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date: 25 October 2020

Latinos and Latinas: Overview

Abstract and Keywords

This entry emphasizes diversity among Latinos/Hispanics with reference to national origin group, geographical distribution, language use, racial identity, family life, sexual orientation, immigration and immigration status, and socioeconomic circumstances. It also calls attention to the special dilemmas confronted by Mexican and Central American immigrants and their children.

Keywords: Hispanic, Latino, racial identity, Hispanic family, immigration


By 2005, Hispanics approached 42 million people, making them the largest minority population in the United States. This is a significant increase over the 22 million recorded in 1990 and 35 million recorded in 2000 (Ramirez, 2004). Forty percent of Hispanics were foreign-born (Fry & Hakimzadeh, 2007), with an estimated 25% of the Hispanic population entering as unauthorized immigrants since 1990 (Passel, 2006).

Hispanics trace their origins to a large number of Spanish-speaking nations (Table 1). Those of Mexican origin comprise about 64% of the aggregate, a percentage that has remained stable over the past decades. Over 15% of Hispanics trace their origins to Caribbean countries and another 13% trace their origins to Central and South American nations. Using 2005 U.S. census data, the Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) found that 7.2% identified themselves simply as Hispanic without naming a country of origin.

It was not until the 1970 census that these disparate national groups, each with its proud and unique history, culture, and complexity, began to be treated as a single American community. Prior to 1970, the U.S. census counted each national group separately. In 1970, the census made, for the first time, a single count using categories like “Spanish-surname” or “Spanish-speaking.” In 1980, respondents were allowed to self-identify in terms of “Hispanic” ethnicity (Grieco & Cassidy, 2000) and for the first time the groups had a name. In the 2000 census, the name was expanded to “Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino” (Ramirez, 2004).

Although many accept a pan-Latino identity, immigrants generally identify with their national origin groups rather than as Hispanic. Among second generation, the preferred identity often shifts to Hispanic while among the third generation and the most common identity accepted is that of “American” (PHC, 2004). The Cultural Access Group (2007), however, found that many Latino youth preferred to be identified with their national origin group.

There are also differences among those that accept a pan-Hispanic identity. Some do not like to call themselves Hispanic since it is not a Spanish word and feels imposed by American society. Latino is the most acceptable term today especially among intellectuals and those committed to the struggle for justice. Since it is a Spanish word, it also promotes the visibility of women as it allows for the use of Latina(s) and Latino(s) (for women and men as individuals and as a collective). Since both terms are commonly used in research and everyday interaction, they will be used interchangeably in this essay. For the present, social workers should refrain from assuming a pan-Hispanic identity. Cultural competence requires letting colleagues and clients take the lead in defining their identity.

The Latino Diaspora

The rapid growth in the Latino population is being felt throughout the United States. In 1980, 64% lived in just three states: California, Texas, and New York. By 2000, Latinos were living in every state but the location and rate of that growth varied considerably. Suro and Singer (2002) examined the 100 largest standard metropolitan areas and found that 77% live in the “Hispanic Heartland” and its “fast growing hubs,” which are located in California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado in the Southwest; New York, New Jersey, and Florida along the east coast; and Illinois in the Midwest. They also identify “new Latino destinations” that have shown a 303% increase since 1980, making Hispanics visible throughout the Southeast, Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Central states, and Western and Pacific states. “Small Latino areas” are visible throughout the nation but have realized modest growth since 1980.

Table 1 Hispanic Origin: 2005

Country of origin






Caribbean Origin


Puerto Rico






Dominican Republic



Central America Origin


El Salvador















Costa Rica



Other Central American



South American Origin


























Other South America






All other Spanish/Hispanic/  Latino






From A statistical portrait of Hispanics at mid decade, by R. Fry & S. Hakimzadeh, 2007, retrieved April 5, 2007, from Copyright 2007 by the Pew Hispanic Center. Adapted with permission.

