

Implications for Future Research, Practice, and Policy

In the last decade, few Latino family scholars have focused their research on the diversity among Latino families. Even though similarities in family values and parenting practices exist, within-group variation also exists in areas such as family size, values, and family functioning. Homogenizing Latino families leads to results that do not accurately reflect all Latino ethnic groups and may reinforce hostility toward researchers if individuals feel invisible or inaccurately represented. To achieve a richer and more accurate understanding of Latino families and their diversity, current research methods need improvement. The characteristics of samples (e.g., ethnic group membership, generational status, and acculturation characteristics) should be reported in all studies (Treviño, 1988). To avoid misrepresentation, Latino ethnic groups that are generally smaller should be oversampled (e.g., Colombians, Ecuadorians). Longitudinal designs as opposed to cross-sectional research would best reveal the influence of processes such as acculturation and immigration (Vega, 1990). Researchers need to devise culturally appropriate measures and conceptual frameworks that apply to all ethnic groups and generations of immigrants that constitute the U.S. Latino population. Last, ethnically sensitive measures developed from observing Latino families are needed, and convergent reliability on current instruments such as acculturation scales should be assessed (Vega, 1990).

Empirical research on Latino parenting and parent-child relations needs more attention. Most of what we understand of Latino parenting is based on conjecture rather than empirical research (Vega, 1990). Rather than apply measures to Latino families that were previously normed on European American samples, researchers should conduct observational studies like those by Baumrind (1971) to identify parenting styles that are indigenous to Latino families. An emic approach, such as conducting qualitative interviews, could also serve as the basis for the development of future assessments of parenting styles and typologies that are relevant to this population. Currently, research literature explains certain parenting patterns, but it does not detail which parental strategies are effective for Latino families. Further, how parenting strategies differ across country of origin or change across generations is also an unexplored area.

Research is needed in the area of ethnic versus racial socialization strategies. In addition to generational status and country of origin, the Latino population is diverse in skin color. Is it necessary for Latino parents to implement racial socialization strategies (e.g., “Brown Pride”), or should ethnic socialization be the cornerstone for Latino parenting? Is racial and/or ethnic socialization related to generational status? Generally, research on racial socialization has been restricted to African American families and has demonstrated many developmental benefits for African American children (McAdoo, 2002). Last, policy needs to be directed by empirical research findings on Latino families. An examination of findings from current research on acculturation and cultural identity implicates the need for educational and medical institutions to create culturally sensitive environments in which Latinos, especially immigrant Latinos, feel comfortable accessing resources. Programs such as transitional bilingualism, English as a second language, and the incorporation of institutional interpreters would promote the educational success and health of the Latino population, which would inevitably benefit U.S. society.

Future Trends for Latino Families

A review of past and current research illuminates the various processes that Latino families experience as they adapt to U.S. society. Understanding these processes allows scholars to envisage future trends for Latino families and inform mainstream institutions. This will be particularly important as the Latino population continues to grow at rapid rates (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001).

The projected growth of Latino immigrants will inevitably influence the socialization processes of all Latino families. The prevalence of Latino family values and practices will become more apparent in the United States as immigrant parents attempt to socialize their children to become respectful and contributing members to their families and society. The pressure to assimilate to mainstream European American values and practices will continue to exist for all generations of Latino families. However, an increased prevalence of Latino customs will allow second- and third-generation Latino parents to maintain connection with their cultural heritage as they negotiate the values and practices that they choose to implement in their bicultural lives and families.

In turn, Latino children will continue to face challenges as they try to navigate their bicultural worlds. Some Latino children may choose to assimilate and replace their ancestors’ values and language for those more characteristic of mainstream society, whereas other Latino children will try to balance and incorporate both cultures into their identity. Children who decide to reject the cultural values and practices of their parents may experience more feelings of guilt, uneasiness, or strained relations with their parents than Latino children who explore both dimensions of their cultural identity (Rumbaut, 2001; Suãrez-Orozco & Suãrez-Orozco, 1995). Therefore, it is important that Latino family members as well as parent educators understand the importance of ethnic socialization and the benefits for Latino children to develop a healthy bicultural identity and sense of self.

Cultural myths and stereotypes are not easily dispelled, despite the increased sensitivity in the literature. Latino families will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented by mainstream society members who rely on dated, nonempirical research for information. In addition, Latino family members will continue to experience frustration and obstacles as they attempt to work with mainstream organizations that persist in relating to Latino families using a deficit perspective or an assimilation framework. Last, communication between non-English-speaking Latino family members and English-speaking-only federal, state, and city workers will continue to be strained, especially as the Latino population continues to grow rapidly.

As the number of Latino families increase, however, it is possible that mainstream institutions will eventually realize the necessity of meeting the needs of non-English-speaking family members. Family professionals and medical practitioners may meet the increase demand of their clients with bilingual and bicultural resources for Latino families. In trying to curtail the dropout rate, school officials may begin to incorporate bilingual programs and services for Latino children and parents. In their need to turn a profit, commercial businesses may begin to target Latino families as consumers of goods and services by advertising and developing products specifically for this population.

In conclusion, Latino families, non-Latino families, U.S. society, and mainstream institutions will be influenced by the rapid growth rate of Latinos. Certain projections can be made as Latinos continue to represent larger percentages of the population; however, how well current research on Latino families is communicated and incorporated into mainstream practice will be the best indicator for how Latino families will fare in the future.