Skip Navigation Links

NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #1
September 2004

Journey to Thinking Multiculturally

A Cultural Exploration of the Latino Community

Amy Taylor

Contributing Editor's Note: This ongoing series of articles features culture-focused papers written by first-year Specialist level school psychology students from San Diego State University. Students reflect on their journey to thinking multiculturally by learning about a culture different from their own. By no means are they experts in the culture they studied. The students recognize that the journey to thinking multiculturally is never-ending and forever evolving. Their stories are unique and their experiences brought each of them to different places professionally and personally. It is our hope that this series will encourage practitioners, trainers, students and other professionals to take their own journeys. -Tonika Duren Green

My interest in the Latino community began in ignorance.  In high school the Puerto Rican side of the alarmingly segregated cafeteria was a ruckus of Spanish words launched in loud voices. I was intrigued but always at a safe distance as the warning was always the same: they are dangerous; their passion is uncontrollable; they cannot be trusted. In congruence, I was privy to the media representation of Latinos: their gang fights, the infidelities, the temper. I was fed a steady diet of negative, albeit alluring, stereotypes of Latino culture and I had little in the way of first-hand knowledge.

I moved to Venezuela hardly able to locate it on the map of South America.  Upon arrival in the Caracas International Airport I was transported back to the loud hum of Latino verve from the high school cafeteria, the way the words rolled off their tongues like music. The energy of the experience exhilarated my uneasiness and shadowed my lack of the language.  This would be my home for the next two years.

In Venezuela I lived as the "extranjero," the foreigner.  My blonde hair and pale skin defied my attempts at "blending." I avoided speaking for embarrassment, fearing I would be perceived as a dumb American woman.  I was instantly humbled. I began to rethink the cultural assumptions and biases and recognize the cultural privilege I have as a white woman.

I left Venezuela knowing the culture in a deeper way than if I had just visited there. I knew that it was rude to be the first person to leave a dinner party, which ultimately led to late night outings; that being late doesn't exist; and that "en dos semanas" actually means whenever we get to it, which can be next year. I learned how to relax, enjoy myself while taking myself less seriously, and how to appreciate the personal wealth that I had in life. I fell in love with the Latino culture for all of the new understandings I was acquiring.

Throughout my journey to thinking multiculturally, I have been given the opportunity to reconnect with this passion for Latino culture. I have learned through the course readings and discussions a broad explanation for the cultural differences that I experienced in Venezuela: while the European-American culture plans and contemplates the future, Latinos live in the moment.

The terms Latino, Mexican American and Chicano are used throughout this paper.  The term Hispanic will not be used as it denies the influence of the indigenous cultures and overly relies on Spanish-European influence (Sue & Sue, 2003). Young people adopted the term "Chicano" in the 1960's as a symbol of pride, acknowledging and accepting the indigenous side of their heritage (Coe, 1994).


The Latino population in the United States is growing rapidly, currently at 35.5 million or roughly 13% of the total population, and is projected to increase (U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2003). While Mexican Americans constitute the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, their history and literature is virtually unknown and rarely taught in American classrooms. The Mexican American experience in the United States is diverse, complex and dynamic. No single definition or history characterizes the Mexican American experience, just as no single story can capture any other ethno-linguistic group. The rich complexity of Chicano history is rooted in its indigenous history. Some Mexican Americans have been here for generations while others will be arriving today.

The history of Mexicans in the United States predates all other Latino groups.  Upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1948, Mexicans became Mexican-Americans.  This treaty gave the United States nearly half of Mexico's territory, what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. With gold mining in California and the spread of railroad lines, "manifest destiny" followed, providing the basis for not only the displacement of land and people but of language and culture. Domination and subordination characterized the subsequent experiences of the various Mexican groups.

Family Practices and Structure

The dominant culture exists as an individualistic construct; conversely, Latino families are more collective. Based on interviews as well as my cultural plunges, I have come to understand that the Mexican American family expects you to achieve so that you can bring economical and emotional benefit to the family structure.  An example of the collectivist model can be seen in the migration patterns of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Immigrants often have a friend or relative awaiting them on the "other side" to help them with the transition (Falicov, 1995).

Collectivism is a basic cultural value that separates Latino culture from the dominant American mainstream. Collectivism requires mutual empathy, allowing Latino adolescents to preserve their ethnic identity as they navigate through the dominant culture (Falicov, 1995).  For example, it is very common for the eldest female in the family to be expected to be responsible for the caretaking of aging parents, according to colleagues and Latinos involved in this exploration. A central aspect of collectivism is La familia, or familismo (Sue & Sue, 2003). When I interviewed a Latina woman as part of my cultural entry experiences, she reported that her family would not move far from la frontera, or the border, because of her close connections there to her family.

When Latino families begin to acculturate, some begin to see the perplexity of the dominant culture that values assertiveness, independence and achievement. At this point from readings and interactions with Latino colleagues, it is apparent that those who struggle do not entirely internally abandon the connectedness. For example, many Latinos reside with their families and continue to take on family expectations while balancing a very "dominant culture" path such as graduate school. However, it was noted in the Latino home cultural experience that the mere fact that they were pursing an advanced college degree was a testament to how acculturated they had become. 

As school psychologists, we must be aware of our own understanding of "family." Mother, father and children, in terms of Latino families, is insufficient. The significant roles of the abuelita/abuelos, the tias and tios, and other siblings and caregivers define a family as they confront the social stress of acculturation in neighborhoods often plagued by poverty, gang violence and inferior educational systems. It is clear to me through exploring the Latino culture that the extended family works to preserve traditions and comfort lives.  As school psychologists we must understand the effects of migration on families: How do families respond? What are the characteristics that enable them to be resilient? What factors place them at risk? What are the strengths that we can build upon?

Religion and Spirituality

Religion and spirituality are very important to this culture. Many Mexican-Americans are deeply rooted in the Catholic Church (Sue & Sue, 2003).  Their tight adherence to the values of piety in this life for salvation in the after life, charity and acceptance clearly has the potential to lead to a lack of self-assurance for deeply spiritual Mexican Americans (Sue & Sue, 2003).  As school psychologists it is imperative that we do not diminish the cultural importance of spiritual advisor intervention. Talking to a religious mentor may be the culturally appropriate solution for some individuals (Sue & Sue).


Latino students are traditionally in conflict with their home culture versus school culture (Sue & Sue, 2003). The teacher's expectations may be in conflict with the child's home responsibilities and expectations (Sue & Sue, 2003). Therefore, the child spends much of his or her academic life balancing on a tight-wire between the dominant culture and the home culture.

Mexican-American children tend to exhibit low achievement and mobility overall (Sue & Sue, 2003). Mexican American children have historically been marginalized by racist and separate but unequal schooling practices and facilities (Spring, 1998). Mexican-Americans have not fared well under these educational inequities. School authorities tended to explain these difficulties in terms of racial and cultural deficit models. Culturally biased performance tests, political opposition to bilingual education and teachers who are unfamiliar with Latino culture created barriers to learning for Latino children.

The schools have historically played an important role in maintaining Anglo-American dominance. Using the social control of compulsory education, public officials wanted Mexican children in schools but segregated so they could be indoctrinated and controlled.  They were to be "Americanized" (Spring, 2000), learn English, and rid themselves of the native language that was feared to be detrimental to the maintenance of a unified nation.  This is the same method of control behind the dismantling of bilingual education today, California's Proposition 227 and other initiatives to impose highly controlled monolingual education.

Culturally-Affirming Practices/Strategies

Mexican Americans contend with a number of unique risk factors (e.g., poor schools, gang activity, violence and drug problems).  The "cultural deficiency model" blames social problems on the adherence to traditional values and beliefs and fails to acknowledge the exploitative social system that creates and sustains these problems. The cultural deficiency perspective is being reexamined.  New research is suggesting that Latinos who try to assimilate actually experience more distress than those who maintain cultural ties to Mexican traditions (Vigil, 1999). This social adaptation theory is exemplified by the story of one cohort member and her family's struggle to keep their Mexican culture intact after migrating to the United States. Only Mexican television shows were viewed in the home; her family ate typical Mexican food; and spoke only Spanish with each other. She credits this adherence to her cultural ties to her success in her life. She is comfortable interacting in the dominant culture as she went to school in that culture, but has also benefitted from her bicultural experience.

Most second-generation Mexican Americans find a place for themselves in the dominant culture and have positive acculturation outcomes. An example of this resiliency and success can be explored in the story of Luis Rodriguez and his struggle to overcome institutionalized racism, gang involvement and poverty, ultimately to become a respected author and lecturer.  The tremendous power in the story, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA resonates with the idea that clearly, not all Mexican Americans live in poverty or as victims (Rodriguez, 1993).

Implications for School Psychologists

Latinos experience racism and discrimination in great numbers (Sue & Sue, 2003). Sixteen percent of Latinos indicated that prejudice was the most important issue facing them (Krupin, 2001 as cited in Sue & Sue, 2003).  As a result, it is important that school psychologists openly discuss cultural and ethnic identity issues as they relate to achievement in school.  To be able to do this effectively, it is imperative that school psychologists have the opportunity to explore and understand their own cultural backgrounds and biases to best serve this population.  An example of this in-depth exploration can be seen in the Seminar in Multicultural Dimensions in Counseling at San Diego State University's School Psychology Program.

It is important for school psychologists to be aware of the complex interplay of historical, economical, social and political factors related to personal and social identity among Latinos. For example, as Latinos move within and between work, school, community and home, they have to contend with the pressures of diverging expectations related to overall behavior and language.  These diverging expectations can be a locus of internal conflict and stress.

From an ecosystemic perspective, the most effective interventions with Latino youth in trouble involve families, schools and communities.  A student who may be having trouble with aspects of adaptation could benefit from a role model who serves as a mentor to support students in their development. Clearly, mentors would need to have experienced similar life situations to act as a positive role model.

Interventions need to be grounded in salient cultural values and beliefs.  Being aware of the collective nature of Latino households, interventions may be more effective at the group level. It is important for support personnel to recognize that counseling may not be sought until all other resources-family and close friends-are exhausted.  Latinos may be suffering from conflicts between societal and cultural expectations.  Counseling sessions may be more appropriately held in a church or school in the neighborhood rather than in a formal counseling setting (Sue & Sue, 2003).


After truly experiencing this culture first hand through one-on-one connections and group explorations, I have come to reconcile the assumptions I held earlier in life.  Latinos' pride in their family, their amazing love for life, and rich connection to their traditions are aspects that I would like to incorporate in my own life.  I have a greater understanding of their concept of living in the moment, which quells the previous assumptions and stereotypes.  Personally, I am changing. I am growing to see the beauty in the moment instead of the "light at the end of the tunnel." I have also learned about the politics behind the labels and the importance and the pride in the indigenous heritage.

No amount of reading or studying could provide the depth of understanding that was brought about through this assignment. As a practitioner it is important to prepare oneself with multicultural competence.  It is imperative, in this ever-changing world that we live in, that School Psychology training programs provide us with the tools that best meet the needs of the populations we will be serving. Throughout this paper, I have only touched upon the issues that practitioners need to understand when working with the Latino population.


Coe, M.D., (1994). Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Falicov, C.J., (1995).  Training to think culturally: A multidimensional comparative framework. Family Process, 34, 373-388.

Rodriguez, L., (1993). Always running la vida loca: Gang days in LA. New York: Touchstone Books.

Spring, J. (2000). The American school. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sue D. & Sue, D. (2003). Counseling the culturally diverse. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

U.S. Census Bureau (2003). Census 2003: General demographic characteristics  for the United States, 2003. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, Table DP-1.

Vigil, D., (1999). Streets and schools: how can educators help Chicano marginalized gang youth. Harvard Educational Review, 69, 270-282.

©2004, National Association of School Psychologists. Amy Taylor is a student in the specialist School Psychology program at San Diego State University. This paper was originally written to fulfill requirements of the SDSU Seminar in Multicultural Dimensions in Counseling.