Diversity in the Hispanic/Latino Population

Hispanics are diverse not only in national origin, identity preference, and residence but also in language, race, religion, family life, sexual orientation, modes and time of immigration, and socioeconomic status.


Through its conquests, Spain left behind its language. Among immigrants, however, the binds to Spanish have begun to loosen. When Latinos were asked whether immigrants must speak English to say they are part of American society, a majority of foreign- and native-born agreed as did 64% of Latino Republicans and 52% of Latino Democrats (PHC, 2006).

Table 2 shows that Latinos vary in their degree of Spanish and English language proficiency and that this varies by national origin group. Almost 60% of Latinos speak English exclusively or well, while Spanish proficiency is reported by almost 80% (Ramirez, 2004). Fry and Hakimzadeh (2007) report that although the majority of foreign-born Latinos speak English well, they are less likely to speak it well (46%) than do the native-born (14.8%) Latinos.

Research on Latino youth can help us assess the degree to which Latinos are adapting to the United States (Portes, 2004). The Cultural Access Group (2007) surveyed Latino youth in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York using both quantitative and qualitative methods. They found the following:

  • The great majority felt pride in being Latino and in being bilingual. They were family-oriented and, rather than being called Latino, preferred being identified with their unique heritage.

  • In spite of their pride, most indicated a strong preference for English. This was less true for youth in Miami, however.

  • Most indicated that their households were bilingual with a skew toward English in New York and Miami.

  • Most were proficient in speaking but less proficient in reading and writing Spanish. New York youth were the least proficient.

  • Over 70% of youth indicated they spoke Spanglish, a mixture of Spanish and English.

  • A clear majority of youth preferred tuning into English language television and Internet sites and listening to American music at least most of the time.

Table 2 Languages Spoken (5 Years or Older) by Hispanic Origin: 2000 Census

Only English at home

Spanish at Home or English “very well”

Spanish at Home or English less than “very well”





Puerto Rican












Central American




South American








Other Hispanic




Total Hispanic




From We the People: Hispanics in the United States. Census 2000 Special Report, by R. Ramirez, 2004, retrieved April 4, 2007, from U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.


Catholicism, another legacy from Spain, has been the dominant religion in Latin America. For Hispanic Americans it is still the dominant religion, although how dominant is unclear. Among recent studies, estimates range from 57% to 70% of Hispanic Americans being Catholic (Perl, Greely, & Gray, 2006; Suro, Escobar, Livingstone, & Hakimzadeh, 2007). The percentage of Hispanics identifying as Protestant varies between 20% and 25%, a figure that has been stable since at least 1990 (Keysar, Kosmin, & Mayer, 2001). Between 8% and 13% of people identify with no religion. Ninety-nine percent of all of them identified with a religion are either Catholic or Protestant, and 39% of them define themselves as “born again” or evangelical. The following profiles of religious and socioeconomic status are drawn from Keysar et al. and Suro et al.

Catholic Latinos now make up close to a third of all Catholics in the United States, with more than half identifying as charismatic. (Charismatics emphasize a belief in the holy spirit and often participate in energetic services, healing, and speaking in tongues.) Two-thirds are foreign-born and Spanish is their primary language; 42% have not graduated from high school and 46% have an annual household income of under $30,000.

Evangelical Protestants also tend to be foreign-born but 63% say English is their primary language or that they are bilingual while 64% have a high school diploma and 61% have a household income of over $30,000.

Mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians and Methodists, constitute only about 5% of Latinos. They are the most likely to be native-born and 45% say English is their primary language. They have the highest socioeconomic standing with 70% having a high school diploma and 71% having an annual household income of over $30,000.

Nonreligious Latinos tend to be younger, male, and foreign-born. Although the foreign-born are less likely to be a member of a church, believe in God or miracles, or believe “God helps me” than other Latinos, they are more likely to do or believe these things than other Americans. Seventy-six percent of the nonreligious Latinos had considered themselves Catholic or Protestant in the past. The nonreligious also had the highest full-time employment level and the lowest level of unemployment.

