Latino / Hispanic Cultures

Latino / Hispanic Cultures 

There is no doubt that Latinos are currently the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States. According to the United States Census (2010), the estimated number of Latinos living in the United States is 50,477,594 or 16.3% of the total population. Most are of Mexican descent (approximately 31.8 million), followed by Puerto Rican (4.6 million) and Cuban heritage (1.8 million). Furthermore, the regions with the largest concentrations of Latinos are California with approximately 14,013,719; Texas with 9,460,921; Florida with 4,223,806 and New York with 3,416,922 respectively. It is also important to note that an estimate of 3,725,789 live in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory. As can be observed currently in many U.S. communities, much of the recent increase in the Latino population is due to immigration.

Individuals of Mexican heritage currently reside in every state of the nation. Large numbers of Puerto Ricans initially settled in New York but now also reside throughout the country. Most people of Cuban descent have chosen to live in the south of Florida around Miami (Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).

Latino or Hispanic?

The terms Latino and Hispanic are somewhat controversial, and many people are divided on how they should be applied. Many within this population prefer the term Hispanic, whereas others prefer Latino. It is also interesting to note how geographical position may correlate with a preference of terms. In South Florida, for example, where the majority of Latinos/Hispanics are of Cuban heritage, the term Hispanic is generally preferred, as it is in other regions of the United States such as Texas and New York. The designation of Latino, however, is more often used in southeastern such as North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.

Beyond citing geographical and personal preferences, dHowHefining the terms can be very controversial in and of itself. Who is a Hispanic, and who is a Latino? The Dictionary of the Real Academia Española (2010), considered by many to be the official register of words and concepts in the Spanish language, defines Hispano as someone who belongs to or is related to Spanish-speaking countries. Individuals of Brazilian and/or Portuguese descent, though geographical neighbors to those in Spanish-speaking nations, have a different linguistic and cultural heritage. The U. S. Census, however, currently includes Brazilians and Portuguese within the Hispanic population, as the statistical trend suggests that many people of these two heritages use the term to describe themselves (Passel & Taylor, 2009). In essence, therefore, the term Hispanic is defined as an individual whose native language is Spanish.

The term Latino, on the other hand, is used to describe people of European or American descent whose languages derive from Latin itself (Real Academia Española, 2010). This definition obviously includes citizens of every nation in Latin America and Europe whose primary language is either Spanish or Portuguese, including individuals from Brazil and Portugal. Based on this definition, technically all people whose native languages derive from Latin, such as the French, Romanians, and Italians, should also be considered Latinos. However, this concept is not generally applied in the United States when referring to such individuals. Therefore, we will use the terms Latino and Hispanic interchangeably (with a slight preference for the more encompassing Latino) when we refer to the people of Latin American or Spanish heritage. And when we say Latinos, we are obviously referring to the female population as well…Latinas!


It is impossible to describe the experiences of Latinos in U.S. society without considering the immigration experience. Immigration occurs for a variety of reasons and  in different ways, some officially sanctioned and some not. To aid us in an impartial reflection regarding immigration, we will use the term undocumented when describing immigration that takes place without official sanction. The term illegal, used frequently in a context condemning immigration occurring without official sanction, can be perceived as criminalizing a person’s presence or mere existence within U.S. society. Such a designation marginalizes many undocumented immigrants in this country, including children and adolescents.

Historically, three Latino groups have populated the U.S. for decades, sometimes centuries: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans. Hispanic families lived in the U.S. well before the massive immigration wave of recent years. Mexicans, for example, lived in what is now U.S. territory well before the Mexican-American war (1846-1848) that led to Texas becoming an independent republic (Velasco-Marquez, 2006).

After the Mexican-American war, the U.S. annexed territory that eventually became New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Consequently, a significant number of Mexican families–without moving an inch– found themselves living in a different country. True Mexican emigration to the U.S., however, has occurred principally over the last four decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Puerto Ricans began arriving in the U.S. in the mid-19th century when Puerto Rico was still a Spanish colony. In 1917, the United States Congress approved the Jones-Shafroth Act that gave Puerto Ricans citizenship, making it relatively easy for Puerto Ricans to emigrate to mainland America. The largest contingent of Puerto Ricans arrived in the 1950s when great numbers emigrated from the island to New York primarily for economic reasons. During the 1950s Puerto Rico experienced rapid industrialization, due in large part to Operación Manos a la Obra (Operation Bootstrap), an initiative aimed at transforming Puerto Rico’s economy from agriculture-based to manufacturing-based.  As a result, in a short period of time Puerto Rico’s economy shifted from agriculture to manufacturing and tourism, and the agricultural society became an industrial working class. Although this project was touted as improving the economy in the island, by 1960 Puerto Rico experienced high unemployment rates.  The economic crisis created by the Operation Bootstrap prompted many Puerto Rican families to leave the island and move to the United States, particularly to New York City (Vega, n.d.).

Cuban emigration to the U.S. also has a long history, beginning in the mid-1500s when a number of people left the island for St. Augustine, FL, then a Spanish colony. In the 19th century, Cubans settled in Key West and West Tampa, FL, but the largest wave occurred in 1959, when Fidel Castro took power. Thousands fled, seeking a better life in South Florida. The immigration continued throughout the 1960s and 70s, until in 1980, Castro promoted the Mariel Boatlift. Dozens of small craft brought boatloads of Cubans wanting to escape the communist tyranny, but Castro also allowed convicts and patients from mental institutions to join the Marielitos, thus turning the exodus into a controversial political event. In recent years, other Latin groups have immigrated to the U.S. Over the past 25 years, the country has seen an increase in Colombians, Brazilians, Salvadorans, Hondurans, Ecuadorians, Costa Ricans, Nicaraguans, and recently, Venezuelans leaving their homelands, primarily for political and social reasons. Some are compelled to leave in order to avoid kidnappings and extortion by rebel and criminal groups, forms of victimization most often directed at wealthier families. Despite the popular American perception that all Latin immigrants are poor–and, of course, many are– some are quite wealthy. In fact, it is interesting to note that Forbes magazine recently proclaimed Carlos Slim, a Mexican national, to be the world’s richest man with an estimated fortune of $53.5 billion (Forbes, 2010).

Customs and Diversity

Although Latinos in this country tend to be grouped together in discussions of ethnicity or culture, many are proud of their individual heritage and choose to define themselves accordingly. Though they may sense a common identity as Latinos or Hispanics, they are also quite likely to distinguish and identify themselves by nationality. People from Puerto Rico, for example, may choose to call themselves Puerto Ricans or Boricuas, while others may describe themselves as Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, or Salvadorian.

Many people may be surprised to learn that there is no one Latino race. Latinos are found within a wide range of racial groups: Amerindian, Black or African American, Asian, or White. The large variety of ethnic groups and races makes Latin America one of the most diverse regions in the world. There are differences among various Latin American countries, however, when it comes to racial composition. Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil have comparatively larger percentages of Black Latinos; Argentina, Uruguay, and Costa Rica have larger White populations; whereas Bolivia, Guatemala, and Peru have higher percentages of indigenous populations (Lizcano Fernández, 2005).

Many Latinos also have multiracial ancestries, and various terms are used among different Latino cultures to describe these multiracial heritages. Individual Latinos may understand or use such descriptive terms in different ways; there are few rigid definitions for these categories. Mestizo, for example, is a term that may be used in Latin America to describe an individual who has a combination of Amerindian and White or Black ancestry. In some Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Colombia, Paraguay, and Venezuela, the majority of the population falls within this description (Lizcano Fernández, 2005). Mulatto, a term that is no longer used or considered acceptable in the United States, refers in Latin America to an individual with a combination of Black and White ancestry. However, as in the U.S., this term is not commonly used in popular or social conversations and may even have an offensive connotation. The term is more often found in textbooks or formal descriptions of racial categories. [Note: for further details on racial compositions of Latin American countries, see Lizcano Fernández, 2005.]

