Mexican American Families and Poverty

Scott Coltrane, Ross D Parke, Thomas J Schofield, Shigueru J Tsuha, Michael Chavez, Shoon Lio. Handbook of Families & Poverty. Editor: D Russell Crane & Tim B Heaton. 2008. Sage Publications.

The year 2006 will be remembered in the United States for having seen the largest public demonstration by immigrants in the nation’s history. Latino immigrants and their supporters took to the streets for the “Day Without an Immigrant March” to protest a congressional bill designed to keep Mexican nationals from crossing the U.S. border with a 700-mile fence and to criminalize illegal immigrants and those who assist or employ them (Gaouette, 2006). Political mobilization against immigrants and counter-movements for immigrant rights highlight the dramatic demographic shifts that have transformed the United States in the past two decades (Cauce & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2002). Latinos are already the largest ethnic “minority” in the nation, and by 2050, are projected to make up more than one-quarter of the U.S. population. It is important that urban poverty scholars, policymakers, and the general public understand the experiences of Latinos with poverty (Roosa, Morgan-Lopez, Cree, & Specter, 2002; Small & Newman, 2001). As we discuss in this chapter, Latinos face substantial economic challenges, with rates of child poverty consistently much higher than are rates for non-Latino whites (Hernandez, 2004; Perez, 2004). In particular, this chapter will focus on Mexican Americans, who constitute two-thirds of the Latino population in the United States.

Past research has shown that a lack of financial resources jeopardizes the life chances of anyone who grows up poor (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; McLoyd, 1998; Rank, 2004). Mothers with few resources experience higher infant mortality rates than do other mothers and are more likely to have premature or mentally retarded babies from prenatal malnutrition. People with lower incomes are more likely to get sick and stay sick longer because of deficiencies in diet, sanitary facilities, shelter, or medical care. Poor people have shorter life expectancies and are more likely to die from accidents, tuberculosis, influenza, and pneumonia. Youth raised in poverty are less likely to go to college and are more likely to be arrested, found guilty, and given longer criminal sentences for a particular violation. Finally, families with limited incomes are more likely than are families with more financial resources to experience child abuse, spouse abuse, divorce, and desertion (Coltrane & Collins, 2001). Because income disparities in the United States have been increasing in recent decades, concern has grown regarding how families and communities might ameliorate some of these negative outcomes (Edelman & Jones, 2004; Heyman, 2000). Research is now beginning to examine how culture, race/ethnicity, family structure, parenting practices, neighborhood context, or related factors might buffer families from the ill effects of poverty. Ultimately, this research might also help us design programs to meet the special needs of specific groups like Mexican Americans and, we hope, will lead to social policies that reduce overall levels of family and child poverty in the United States.

Defining Ethnicity

The labels “Latino” and “Hispanic” reflect a diverse ethnic identity based on tracing one’s descent to Spanish-speaking countries. Very different groups are labeled Hispanic or Latino in American society, ranging from Mexican Americans (and Mexicanos, Chicanos, etc.) who make up about two-thirds of U.S. Latinos, to Puerto Ricans who make up more than 10% of U.S. Latinos, and Cubans who make up less than 5% of U.S. Latinos. The second largest group of Latinos in the United States is an aggregate category made up of persons from Central and South America (primarily El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador) who together constitute almost one-quarter of U.S. Latinos. These different Latino groups tend to live in different regions of the country, with Cubans concentrated in Florida, Puerto Ricans concentrated in New York, and Mexican American and Central and South American peoples formerly concentrated in the southwest and in agricultural areas, but increasingly moving to urban centers and various communities throughout the United States.

Research has often idealized Latino and Mexican American families as monolithic (Cauce & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2002; Massey, Zambrana, & Alonzo Bell, 1995). In reality, family forms and practices vary substantially among any ethnic group, but perhaps especially among a group as large and diverse as those who trace their lineage to Mexico, or to Spanish land grants in the American southwest before the United States became a country (Baca Zinn & Wells, 2000). Although most Mexican Americans now live in urban or suburban neighborhoods, stereotypes about Mexican families have often been based on rural families from earlier historical periods and on assumptions about uniformly shared values (Halgunseth, 2004; McLoyd, Cauce, Takeuchi, & Wilson, 2000). The image of Mexican American families in popular culture and scholarly research has typically been homogenized and somewhat pejorative (see Mirandé, 1997), but contemporary Latino families are quite diverse in generational status, acculturation, economic conditions, and family practices (Buriel & De Ment, 1997; Cabrera & Garcia-Coll, 2004; Dohan, 2003; Leyendecker & Lamb, 1999; Lopez & Stanton-Salazar, 2001). To overcome such stereotypes, recent research has focused on variations among Mexican American families, often demystifying stereotypes and specifying the conditions under which different ideals and family practices occur (Baca Zinn & Wells, 2000; Coltrane, Melzer, Vega, & Parke, 2005; Coltrane, Parke, & Adams, 2004; Mirandé, 1997).

