In both New Mexico and California, Latinos outnumber Caucasians and other ethnic groups. New Mexico’s Latino residents make up 47 percent of the population, and California’s Latino residents represent 39 percent of the population. Most likely, Texas will become the next state with a plurality of Latino residents; Latinos account for 63.5 of the Lone Star State’s population growth. Latino population expansion is creating tensions within American society, and it also creates cultural competence challenges for social workers.
In response, many MSW programs have developed courses and placements to help students better understand Latino clients, and they’re publishing resource materials to help students understand Latino culture and values (click here for an example). Even with these tools, many social workers struggle to help Latinos adjust to American life. Their work happens within a context of post-migration trauma, assimilation tensions and different family structures.
When Latinos migrate to America, they are uprooted physically, socially and culturally.
- Physical uprooting. Migrants often feel a profound sense of loss for the sounds, sights and smells of their homeland.
- Social uprooting. After leaving their homes, migrants lose many friends, family members and other social connections.
- Cultural uprooting. Cultural uprooting represents not only having to learn a new language but also the loss of a sense of personal history, stories and ways of thinking. In many cases, the changes can cause significant psychological stress for Latino clients as they integrate into a new culture while trying not to lose their old identities.
In addition to suffering from loss and feeling out of place, many Latinos experience trauma on the journey to America. Amnesty International estimates that six out of 10 Latinas that cross the border experience sexual violence during the journey, and many are dropped off in the wrong locations by unscrupulous coyotes. Once they arrive and find work, they face deportation if they report their employer misconduct. They have no protections from poor working conditions and unfairwages because they’re ineligible for labor protections.
This American Life
In addition to the trauma associated with migration, many Latino immigrants find it hard to assimilate into American culture. In their early days in America, feeling displaced from everything they know, Latinos immerse themselves in their home cultures. Intergenerational fights break out as children become “Americanized.” When women find work more easily than their male spouses, domestic troubles often ensue.
In other households, Americanization may be welcomed, resulting in the denigration of the home culture and ways. Some parents force their children to only speak English. In many cases, they adopt the identity that the dominant group holds of the immigrant population, which can create problems for individuals and families if the problem becomes chronic. In time, most families develop a bi-cultural identity, keeping the best parts of their home cultures and adopting their favorite parts of American culture.
Latino families have different, less fragmented relationships than American families. In many cases, Latino families group multiple generations under one roof. Grandparents, parents and children, along with some aunts, uncles and cousins, often share homes to cut expenses and to share companionship. Welfare services geared toward job placement may try to find work for a single Latino family member, but if the job doesn’t fit the entire family, job retention is unlikely. For example, a job requiring odd hours might mean neglecting family responsibilities. A Latino or Latina might prefer to quit the job rather than let down the family.
The American focus on the individual may not resonate with a Latino family, requiring social workers who assist Latinos to think in a more holistic way. For example, social workers can’t assume that wages are used for family in America because many Latinos send money back home to their loved ones. In most cases, socioeconomic progress starts with the younger generations, who feel less of a connection to the homeland and more freedom to use their resources for themselves.
Some universities, especially in states with high Latino populations, have built their programs around improving cultural competence. Also, organizations like the Latino Social Work Task Force (LSWTF) have partnered with universities, recruiting Spanish speakers into social work by offering MSW scholarships. Thanks to these efforts, more social workers graduate ready to help their Latino clients. As the Latino population grows, those skills will be in demand.
Latino men image by Shavar Ross.com from Flickr Creative Commons.