Latinos also vary widely in terms of their appearance, customs, traditions, and dialect. Depending on the country of origin, for example, dance styles range from salsa to merengue, from rock to tango, or from bachata to cumbia. To explain further, bachata, is a popular dance rhythm from the Dominican Republic. The basic bachata move is a side to side step with the partner held close with dancers changing directions after the fourth beat. Cumbia, on the other hand, is a Colombian rhythm dating back to the18th century in the Atlantic coastal region of the country. Cumbia uses guitars, accordions, bass guitar, and percussion instruments. Other musical styles include mariachis, baladas (ballads) or pop music. Many may imagine listening to the songs of Vicente Fernandez, Thalía or Juan Gabriel in their Mexican motherland. Others might enjoy a Colombian bambuco, a cueca or tonada from Chile, a chacarera from Argentina, or a flamenco from Spain.

Latin American food is as diverse as its music. It is amazing to see the variety of products available in different Latin supermarkets: tortillas, empanadas, beef tongue, yuca, malanga, bacalaitos, surullitos and more. Even though Americans may be somewhat familiar with Mexican food–at least, Americanized Mexican food– not all Latin cookery features spicy or fiery dishes. Cuban cuisine, for example, tends to be blander. Colombians often eat arepas instead of tortillas, and though Mexican tamales can be served wrapped in corn husks, in Colombia and other parts of Latin America they are steamed in banana leaves.

Throughout the world, people enjoy sports. In Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba, baseball is a favorite; in the rest of Latin America, soccer reigns supreme. Argentinean and Brazilian fútbol teams, for example, have been historically among the best in the world.

These examples of cultural diversity demonstrate that putting all Latinos in the same box can be frustrating, even insulting, for many people. As counselors, we need to look upon each Latino as an individual with his or her own experiences, interests, values, and beliefs.

Language and Communication

Even though Spanish is the primary language used throughout Latin America, regional differences can greatly impact the meaning of a message. Certain words, for instance, carry unique shades of meaning in various regions. To take a small example, for many Mexicans, the expression jefe means both boss and father, whereas for other Latin Americans, it only refers to a boss. Humor also is unique and original to each province. A person from Ecuador may have a hard time understanding a Guatemalan or Costa Rican joke if not familiar with certain inside humorous references to social norms, patterns, or policies in those countries.

Another communication difference stems from the tendency of Latinos to stand in closer proximity than mainstream Americans. Whereas a distance of three to five feet is comfortable for the average American, it is not unusual to see Latinos standing not more than one or two feet apart while speaking. In general, Latinos are also more comfortable with physical touch during verbal interactions. Moreover, to the uninitiated, it may appear that a group of Hispanics are all talking at the same time, not fully listening or allowing any one person to finish before jumping into the conversation.  For Latinos, this conduct is not considered rude; simultaneous speech simply indicates that all parties are actively involved in the discussion.

In terms of eye contact, many Latinos have no difficulty looking anyone in the eye, but counselors should be aware that natives of rural areas of Latin America may find maintaining eye contact uncomfortable, even challenging. This predisposition is likely related to longstanding divisions among social classes throughout Latin America so that for many provincials, looking directly into the eyes of an authority figure is considered a sign of disrespect. To illustrate the point, a service provider in a psychiatric hospital where I once worked, wrote in her notes that a certain patient appeared nervous and suspicious, as he was not maintaining appropriate eye contact. After discussing the cultural implications of the patient’s behavior, the staff came to recognize that his consistent avoidance of eye contact was related to cultural beliefs and assumptions, not suspicion or lack of trust.