Racial Diversity

In addition to language and religion, Spain left its mark on the phenotypes of Latin Americans. Because of Catholicism, both the indigenous people and the slaves that followed later were considered souls, that is, full human beings in the eyes of God; therefore, intermarriage between Spanish and indigenous or African was common if not altogether acceptable. Although the Spanish invented a cumbersome system of racial categories to distinguish among all possible mixtures, the system eventually fell apart from it own weight (Wolfe, 1959). An important element of that system continuing today in that race in most Latino nations is viewed on a continuum. People of mixed ancestry are neither White nor non-White. Thus, most racially mixed people in Spanish speaking nations think of themselves as White or as some intermediary designation such as mestizo (European or Indigenous) or mulatto, trigeno, and moreno (variations on African or European ancestry). This is in clear contrast to the common practice in the United States of perceiving individuals as belonging to one race only.

According to the U.S. census, Hispanics are an ethnic group whose members may be of any race. Respondents are asked to indicate their Hispanic ethnicity and, separately, their race (for example, White or Black). Given specific choices, Hispanics often mark “some other race” and write in designators like “Latino” or “Hispanic” (Logan, 2003; Tafoya, 2003). However, Tafoya also notes that if not given the option to choose an alternative racial category, as in the 1990 and 2000 supplemental census surveys, Latinos are likely to define themselves as White as indicated in Table 3 below.

Logan (2003) and Tafoya (2004) have uncovered interesting differences among Hispanic Hispanics (HH), Hispanic Blacks (HB), and Hispanic Whites (HW) as laid out below. We should read these differences knowing that if not given a choice, many Hispanic Hispanics would call themselves White.

  • Hispanic Blacks (HB): 13% of Dominicans, 8% of Puerto Ricans, and 4% of Central Americans identify as Black. Although a higher percent were likely to speak English and have completed high school, HB had the highest rates of unemployment and poverty and the lowest median household income. Of the major Hispanic cities, New York had the highest percentage of HB.

  • Hispanics Whites (HW) had the highest median household income and the lowest unemployment and poverty rates. About 85% of Cuban, 76% of Spanish, and 61% of South Americans claimed a White identity. Of the major metropolitan areas, 86% of Hispanics living in Miami, 77% living in El Paso, 64% living in San Antonio, 57% living in Albuquerque, and 54% living in Houston identified as White.

  • Hispanic Hispanics (HH) are most likely to be foreign-born. They had the lowest levels of education but tended to be in the middle of the Hispanic distribution when it came to median household income, unemployment, and poverty. Around 63% of Dominicans, 54% of Central Americans, 50% of Mexicans, and 43% of Puerto Ricans identified as HH. Around 54% of HH lived in Southern California with about 49% living in New York and Chicago.

Table 3 Racial Composition of Hispanic Population in the United States: 1980–2000




Hispanic Hispanics (%)




Hispanic Blacks (%)




Hispanic Whites (%)




Total Hispanics (%)




From How race counts for Hispanic Americans, by J. Logan, 2003, University of Albany, Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research. Retrieved May 1, 2007, from Educational Resources Information Center, ED479962,

Tafoya (2004) hypothesizes that racial identification among Latinos measures their sense of belonging. Since race is considered fluid, she believes that the more Hispanics feel they are part of the United States the more they are likely to identify as White. It should not surprise, therefore, that two major predictors of racial identification are foreign birth and socioeconomic status.

