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Hispanic-American Families

The Hispanics/latinos And Group Definition, Hispanic/latino Families: Demographic And Social Indices

As with any large group, the 7.6 million Hispanic/Latino/Spanish families in the United States comprise a socially diverse population. Thus an analysis of Latino/a group composition and diversity challenges the tendency to use stereotypes. The U.S. Bureau of the Census notes, for example, that Hispanics/Latinos may be of any race—including Asian, Native American, European, African, or Middle Eastern. Moreover, there are numerous mixtures among these groups, some of whom, such as the Mexican mestizos, are also formally named. Latino families may be rich or poor, extended or nuclear, and of all social classes. Some families may have arrived from Mexico during the last decade, some may be refugees from the Communist regime in Cuba, whereas the settlement of the Spanish in New Mexico antedates the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia in 1609. Even that earliest of Spanish migrations to North America defies preconceptions of colonizing conquistadores enslaving native populations, bloody sword in hand. The settler/invaders appear to have included a large component of refugees—Jewish conversos—converts to Christianity—fleeing the Spanish Inquisition.

These few examples imply vast differences in cultural attitudes and life choices available to families and their members, and a one-size-fits-all attempt at understanding the social relationships common within and among Hispanic families risks grave misunderstandings. An overview of the Hispanic family must attend to this diversity as well as identifying commonalities. The task of achieving a sensitive understanding of Latino families is rendered even more difficult when it is recognized that social traits shared by Hispanic families with all other U.S. families are likely to be more prevalent than those characteristics one might reasonably identify as Hispanic. Even so, the social ascription of a group identity, as well as the commonalities shared by many Hispanics, may have profound and sometimes determining social consequences for an individual or family.

The Hispanic/Latino/Spanish group (the Census Bureau currently uses all three terms) is the fastest growing (in both percentage terms and in raw numbers) of all of the larger social/racial groups—white, African American, Hispanic, and Asian—identified and counted by the U.S. government. In the last census (Census 2000), one in eight of the 281.4 million U.S. residents—35.3 million persons—were enumerated as Latinos. The 1980 census counted only 14.6 million Hispanics, 6.5 percent of the total population. During the twenty years from 1980 to 2000, the 21 million additional Hispanics accounted for more than a third of the 59 million additional residents of the United States the Census counted.

Although the birth rate of Latinos as a whole is high, such astonishing growth can only result from a large net migration into the United States. This immigration, with its ramifying social effects has, perhaps more than any other factor, resulted in profound changes and adaptations for the majority of Hispanic families.

Statistics, mostly collected by the U.S. Bureau of the Census and the Department of Labor, offer crucial information for understanding the status and social conditions challenging the Latino family. In charting the diversity, composition, and social development of Latinos and Latino families, there is at least an entry into the heart of what is most personal and defining. The use of abstract data as a path to the personal is especially ironic for Latinos—more than most people, Latino families are seen as an emotional realm, and the chief sources of warmth and nurturance. Families are seen as providing unfailing support when facing an erratic and threatening world; the family is where one learns what is important, what is not, and the skills and strategies that enable one to survive outside its protective confines. It defines many of the roles one plays in social interactions.

The role of other social institutions as supports—including government agencies, private charities, or corporate employers—may be regarded even more skeptically by Latinos than by other members of U.S. society. In the countries of origin of many Latinos, these institutions of support outside the family are sometimes nonexistent, underdeveloped, corrupt, or, in the case of police and the military, often sources of danger and oppression rather than protection. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the primary reason that the Latinos are currently seen, and often see themselves, as members of a single ethnic group arises from the need of a state system, the U.S. government, to develop statistical methodology for collecting data on Hispanics/Latinos/Spanish so that services can be most effectively provided and legal protections administered to those so identified.

In other words, for the Latino, the ultimate source of the social definition that provides his or her group identity—the "I am a Hispanic (or The Hispanic/Latino/Spanish group is by far the fastest growing (in both percentage terms and in raw numbers) of all of the larger social/racial groups in the United States.A/P WIDE WORLD PHOTOS Latino/a)"was a government edict. The Latino identity did not arise out of a common perception of shared cultural norms and strategies transmitted (as so many are) from parent to child and from person to person within a community but rather from the needs of the United States federal authorities to more effectively collect statistical data. The vital role of the state in the creation and emergence of group identity is a common phenomenon: Native Americans and African tribal identities, racial ascriptions, Latino subgroup (national) identities, and the "French," but provide few examples (Cohen 1974; Enloe 1981).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects