NASP Communiqué, Vol. 33, #1
Journey to Thinking Multiculturally
A Cultural Exploration of
the Latino Community
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
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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.