Focusing on racial differences presents a dilemma, namely, whether Latinos will be allowed to be a multiracial group. The same society that invented the term Latinos may, with its one of two choices racial system, might as easily separate them into White and Black Since Americans think in terms of one of two choices, the likelihood of imposing racial dichotomies on Hispanics is real. Rodriguez (1985) pointed out that Puerto Ricans were being forced into a Black–White dichotomy in their interactions with other Americans. Along these lines, Scherer (2003) reports on the consternation experienced by newspapers in telling the story that Hispanics were now the largest minority. They reasoned, if Hispanics are Black, should not they be counted as African Americans rather than as Hispanics? Thus, many newspapers hedged on proclaiming Hispanics the largest minority. It is also interesting that Scherer, along with Logan (2003), uses the term “Black Hispanics,” thus making race more important than ethnicity.

Racism in the Latino population might also work to separate out not only “Black” but darker skinned Hispanics. Montalvo (1991) reported that darker Mexican Americans were acutely aware of their skin color and the negative influence it played in their lives. Massey and Denton (1992) found that suburbanization of male Mexican Americans was associated with higher income, having a White spouse, and choosing “White” as one's race. Given the either-or approach to race in the United States and racism among Latinos, will it be possible for Hispanic Blacks to sustain a Hispanic identity?

Diversity in Family

Hispanic tradition emphasizes a commitment to strong family attachments or familismo (Santiago-Rivera, 2003; Vasquez, 2005). Family life ideals often espouse male-headed, tightly knit, extended heterosexual units. According to tradition, male and female roles are strictly divided and positive value given to responsible male authority and female devotion to home, children, and husband. Latino men aim to be macho, that is, to take on responsibility for providing financial support and security in return for extramarital freedoms. Latina mothers respect the authority of their husbands and work to maintain emotional balance in the household. Children show respect for parental authority and abide by the will of responsible fathers and devoted mothers.

This commitment to family life is seen as a source of strength by many and there is indeed evidence that Latinos place more emphasis on family life than non-Hispanics. They are more likely than other Americans to live in family households (Ramirez, 2004). Likewise, 27% of Latinos live in families of more than five people compared with 10% of White non-Hispanic families (Fry & Hakimzadeh, 2007). Fertility rates are also somewhat higher and, following from this, the median age of Hispanics is 26 compared with 35 for the total American population (Ramirez).

There is also evidence that family life ideals are not always reached. There is a great deal of heterogeneity among Hispanic families, both within and across Hispanic ethnic groups. The harsh external realities confronted by many Hispanic families—including unemployment and poverty, and problems resulting from unauthorized immigration—often act as a spur to change. The rise of the women's and the gay and lesbian movements has also forced the Latino to face some of the inequalities inherent in traditional family life. As a result, the modern Hispanic family resembles the modern non-Hispanic family in many particulars.

Many aspects of contemporary Hispanic family life do not conform to traditional family ideals. For instance, in 2005, marriage between Hispanic couples (51%) was lower than White not-Hispanic couples (57%). Although the percentage of divorced and separated people was lower among Hispanics (12%) than White non-Hispanics (13%), the difference was small. Similarly, although Latinos are more likely than White non-Hispanics to live in family households, the percentage of two parent family households is fairly comparable across both groups (Ramirez, 2004). Furthermore, the percentage of female single-parent householder was somewhat higher among Latinas than in the total American population (Fry & Hakimzadeh, 2007). In terms of children living with parents, White children are more likely to live with at least one parent (92.1%) than Hispanic children (85.3%).

Hispanic Intermarriage

Writings on Hispanic American families often assume the ethnic homogeneity of family life. Yet in the 2000 U.S. census, about 27% of those reporting multiple-race identities were Hispanic children, husbands, or wives (Lee & Edmonston, 2005). Since 1970, Hispanic to non-Hispanic marriages have held fairly stable at around 14%. Puerto Ricans, however, have the highest intermarriage rates, increasing from 10% in 1970 to 21% in 2000. Other Hispanics had the highest out-marriage in 1970 (21%) but decreased by 1990 to 17%. Lee and EdmOnston (2006) believe these rates are likely to rise in the future, especially if immigration slows. They add that since many Hispanics define their race as White or Hispanic, the barrier to out-marriage with non-Hispanic Americans is lowered.