Mexican Americans and Poverty

The Mexican American population is characterized by disproportionate levels of poverty. Among both immigrants and the U.S.-born, Mexican Americans have remained at the lower end of the economic ladder. Morales and Ong (1993) and Ortiz (1996) suggest that the combination of high rates of participation in the labor market combined with consistently low wages contribute to the overrepresentation of Mexican Americans among the working poor. Mexican Americans tend to be employed in service sector or manual labor jobs with low pay, limited benefits, few opportunities for advancement, and periodic instability. Vélez-Ibáñez and Greenberg (1992) find that these families adapt by moving between sectors of the labor market, working multiple jobs, and pooling wages.

Economic marginalization profoundly affects Mexican American and other Latino children. A third of Latino children younger than 18 years of age live in poverty, which is three times the poverty rate among non-Latino white children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Latinos are also disproportionately young, with almost 30% of Mexican Americans 14 years old or younger, compared with 19% for European Americans. Although most Mexican American white children live with both parents and in households with at least one employed adult, a disproportionate number are reared in situations with severely limited financial resources (Cauce & Domenech-Rodriguez, 2002).

Latino youth are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes, including violence, crime, and gang-related activity (Allen & Mitchell, 1998; Moore & Pinderhughes, 1993; Tapia, 2004; Wyche & Rotheram-Borus, 1990). Latino youth have the highest levels of drug and alcohol use, and the highest high school dropout levels of all ethnic groups (National Center for Education Statistics, 1998; Therrien & Ramirez, 2000). Latino youth rank second only to African American populations in prevalence of risky sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and gang-related behavior (U.S. Department of Education, 1995; National Centers for Disease Control, 2002).

Latino youth face other risks, such as increasing rates of suicide among adolescents (Chavez & Roney, 1990), poor physical health, and high levels of academic failure (Fuligni & Hardway, 2004). Despite a decline in some health-risk behaviors among American high school students, Latino adolescent problem behaviors appear to be on the rise (Guerra & Williams, 2006). According to the National Centers for Disease Control (2002), Latino children have a higher risk of maladaptive outcomes than do children from other minority groups at the same socioeconomic status (SES) level.

Mexican American families are of particular interest because of their high rates of poverty and high levels of child risk exposure, but also because of their traditional strengths, their high fertility rates, and their emphases on child rearing and extended family bonds. Mexican Americans typically have higher levels of extended “familism” when compared with other ethnic groups of various class levels (Vélez-Ibáñez, 1996). Familism is a central value reflecting strong family cohesion, with emphasis on the group over the individual and requirements for respect and obedience toward parents and other elders (Miranda, Estrada, & Firpo-Jimenez, 2000; Vega, Kolody, Valle, & Weir, 1991). Strong family cohesion and an extended family network can provide social, emotional, and instrumental support as family members share responsibilities, especially those related to child care. This system of social support creates a strong foundation for family life and increases available resources, even in the face of economic hardship. Familism has been described as essential for healthy adjustment in Mexican American families, especially for children (Gonzales, Knight, Morgan-Lopez, Saenz, & Sirolli, 2002; Vega et al., 1991).

Research has shown that family cohesion acts as a buffer against acculturative stress (Hovey & King, 1996; Salgado de Snyder, 1987), internalizing behavior (e.g., Lindahl, Malik, Kaczynski, & Simons, 2004), externalizing behavior (Yahav, 2002), and academic failure (Prevatt, 2003). As these studies attest, most research has focused on family cohesion as a protective factor in relation to outcomes for youth (Cortes, 1995). In a recent extension of this research, we found that family cohesion mediates the relation between economic or life stress and parenting behaviors in both Mexican American and European American families, demonstrating that stress is more strongly associated with parenting behaviors in families that are less cohesive (Behnke et al., 2006). Although Mexican American families were more cohesive than their Anglo counterparts, parenting practices in both ethnicities were similarly buffered from the effects of stress by family cohesion.

Economic Stress, Parenting, and Child Development

In addition to problems directly associated with economic disadvantage, poverty has been shown to create ancillary problems in parenting and child development. Conger et al. (1992) developed an economic stress model that specified the following:

Economic hardship would affect the lives of parents primarily through the noticeable financial pressures they create. In turn, these pressures were expected to have a direct impact on parents’ demoralization and emotional distress. These mediating conditions, in turn, were predicted to have adverse consequences for the marriage and for skillful parenting. The end result of the hypothesized process was disrupted parenting and its negative influence on the developmental trajectories of early adolescent males. (p. 537)

Such theoretical and empirical contributions have expanded concerns about poverty beyond economics to the realm of family relations and child development. Thus, children can be seen as not only disadvantaged in material and economic ways, but as subject to family practices shaped by reactions to economic stress that could potentially lead to psychological, emotional, or social maladjustment. This notion has been studied in relation to family life (e.g., Garbarino, 1976), with studies consistently confirming that poverty and economic stress are associated with reduced levels of family functioning (e.g., negative interactions; Gomel, Tinsley, Parke, & Clark, 1998) and problems for parents (e.g., Conger & Elder, 1994). Studies have shown that economic hardship is related to heightened family conflict, negative parent-child interactions, and overall unhealthy family interactions (Behnke et al., 2006; Simons, Johnson, Beamon, Conger, & Whitbeck, 1996; Simons, Whitbeck, Conger, & Melby, 1990).

In a recent extension of this model to Mexican American families and children, we examined the impact of economic stress on children’s adaptation (Parke et al., 2004). In this study, 278 Mexican American and European American families and their fifth-grade children were evaluated. Using measures derived from the Conger model, economic hardship was linked to indices of economic pressure that were related to depression symptoms for both mothers and fathers of both ethnicities. In structural equation models, depressive symptoms were linked to marital problems and hostile parenting. Hostile parenting, in turn, was strongly related to child adjustment problems for European Americans, whereas marital problems were more strongly linked to child adjustment problems for Mexican American families.

Why do marital problems appear to have a greater impact on children in Mexican American families? As noted previously, Mexican American families are characterized by high rates of marriage, high levels of family cohesion, and a high value placed on familism or family solidarity. From a family systems perspective, when the subsystems in the family are highly interdependent, problems in any subsystem are likely to have a more significant impact on other subsystems (e.g., the child) than in familial organizations in which family cohesion is lower. In addition, differences in the physical organization of space in Mexican American and European American households probably play a role in accounting for the links between marital problems and children’s outcomes. Specifically, because Mexican American families usually are poorer than European American families, their houses are typically smaller and, in turn, children in Mexican American families are more likely to be exposed to ongoing parental conflict or be aware of parental marital difficulties. In contrast, European American families may be able to conceal their marital difficulties to a greater degree than Mexican American families can. This suggests that an ecological analysis of the links between privacy potentials in households, as well as children’s exposure to displays of marital problems, would be worthwhile in future studies.

In both the European American and Mexican American families, hostile parenting—principally by fathers—was linked with higher levels of child adjustment problems. We interviewed fathers to determine what processes might be at work. Many Mexican American fathers talked about how work-related stress sometimes leads to harsh and explosive parenting. For example, one 36-year-old father who was a first-generation immigrant from Mexico said, “I get upset quickly, I get frustrated. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired, I don’t know, but I get upset, I get frustrated.” Another father, a 30-year-old first-generation Mexican immigrant, when asked what he would like to change about his parenting, said, “Change my temper. I would change my character a little, my character because of work, or financial worries, because of it, I’m a bit demanding.”

A variety of mechanisms including modeling (Parke & Buriel, 2006) and coercive family process (Dishion, Patterson, Stoolmiller, & Skinner, 1991) have been suggested as explanations for this link between hostile parenting and child outcomes. Why is the father-child link stronger than the mother-child link, especially in European American families? The relative salience of father’s discipline—in view of its relative intensity as well as its infrequency—may account for the stronger effect of paternal than maternal discipline. Alternatively, even though maternal hostility was not significantly directly related to child adjustment, mothers and fathers probably reinforce each other’s level of hostility. By supporting paternal harsh parenting, mothers may have an indirect influence on child outcomes through the correlation between maternal and paternal hostile parenting. This hypothesis merits examination. More work is needed to understand better the differential influence of parenting and marital problems on children in these two groups.