Familialismo and/or familismo are terms used in many textbooks in descriptions of typical Latino families and essentially mean that family, both nuclear and extended, is considered extremely important.  It is important to note that these are words that you may not find in a Spanish dictionary. Family relationships are close-knit and fundamental; members expect cooperation and loyalty (Dingfelder, 2005a, 2005b). In in-patient units, it is not unusual to find large numbers of relatives visiting, even for a relatively minor complaint. To take another example from my own life, while living in Colombia, South America, when I traveled, eight or ten relatives would accompany me to the airport. Now that I live in the States, I am lucky to find one family member to take me to the airport, even though I have many family members living nearby. I imagine that my experience is fairly typical among other Latinos acculturating to this country.

Familismo can also present challenges if a service provider is unaware of a particular family’s dynamics. Family members may want to be present when one member is receiving treatment, discussing test results, or obtaining medical records. In traditional Latino families, the male head of household may expect to be the deciding voice in another family member’s treatment. Using an individualist approach when counseling a Latino client–an adolescent, for example– can be confusing for older adults, who expect the family to be involved in treatment. This dynamic also may present a problem when younger and older generations enter counseling together. Traditional expectations are rapidly changing as families immerse themselves in American culture and younger generations become more attuned to mainstream values and practices. In counseling situations, however, it is important to take into account each family member’s age, educational level, biases, and personal judgment, since these factors have bearing on family interactions and, ultimately, the success of the intervention.

Because children acculturate at a much faster rate than adults, in many cases the oldest child becomes the cultural broker of the family. A cultural broker is the one translating or helping with the communication stumbling blocks that the adults frequently encounter. This circumstance creates a double standard for the child. When outside the home, s/he feels pride and importance when translating for adults, coordinating appointments, helping to buy goods, and explaining signs and documents. At home, however, the parents, especially the father, are the authority figures, and the child is expected to return to a secondary, compliant role. A further source of friction stems from the understandable dream of some adults, even those who have lived in the U.S. for a long time, to return to their homeland. Once voiced, these hopes can create anxiety for a child who has never lived in or even visited their parents’ country of origin and has no desire to move there.  Usually, the young, Americanized youth’s culture in some sense will clash with that of the parents, creating predictable tension and confrontation.

Even though some dynamics and interactions are rapidly changing in many families, sex roles are generally clearly delineated (Lopez-Baez, 2006). Traditionally, the male is understood to be the leader, the provider, and the one demonstrating virility and dominance, whereas females are expected to be nurturing, submissive to males, and self-sacrificial (Sue & Sue, 2007). These expectations can create frustration, especially when the head of the household cannot make ends meet on his own. In American society, two incomes have long been needed to provide a comfortable living for a typical middle class family, but the point may be especially relevant now that work is scarce and many people face serious financial difficulties.

Ceremonies and special occasions play a significant role in Latino family life. The birth of a baby, baptism, birthdays, graduations, weddings, Christmas, New Year’s, right down to a major soccer game in the World Cup are celebrated joyously with family and friends. An especially significant event for families is a girl’s 15th birthday, an occasion known as the quinceañera. Depending on the family’s financial situation, a grand celebration is expected, and for some families, preparations start a year in advance. On the day of the party, fifteen honored guests each light a candle symbolizing a year of life. The celebrating girl dances a waltz first with her father, then with the other males present. At some point, the father may change his daughter’s shoes from flats to high heels, symbolizing her entry into womanhood.

When considering common cultural characteristics in traditional Latino families, it is also important to note that many use two last names, the first name being the paternal surname and the second, the maternal surname. This can be confusing for people who are unfamiliar with this naming practice. Many agency employees struggle to determine which is the first, the middle, and the last name of a consumer. It is not uncommon to find the last name incorrectly used as the middle name, and the maternal surname as the last name. In addition, when a woman marries a man, her name also changes. For example, when Maria Luisa Rodriguez Cardona marries Jesus Arturo Correa Zapata, her last name changes to Maria Luisa Rodriguez de Correa. This practice is also changing and many women in younger generations are no longer following this tradition.