Hispanic Gays and Lesbians

The intense emphasis on heterosexual, private family life forced traditional Latinos interested in same sex relations to either conform to gender role ideals or risk being ostracized from family (Hidalgo, 1995; Molloy & McKee-Irwin, 1998; Murray, 1987; Ramos, 2004) as a result, some Latinos ascribe homosexuality only to flamboyant men and cross-dressing women living on the edges of traditional family life. Gender conforming men and the women who had sex with them, often abusing them (Molloy & McKee-Irwin, 1998; Zamora-Hernandez & Paterson 1996), did not think of themselves as homosexuals. Thus, health care services today often use the term “men who have sex with men” as a way of respecting traditional thinking.

Although many still adhere to these norms, they are clearly breaking down especially among educated and acculturated Latinos. In a survey of 92 self-identified Latina lesbians, those with a higher occupational status, education, and income were committed to a lesbian identity (Alquijay, 1997). Openly gay and lesbian Latinos have been out and active since before the Stonewall uprising of 1968 (Roque-Ramírez, 2005). They recognize the strong homophobia embedded in their culture and have organized for change.

The pull of family remains strong among many lesbians and gays and their families, and so it is a mistake to assume that Hispanic families will automatically reject their gay and lesbian children. Bonilla and Porter (1990) found that Latinos were just as tolerant as Whites about homosexuality. Marsiglia (1998) notes that many find supportive families once they come out. As Zamora-Hernandez and Paterson (1996) suggest, family ties can be strengthened by promoting the inclusion of lesbians and gay members.

Hispanics Before

Not all Hispanics are recent immigrants and many have a long ancestry in the United States. Some Hispanic Americans trace their origins to the colonial southwest where they lived under the Spanish and Mexican flags, before the area was incorporated into the United States in 1848. As early as 1860, laborers from Mexico, Chile, and Peru were working in the mines and railroads of the West (Edmonston & Passel, 1994). Immigration from Latin America rivaled immigration from Europe throughout the 20th century (Massey, 1995). Immigration before 1966 was dominated by Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. The first large wave came as a result of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 (Gibson, 1987) and continued through World War II and the Korean War. Between 1942 and 1964, some 4 million Mexican braceros or legal farm workers migrated and helped to transform American agriculture into the industry it is today (Weaver, 2001).

Puerto Rico was annexed by the United States as a result of the Spanish American War in 1898. Immigrants were coming by the 1920s but the “Great Migration,” of Puerto Ricans began after World War II (Delgado, 1987). Since the mid-1960s, a “revolving door” or back and forth migration between the Mainland the Island has been common.

Large waves of Cuban refugees came to the United States beginning in 1959, when a revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. The first wave of Cubans tended to be educated professionals from the upper and middle classes, but successive waves drew on Cubans of more modest backgrounds. To help ease their adjustment, 1966 Congressional legislature granted Cuban refugees $1.2 billion in direct assistance, public assistance, Medicare, free English classes, scholarships, and low-interest college loans (Cuban American Adjustment Act, 1966).

Immigration Since 1966

Prior to 1966, Latinos who had the desire and wherewithal could enter the United States legally. U.S. immigration policy, which restricted immigration from other parts of the world, did not restrict people from the Western hemisphere. Since that time, Latinos enter under the same national quota policies as other immigrants. For this reason, 1966 becomes a pivotal year in the migration of Latinos.

Latino immigration remained at about 50% of the total immigration between 1960 and 1990. During this time, the Mexican American population remained at about 62% of all Hispanics, while Hispanics from Central and South America increased their share of the Hispanic population. By 1994, about 1 million immigrants were entering annually. In 1994, the number of immigrants began to increase rapidly, spiking at a million and a half a year in 2000 and then declining to early 1990 levels. In 2004, the numbers started to rise again (Passel & Suro, 2005). Although these data are not broken down by nation, Passel and Suro (2005) report that migration out of Mexico followed the same trend and held relatively steady at around 33% of the overall migration.