For Mexican American families, the level of acculturation influenced the pattern of relationships. Maternal acculturation, which was highly correlated with paternal acculturation, was differentially linked with marital problems and hostile parenting. Maternal acculturation was associated with higher reported levels of marital problems but lower reported levels of maternal and paternal hostile parenting. Perhaps increased acculturation can be seen as being associated with a more individualistic orientation and a shift toward more egalitarian patterns of power relations in the family. Marital problems increased as women acculturated to the host country and began to expect more equality within the marriage (and between the parents and children) than did their husbands. Moreover, the empowerment that came as a result of children’s linguistic and (host) cultural competence probably increased child-parent conflict because of the children’s push for autonomy and greater decision making within the family. Similarly, conflict between parents and children tends to increase as children adopt norms of the host culture, with issues of dress codes, curfew, and activities with peers serving as flash points.

In our studies, we see these conflicts increase most dramatically for Mexican-born fathers as they attempt to control their adolescent daughters more tightly than their adolescent sons. One 52-year-old Mexican immigrant father discussed his worries about his daughter:

I take her and bring her [to and from school]. And she tells me, “Don’t go for me, I will walk,” but I tell her, “I don’t want you flirting.” … She is old now and with any little thing that you do they are going to steal you. I tell her that “if you don’t want any problems with any one, don’t go with anyone if they ask you if you want a friendship, or a ride, or whatever.” Tell them, “My dad is coming and he brings me and takes me so I don’t need anything from no one.”

In addition, as maternal acculturation increased, the level of both maternal and paternal hostile parenting decreased. This decrease is consistent with an increased awareness of alternative disciplinary strategies that are less harsh and punitive, such as reasoning, love withdrawal, and loss of privileges. At the same time, as acculturation increases, families become more acquainted with the relatively unfavorable attitudes that European Americans hold concerning the use of harsh and punitive disciplinary strategies (Straus, 1994). Finally, Mexican American parenting, particularly in immigrant families (Buriel, 1993), stresses greater accountability by children to help the family cope with its adjustment to life in the United States. Therefore, what is typically defined as “hostile parenting” may be perceived differently in recent immigrant families if it helps promote the childrearing goal of accountability.

Although our findings revealed some differences across European American and Mexican American families, overall, the processes that characterized the operation of economic stress on family functioning were similar. This work underscores the robustness of the family stress model (Conger & Elder, 1994) and extends its applicability to Mexican American as well as European American and African American samples (Conger et al., 2002).

A Risk and Resilience Perspective on Poverty in Mexican American Families

To aid in understanding the effects of poverty in Mexican American families, a risk and resilience theoretical perspective is useful (Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). From this vantage point, children’s successful adaptation given such stressful circumstances as family poverty varies as a function of two components: the form and frequency of risk and the protective or resilience factors that buffer the child from the adverse events. The value of this approach is that it focuses attention on the positive ways in which families can adapt and cope in the face of stressful circumstances such as poverty. This represents a shift away from a pathology or deficit view of poor families to a perspective that recognizes family strengths and the value of community social capital as assets that can be recruited to aid families in better managing the adverse events and circumstances associated with being poor.

Three sets of protective factors appear to buffer children from risk and stress and promote coping and good adjustment in the face of adversity. The first set of factors consists of positive individual attributes. Children who exhibit easy temperaments, high self-esteem, intelligence, and independence are more adaptable in the face of stressful life experiences (Rutter, 1987; Werner, 1993). Compared with boys and men, girls and women have a slight edge as well. The second set of protective factors is found in a supportive family environment. A close parent-child relationship or a satisfying marriage can buffer the adverse effects of poverty or other stressful conditions or events such as divorce or incarceration (Luthar et al., 2000). The final set of factors involves people outside the family, for example, individuals in the school system, peer groups, or religious institutions that support children’s and parents’ coping efforts. Later, we focus on individual family and community factors that help buffer children and adults from poverty’s ill effects.

Individual Level Factors

As already noted, gender is an identified resilience factor, with Latino girls, especially at younger ages, being less reactive to stress than Latino boys. This has been attributed to marianismo, or the fact that Latinas are socialized to be self-sacrificing and obedient (Vega, 1990), and may develop an increased faculty to cope with adversity and avoid conflict (Flores, Cicchetti, & Rogosch, 2005). Although ethnic identity issues and expectations to help financially (Buriel, 1993) are risk factors for boys, Mexican American girls seem to show resilience, though the mechanisms are as yet unclear (Gonzalez & Padilla, 1997). Further research on gender is needed, however, because adolescent Latinas also experience high (and increasing) risks of suicide and other negative mental health outcomes. As noted previously, Mexican-born fathers tend to keep a tight rein on their daughters, which, in turn, may put the daughters at risk because of limited social opportunities and related conflicts with their needs or desires. Sons, on the other hand, are granted more autonomy than daughters are.

Individual personality traits such as self-regulatory skills may be important moderators of the effects of poverty as well. For example, moderate ego control is taught in Latino culture (de Rios, 2001; Simoni & Perez, 1995), as part of a value system teaching increased regulation of expressiveness and promulgation of emotional restraint. This has been found to buffer disadvantaged Latino children (Cicchetti, Rogosch, Lynch, & Holt, 1993). Masten et al. (1995) found that the causal influence tends to flow from school conduct to academic performance, rather than the opposite. This speaks to the value of the regulation and restraint championed in Latino culture for success in extra-familial settings such as the school. At the same time, the promulgation of expressive restraint may have unmeasured effects on the assertiveness and individual social and economic mobility of Latino youth.

Similarly, a sense of self-efficacy by children can be a protective factor (Bandura, 2006). Research by Small (2002) demonstrated how a taste of successful effort affords a sense of efficacy that can in turn be a catalyst for a proactive, involved community. In like manner, the development of a child’s self-perception, self-evaluation, and self-respect forms a main element in the process of learning and experience that provides the ability to exert predictive and active control over the environment (Bandura, 1978, 2006; Harter, 2006). Such opportunities for Latino children in poverty can be curtailed by unstable employment of parents, lack of routines (Wilson, 1996), less predictable neighborhoods (Garbarino & Kostelny, 1992), disrupted social schedules because of family needs (Buriel, 1993), and increased arbitrary parental discipline (Elder, Nguyen, & Caspi, 1985).

In contrast to the adaptiveness of a child’s sense of agency and efficacy, presence of an external locus of control (blaming poverty on social causes) leads children to lower educational goals (Murry et al., 2002). A central, often decisive role in the mediating mental processes that guide a person’s purposeful dealing with the environment is played by the basic values, norms, goals, and motives relevant for the issue under consideration (Feather, 1980). Lowering one’s educational goals would be a rational choice in a world where poverty was truly caused by social influences independent of a person’s actions, and youth in poverty may make what they feel is a rational choice by lowering their educational goals. “Although poverty is objectively linked to social inequities and injustices such as racism, prejudice, and discrimination (Bobo & Smith, 1994; Wilson, 1996), messages that do not focus on victimization may enhance children’s sense of control, optimism, and future orientation.” (Murry et al., 2002, p. 118). Discrimination is a risk factor that many Latino children experience, (Flores et al., 2002), and even indirect exposure to discrimination through witnessed interactions or recounted episodes by others can influence a Latino child’s social beliefs and expectations (Parke & Buriel, 2006). An additional way discrimination may exert influence is that experience channels our attention, and Latino children may become less aware of the world of social cues surrounding them as they are primed to detect hostile or discriminatory cues (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000; Miller & Seier, 1994).

Family Level Factors That Moderate the Effects of Poverty

A considerable amount of research literature in the social and behavioral sciences suggests that poverty strongly influences parenting practices. Research investigating the mediating role of the family on the relationship between poverty and child outcomes has shown that mother-child interaction quality partially accounts for effects of social class (Harnish, Dodge, & Valente, 1995). In addition to direct economic stress, parents living at or below the poverty level often have less understanding of children’s behavior and development (Sameroff & Feil, 1985), and are less likely to ask children about wishes, reward positive behavior, or be responsive (Lareau, 2003; McLoyd, 1990). Parents in poverty also tend toward more hostile co-parent relations (Brody et al., 1994; Conger et al., 1990). Low-income minority parents appear more likely to use parent-centered discipline strategies intended to result in short-term compliance (for a review, see Kelly, Power, & Wimbush, 1992). Although it has been suggested that personal resources might mediate the relationship between employment and parenting, this has not been consistently supported (Murry et al., 2002). Using a sample of low-income mothers to look at the mediators between maternal depression and parenting, Albright and Tamis-LeMonda (2002) found the same effects established for higher income families, suggesting that the relationship between maternal depression and child outcomes is not mediated by the presence or absence of books or toys, but of warmth and attention. This finding is relevant to the present discussion because Mexican American families, even when poor, tend to have high levels of maternal warmth and family cohesion. Researchers have yet to grasp the normative constellation of parenting elements among low-income parents (Brody & Flor, 1998; McGroder, 2000), especially Latinos (Hill, Bush, & Roosa, 2003). Although some work has suggested that the associations between poverty and parenting are not moderated by ethnicity (Gutman & Eccles, 1999), discussions of parenting among Latinos in poverty must consider the research showing that families in poverty frequently live in high crime neighborhoods (Rank, 2004), which often changes the type of parenting that is considered most adaptive (Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder, & Sameroff, 1999; Parke & Buriel, 2006; see later discussion). However, we must not overstate the case for a new “adaptive” parenting for impoverished families in high-risk environments. Although some researchers suggest that decreased autonomy-granting by parents may be adaptive in low-income, high-risk environments, there are likely serious tradeoffs. For example, Crosnoe and Elder (2002) found that in low-income families, increased autonomy was associated with lower emotional distress among monozygotic twins. Although it has been suggested such authoritarian parenting is adaptive in high-risk contexts, the parenting goal of child compliance is simply one of many, including teaching, satisfying a child’s emotional needs, and fostering familial relations (Magnuson & Duncan, 2002) This is implicitly acknowledged by Magnuson and Duncan, who praise interventions that result in parents being more sensitive, supportive, and positive, and less harsh and restrictive, as well as the resultant improved outcomes for the children of these parents (Brooks-Gunn, Berlin, & Fuligni, 2000; Olds et al., 1998)