Unauthorized and Illegal Immigration

The history of illegal immigration begins with the end of the bracero project in 1964 and especially with the enactment of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1986. The former shut off a legal channel for immigration and the later led to the requirement of a Permanent Resident or “green” Card to remain legally in the U.S. Using 2005 census data, researchers (Passel, 2006; Passel & Suro, 2005) estimate that there were nearly 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, most of whom are Latino.

To discourage illegal immigration, Congress enacted The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants who could demonstrate they had lived in the United States for at least 4 years. Over 92% of those granted amnesty were Latino. This new policy failed to stop illegal immigration. In the mid-1990s, the federal government quintupled border enforcement expenditures and introduced fortified checkpoints, high-tech surveillance techniques, and increased the number of border patrol agents (Rubio-Goldsmith, McCormick, Martinez, & Duarte, 2007). These draconian policies also failed. Fear of terrorism recently has led to increased crack downs on illegal border. However, the Immigration Policy Center (2007) reports that 99.8% of all apprehensions were from people of Mexico and Central and South America. Increased surveillance along the Mexico border has also led to the deaths of many would-be immigrants. Examining corpses found along the border with Arizona, Rubio-Goldsmith et al. found that the number of corpses found each year rose from 14 in 1966 to over 200 in 2005.

Socioeconomic Status

On average, there is wide variation in income and educational attainment among the different Hispanic subgroups (Table 4). With regard to median family income, people from Spain do very well in comparison with the total population, and those from South America and Cuba do better than all other Hispanics. Except for Spaniards, however, all other Hispanics fall significantly below income figures for the total U.S. population. The median family income for South American Hispanics is, on average, 86% of what is earned by the total population. At the other extreme, median family income among Dominicans is only 57% of the total American population.

In terms of per capita income, we see similar variability with all Hispanic groups, except Spaniards earning less than the U.S. population as a whole. Latinas come closer to male incomes than American women do. Mexican women earn on average 87.5% of what Mexican men earn. Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American, and Dominican women earn on average ∼83% of what their male peers earn. Non-Hispanic women earn on average only 73% only of their male counterparts. One could conjecture that at the lower end of the income pyramid, the earnings of men and women become more comparable.

With respect to educational attainment, over 80% of non-Hispanic Americans complete High School and 24% complete college. Only Spaniards, South Americans, and Cubans approach or surpass these achievements. Educational attainment is particularly problematic for Mexican and Central Americans as only about 46% have completed high school and less than 10% college.

Labor force participation measures the proportion of the population 16 and older that is either employed or seeking employment. Hispanic labor force participation varies by Hispanic sub-group. Mexican and Central and South American men participated at a higher rate than the American population as a whole. Cuban, other Hispanic, Puerto Rican, and Dominican men participated significantly less (see table 5). By 2006, Hispanic unemployment had reached an historic low of 5.2%, bringing the gap between Latino and non-Latino unemployment to just 0.06% points (Kochhar, 2006). Kochhar also notes that the foreign-born dominate the labor market gaining about 8 in every 10 jobs landed by Latinos in 2005–2006.

Table 4 Income and Education by Hispanic Origin: 2000

Median Family Income

Median Per Capita Earnings

Educational Attainment



% HS Diploma or more

% BA Diploma or More







Puerto Rican


















Central American






South American












Other Hispanic






All Americans






From We the People: Hispanics in the United States. Census 2000 Special Report, by R. Ramirez, R., 2004, retrieved April 4, 2007, from U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.

Table 5 Labor Force Participation by Hispanic Origin: 2000

National Origin Groups

% Labor Force Participation






Puerto Rican









Central American



South American






Other Hispanic



All Americans



From We the People: Hispanics in the United States. Census 2000 Special Report, by R. Ramirez, R., 2004, retrieved April 4, 2007, from U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.