Intergenerational residence, often associated with familism, may also increase resilience for families in poverty (Wakschlag, Chase-Lansdale, & Brooks-Gunn, 1996). Conversely, the potential negative consequences of familism are less recognized. Familism can lead to enmeshment in the family unit, which can become a liability if the family unit itself becomes dysfunctional. For example, in a study comparing Mexican Americans and African Americans from dysfunctional families, after controlling for SES, Mexican American youth evidenced higher levels of emotional disturbance, difficulty with peers, and lower adaptive functioning than did their SES-matched African American counterparts (Canino, Gould, Purpris, & Shaffer, 1986). Findings like these support the reasoning that when a child depends almost exclusively on the family unit for support, guidance, and security, disruptions to the family system could be markedly more deleterious to the child.

For Mexican American immigrant children, the disruption of family ties that often accompanies life in the United States can be a risk factor because of the unavailability of extended family in the United States. In addition, family conflicts may arise during interactions with the host culture (i.e., cultural brokering) that can be disruptive to the harmony and structure of the family; this is especially salient in the context of familism where conflict is atypical. This disruption can be exacerbated by nonresident status, with the accompanying lack of access to social and community services and benefits. Nonresident status can even result in the nuclear family being split because of deportation for Mexicans who immigrated illegally. More than 5 million migrant workers, most of them Mexicans or Central Americans, experience stressors unique to their long hours, low income, and frequent relocations (Magaña & Hovey, 2003).

Acculturative stress affects the identity formation processes of Latino youth in ways that can increase risk of internalizing and externalizing. The stress of negotiating the expectations of the host culture and the heritage of the culture of origin can delay identity formation, or deflect the trajectories of Latino children toward maladjustment. Relative to ethnic identity, a bicultural trajectory (Clauss-Ehlers, 2004; Holleran & Jung, 2005) can allow children to enjoy the scaffolding of their culture of origin, while benefiting from the resources the host culture offers. Close family relationships or enmeshment with one’s culture of origin can enhance a child’s self-esteem, which has been shown to be a resilience factor for disadvantaged Latino children (Cicchetti & Rogosch, 1997).

Membership in an ethnic group does not necessarily mean a family shares the cultural beliefs or practices associated with that group, especially if they have lived in the United States for several generations. Traditional strengths such as close ties to extended family can themselves become risk factors, as illustrated by the work of Contreras, Manglesdorf, Rhodes, Diener, and Brunson (1999) showing that although greater support by a grandmother was related to less parenting stress among Puerto Rican mothers low in acculturation, the relationship reversed when the mothers were highly acculturated. Social networks, another resilience factor traditionally associated with Latino families, can become an additional source of stress (Belle, 1990), and level of acculturation may be the deciding moderator. The value of conformity over self-direction, a value emphasized in Latino culture, could start out as beneficial for recent immigrants, but become a risk factor for succeeding generations (Gecas, 1979).

Community Level Moderators of Poverty

The school environment, although generally viewed as an asset to immigrant youth, can carry challenges for Latino children as well. Mexican American children attend more problematic elementary schools (larger, lower teacher experience, high percentage of minority students) than do their SES-matched counterparts from other ethnic minority groups (Crosnoe, 2005). Language barriers present their own set of challenges to Latino youth, creating obstacles to education and socialization (Parke & Buriel, 2006), as well as limiting peer associations, and creating a sense of alienation from the surrounding culture. The combination of poor schools and language barriers may contribute to the 30% dropout rate (Gonzalez et al., 2002) among Mexican Americans.