Labor force growth, which is critical to economic growth, increases as a function of the number of people working or seeking work. Since the birth rate among Americans has remained stable at just enough to replace the existing population, the economy can only grow through immigration (Paral, Siciliano, Johnson, Ewing, & Chittendon, 2005). In particular, the economy is expanding in the low-skilled sectors where the number of young, relatively uneducated, native-born Americans is declining. Recent unauthorized immigrants from Mexico and Central America easily find their niche in these less skilled, physically demanding jobs. In 2004, immigrants made up more than 25% of all 25- to 34-year-old workers with a high school diploma or less. This situation is expected to remain the same through 2010 (Paral et al., 2005). Many Americans believe that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans eager to have them (NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School, 2004). Far from stealing jobs, a robust U.S. economy now depends on low-wage foreign immigrants. The healthy economy for Hispanic workers has been driven largely by the demands of the construction industry. This industry added almost half a million jobs in 2005 and 2006, the majority of them filled by foreign-born Latinos (PHC, 2007). In addition to construction, a wide range of service industries looking for cheap labor encourage immigration by Mexican and Central American laborers (Portes, 2004).

Prospects for the Future

Looked at through the prism of recent and continuing immigration and low skilled, menial employment, these socioeconomic data are what might be expected. Although Hispanic labor force participation is presently good, too many occupations are in the lowest wage brackets, bringing the average income for Hispanics as a total population down. A lack of opportunity, discrimination, and difficulties in educational advancement suggests that it will be very difficult for low-income, less-educated Latinos to move ahead.

In our deindustrializing economy upward mobility increasingly requires educational credentials beyond high school (Portes, 2004; Raijman & Tienda, 1999).

Today, darker-skinned Hispanics and their children are more easily stigmatized as “other.” Even with education, their access to American society can feel constrained. Portes found that two-thirds of Mexican youth reported experiencing discrimination regardless of how much education they had.

The intense debate over immigration in America hangs as a weight on all Hispanics, especially second generation Hispanics. A study of American attitudes found that 41% of nonimmigrant Americans believed that legal immigration should be decreased (NPR/Kaiser Family Foundation/Kennedy School, 2004). More than 50% expressed fear that immigrants were changing American culture and values for the worse, taking jobs from Americans, and not paying their fair share of taxes. Even more negative attitudes are held about illegal immigrants. In spite of overwhelming contrary evidence, nearly 60% of native-born Americans believed that illegal immigration has hurt the national economy.

Education is central to success in the American economy and it is education that many Latinos lack. A large percentage of the most recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America have less than 9 years of education (PHC, 2007). Additionally, young immigrants who have done poorly in school before immigrating have a higher likelihood of dropping out or even not enrolling once in the United States (Fry, 2005).

The education of native-born Latinos presents a mixed picture. On the bright side, native-born Hispanics are more likely to complete high school than their immigrant counterparts. Yet, high school completion rates are significantly lower for native Hispanics than for native non-Hispanic Whites. By age 9, Latinos are on average two grades behind their White peers. Hispanics are also less likely to attend pre- and nursery school programs. The majority of Latino youth are enrolled in overcrowded, underfunded, central city schools. Sixteen percent of the teachers in such schools are not fully credentialed (PHC, 2002).

At the college level there is an even wider disparity between Hispanics and Whites (Fry, 2005). Although native-born Latinos are more likely to go to college than their foreign peers, native-born Latinos are less likely to go on to college than their White counterparts (PHC, 2002). Furthermore, the pathways taken suggest their educational potential will not be fully realized. Many Latino youth go to community colleges where they are half as likely to finish their programs as non-Hispanic Whites. Those who complete college are likely to have attended an “open door” or other less-selective institutions with low BA completion rates (Fry, 2005).