Our interviews with immigrant Mexican Americans suggest that it is harder for children whose parents went to school in Mexico compared with those whose parents went to school in the United States: “She sometimes wants us to help and sincerely we can’t. We can’t help in the language [English] and unfortunately, we can’t even explain it to her in our language, no we can’t… We feel bad. We want to help but we can’t.” Another Mexican immigrant father noted that he had difficulty dealing with his son’s problems at school:

If we go to school we try to find someone that can talk to me in Spanish. Yes, yes because … I normally understand a little, a little English but not a lot. I don’t know how to speak it, darn. Like sometimes I tell him, when they are talking to me in English, I tell him to tell me what he is saying and he doesn’t know how to tell me. He gets embarrassed and at the end he doesn’t know how to say what it is that they are saying in English.

In addition, the modeling-based teaching pattern seen in rural Mexican culture, with much less praise directed toward the child and less emphasis on inquiry, may not prepare Mexican immigrant children adequately for American schools (Laosa, 1980). Poverty itself, and the language barrier between Mexican American children and many of their successful classmates may also be impediments to peer-mediated learning (Patterson, Vaden, & Kupersmidt, 1991; Teasley, 1995). In cases where these impediments compel Latino children to limit their peer associations, they are often required by their constricted range of peers to choose between two classic developmental tasks, academic success and peer acceptance (Holleran & Jung, 2005; Vigil & Long, 1981).

Like other immigrant families, Mexican parents use personal stories of hardship to encourage their children to work hard in school, and these stories have been shown to promote resilience (Tamis, 2005; Villenas & Deyhle, 1999). One Mexican immigrant father who often told stories of hardship to his children started taking them to the fields to work when they were not in school:

For example, all my kids know [how to work] the hoe, they know how to pick grapes—various jobs. So they see that the door is open for them to do more than those types of work. They always told me they were going to stay in school. And it made me happy to hear that, because I taught them how hard it was to work in the fields. (Lòpez, 2001, p. 430)

Beyond the proximal influence of poverty on the family, families in poverty are often compelled to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The disadvantages of such neighborhoods are clearly established in the literature (Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000). One key finding from our own research concerns the links between parents’ perceptions of neighborhood and their parenting behaviors. Mexican American parents, especially fathers, in contrast to European American parents, perceived greater threats and danger in their neighborhoods; in turn, they were more restrictive and protective of their children as evidenced by higher levels of monitoring and supervision (Coltrane et al., 2005). Rather than viewing Mexican American fathers (or mothers) as simply restrictive, we can view them as protective and acting responsibly in response to the perceived level of neighborhood threat. Thus, parenting strategies may develop as an adaptive response to unsafe and unpredictable environments. The evidence for Mexican American parents’ restrictiveness is consistent with earlier work with African American families (Brody et al., 2001; Furstenberg et al., 1999). African American parents residing in unsafe neighborhoods tended to use more authoritarian (i.e., restrictive and controlling) parenting strategies to protect their children. Moreover, children in these contexts benefited from these authoritarian parenting practices in their adjustment (Brody et al., 2001) whereas majority children are often harmed by the use of these authoritarian practices (Baumrind, 1978).

There are several reasons for the positive links between restrictive parenting in poverty neighborhoods and better child adjustment. First, greater control in harsh environments may actually protect children from potentially harmful threats (e.g., deviant peers, gangs, guns). Second, children in racial/ethnic minority groups may interpret parental behavior differently than majority white children do. The use of authoritarian tactics is generally more normative and viewed as an acceptable child-rearing style in ethnic neighborhoods (Corral-Verdugo, Frias-Armenta, Romero, & Munoz, 1995; Sonneck, 1999; for a similar argument about Asian Americans, see Chao, 1994). Third, the context in which parental restrictiveness occurs is critical to understanding its impact on children. For example, the link between harsh parenting and child outcomes may depend on whether parental disciplinary actions are carried out in the context of a warm, supportive family environment. To the extent that there is a supportive parent-child relationship and marital harmony, the effects of restrictive practices are likely to be more beneficial. Only when there is a hostile parent-child relationship will there be negative outcomes associated with the use of these practices.

Returning to our own findings, the relatively authoritarian practices we observed in response to neighborhood threat will likely have minimal detrimental effects on the children because these same Mexican American fathers reported more involvement with their children (e.g., walking and shopping together). In other analyses from our project, we discovered that less acculturated Mexican American fathers with traditional views about gender were highly involved with their children (Coltrane et al., 2004). We also discovered that overt conflict in Mexican American marriages was a better predictor of child emotional problems than was hostile parenting (Parke et al., 2004) and that father’s use of physical punishment was associated with more behavior problems in children only when there was a hostile family climate. If there was a warm and supportive family atmosphere, the link between harsh fathering and child adjustment was not evident (Schofield, 2004). Hence, we must consider both the restrictiveness and the emotional warmth of the parent-child relationship to understand how parenting practices affect child development.

Community support is another resilience factor as Mexican American children living in poor neighborhoods fare better than do their counterparts living in lower-middle class neighborhoods, as long as the poor neighborhood has a significant Mexican American population, to serve as a social support network (Baca Zinn, & Wells, 2000). In both neighborhoods populated by recent immigrants and those populated by Latino families with a long history in the United States, residents are able to rely on extended family and social networks to negotiate economic stress by sharing housing, transportation, and child-care responsibilities (Dohan, 2003). That this is common to both immigrant and intergenerational families suggests a structural rather than cultural basis for the strong ties to extended family. Immigrants are likely to work longer hours to maintain sustainable wages whereas non-immigrants are more likely to resort to hustling and other nonsanctioned economic activities common in the barrio (Dohan, 2003).

Our research found high levels of co-ethnic support among low-income Mexican Americans living in impoverished neighborhoods, potentially explaining why Aneshensel and Sucoff (1996) found lower conduct disorder and depression for Latino youth living in low-income neighborhoods with a high concentration of Latinos, even when compared with Latino youth in higher SES neighborhoods (Coltrane et al., 2005). Research finding parental monitoring of early dating behavior to mediate the positive association between low-income neighborhoods and teenage childbearing (Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985) speaks to the benefit Latino children in poverty can gain from the high levels of monitoring reported by their parents (McLoyd et al., 2000).

Strong religious beliefs, which are on average higher among Latinos, have been identified as resiliency factors for other families in poverty (Brody, Stoneman, & Flor, 1996) if they lead to more child-centered and less controlling discipline. Cultural sanctions on particular risk factors such as divorce (Gonzalez & Padilla, 1997), as well as beliefs such as restrictions on use of alcohol and cigarettes among pregnant women (Bender & Castro, 2000) are aspects of Mexican American culture that promote resilience. Religious participation also creates an informal social support network, which can itself promote resilience. The effects of religiosity thus merit further study, particularly among high-risk groups like poor Mexican Americans.

Remaining Issues

Various issues merit further examination. First, the long-term effects of poverty on Mexican American families need to be traced. How many Mexican American families remain in poverty, and how many are able to move up the economic ladder in American society? Second, do improved economic circumstances always lead to better adaptation by parents and children? The challenge is to determine when upward economic mobility improves well-being and adaptation because of increased resources and improved neighborhoods and when such shifts—albeit positive in economic terms—are associated with weakening of community social ties or a reduction in the sense of cohesion among family members. Third, the impact of acculturation on cycles of poverty merits closer scrutiny, especially the role played by community capital in this process. How are employment opportunities related to acculturation and what impact does blocked mobility have on Mexican Americans who have lived in the United States for several generations? Fourth, treatment of acculturation as a family and community level variable rather than as an individual one might help researchers better understand the dynamics between the acculturation process and poverty fluctuations. Fifth, more focus on the effects of the “poverty gap” between generations within the same family would be worthwhile. If acculturated children fare better economically than their parents, for example, will this income discrepancy help or hurt family cohesion and a sense of familism? Sixth, more attention to the role of neighborhood contexts would be beneficial. We should focus not just on poverty per se but treat neighborhood as a resource for raising families out of poverty through the development of collective efficacy, a form of social capital in which the neighborhood is the identified unit of action (Bandura, 2006).

Concluding Thoughts

As our chapter suggests, the meaning and impact of poverty in Mexican American families is similar to, but also different from the experiences of European Americans. Some culturally unique aspects of Mexican American families’ reactions to poverty caution us against generalizing findings across cultural groups. If we are to develop effective social policies to address the effects of poverty on Mexican American (or other Latino) children and families, we need to better understand both the similarities and differences across different cultural groups. Until we do, we will be poorly equipped to provide effective, culturally meaningful societal solutions to the adverse effects of poverty. Finally, to be successful, policies need to recognize and build upon the strengths of Mexican American families. Policies that incorporate positive aspects of Mexican American family life could serve as models for policy design for other ethnic groups as well. In the long run, members of the host culture, as well as all immigrant groups, will benefit.