In his longitudinal study of 17-year-old second-generation teens, Portes (2004) found that Mexicans had the lowest educational aspirations. Cubans who attended Catholic private high schools were the most likely to aspire (85%) to an advanced degree. Nicaraguan, nonprivate school Cubans, and Columbians followed behind. Only 48% of second generation Mexican aspired to an advanced degree. By age 24, only 38% of these same Mexican youth had completed High School, the lowest rate among second-generation Hispanics. Clearly the children of poorly educated, unskilled laborers are having a hard time adapting to the United States.

Portes (2004) concludes that integration into American society is likely to follow three different paths. For immigrants with high levels of education—Spaniards, South Americans, and Cubans—the future looks bright. Their children can generally expect to integrate smoothly into society at the same level as other Americans (Portes, 2004). Hispanics in the middle—Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—are likely to have a tougher time, but largely because they are no longer growing as a population, their children should scratch their way up using family and community as resources. For Mexicans and Central Americans, those with the lowest educational attainment, the future looks bleak. Children of Mexican and Central American immigrants must make the leap from the poor education of their parents to the high school and college education their parents likely never dreamed of. Some will overcome these obstacles and over the generations manage to work their way up the socioeconomic ladder. Unless educational attainment can be markedly increased, many will fall prey to a lack of resources for positive development.

Implications for Practice

In addition to the educational needs discussed above, we call attention to child welfare, criminal justice, and mental health needs. Latino children and their families represent the fastest growing group in the child welfare system (Rivera, 2002). The percentage of Latino children in foster care in the United States increased more than double from 8% in 1990 to 17% in 1999 (Gonzalez, 2004). In 2005, 18% of the children in foster care were Latino. Thirty-five percent of Latino children placed in foster care are less than 1 year in age (Community for Hispanic Children and Families, 2004).

Latino youth, with nowhere to go, easily succumb to the lure of crime, drugs, depression, and suicidal ideation. Since 1985, Latinos have been the fastest growing population in the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates for Latino men are more than double the rates for White males (Rumbaut, 2005). Latinos are also disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system (Building Blocks for Youth Report, 2002).

Although suicide rates are lower for Latino youth, they are more likely to attempt suicide (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004) and just as likely to experience depression as their White non-Latino peers (Organista, 2000; Zhang & Snowden 1999). Vega et al. (1998) found that long-term residence in the United States significantly increased the likelihood of mental disorders among adults, with particularly marked increases in substance abuse. In a study of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and “other” Latinos, English-proficient, third generation Latinos had higher rates of psychiatric disorders (Alegría et al., 2007). The problem of mental health care is exacerbated since many Latinos seek help in the general medical sector (Alegría et al., 2007; Vega and Alegría, 2001). Reasons for this include lack of familiarity with mental health services and a tendency to sommaticize emotional and behavioral difficulties.

Policies and programs should aim to enhance educational and occupational opportunities, especially formiddle and lower socioeconomic Latinos. Evidence-based practice (EBP) approaches are promising, especially with respect to depression and anxiety (Miranda et al., 2005; Schraufnagel, Wagner, Miranda, & Roy-Byrne, 2006). However, few EBPs have been developed with Latinos in mind; clinical trials rarely include Latinos either as researchers or clients and rarely use outcome measures relevant to Latinos (National Implementation Research Network, 2003).

To work, evidence-based approaches should not force Hispanics to adapt to research protocols, rather they should be infused with cultural competence. The issues raised in this entry should help in this regard. In particular, social workers should avoid stereotyping by recognizing diversity among Latinos in national origin, language preference, religion, racial identification, family organization, sexual orientation, immigration status and generation, and socioeconomic status. In particular, social workers should

  • support and respect Latino diversity in national origin, racial identity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, time in the United States, and cultural pride;

  • serve Latinos according to their language preferences;

  • recognize the centrality of family as it evolves in American society;

  • build on family and community strengths to promote achievement for all Latinos.

  • develop policies and services to fully integrate unskilled immigrants and their children into occupational and educational opportunities.


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Further Reading