Religion and Spirituality

The vast majority of Latinos are Roman Catholics, but when asked if they regularly attend church and other related services, many claim they do not. In a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2007), more than 68% or two-thirds of Latinos surveyed identified themselves as Roman Catholics, followed by 15% who identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants. About 8% or nearly one in ten Latinos did not identify with any religion. Other religious subgroups incorporate elements of witchcraft, sorcery, unusual rites, and sacred objects, or beliefs in anthropomorphic or animistic supernatural beings into their spiritual practice. Santeria, for example, deriving from beliefs of the Yoruba culture in Africa, is familiar to the majority of people in the Cuban community. Santeria involves the worship of Orishas, deities who are mortal and must receive worship through ritual sacrifices of animals such as chickens to continue to live (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2009). This religion has at times faced condemnation, particularly by animal rights groups within the U.S., but its practice of animal sacrifice has been officially sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2009).

In terms of resolving family problems, counselors and other providers should be aware that many Latinos will first work within the family system before going elsewhere.  Failing resolution, they will likely seek help from a priest, pastor, or spiritual leader. Traditional folk healers, or curanderos, are viewed by many Latinos as having the ability to cure physical and spiritual illnesses. Families often rely on curanderos when seeking help with physical ailments as well as emotional and psychological distress.

Another common supernatural belief is that of mal de ojo. When an adult looks upon a child “con un ojo muy fuerte” (with a strong eye), with or without malicious intent, the child–usually an infant–supposedly develops diarrhea, fever, vomiting, or unwarranted crying. The family may request the services of a curandero to treat a child exhibiting these symptoms.  

Time Orientation

In many Hispanic communities, time is perceived as the now. Whereas middle class, mainstream Americans normally think about the future, develop plans, and set long-term goals, a significant number of Latinos are preoccupied with matters of daily survival. When survival is paramount, short-term goals take priority.  Some struggling Latinos even dream of a lucky strike (i.e., winning the lottery) that will change their future and fate.

If we generalize, we can say that Latinos are quite flexible in their use of time and often arrive late to events, parties, appointments, and meetings. The concept of punctuality in the mainstream sense may not be ingrained in an Hispanic individual; however, other factors, such as difficulty with transportation, may contribute to a client’s tardiness. If a consumer is chronically late, rather than automatically considering the behavior as a sign of disrespect, counselors can address the tendency during the counseling session. Given these considerations, counselors working with Latino clients would do well to explore the nuances and concept of time on an individual basis.

Language and Acculturation

Latino newcomers experience serious challenges, primarily because most do not speak English, have difficulty acculturating, or experience discrimination. In half the Latino homes in the U.S., Spanish is the primary spoken language; often command of English is limited (Sue & Sue, 2007).  Naturally, speaking the language plays an important role in the acculturation process. Many immigrants do not have a bank account or access to credit.  Lack of proficiency in English limits access to mental health services (Vega & Alegria, 2001; Prieto, McNeill, Walls & Gomez, 2001) and participation in activities at their children’s schools. Encountering unfamiliar signs or communicating with English speakers  may seem like insurmountable barriers. An inability to participate in crucial aspects of society, especially when an immigrant is undocumented, can be a demoralizing experience.

Communicating in English can also present major difficulties for Latinos who have lived in the United States a long time. Latinos who come to this country as adults or learn to speak English later in life may feel self-conscious about their accent, especially when people have trouble understanding them.  Here geographical location plays a role. A Spanish-speaking person residing in the predominately Cuban community of Hialeah, Florida, for example, will likely experience fewer English language challenges than a person living in the predominantly English speaking rural community of Mint Hill, North Carolina.

In addition to barriers of spoken language, the translation of documents, especially in the mental health field, is a topic of concern. For example, the term substance abuse is usually translated as abuso de sustancias. For many Latinos, however, the word sustancia has a meaning completely different from alcohol or illicit drugs. When I worked as a substance abuse counselor in Charlotte, N.C., we distributed a document asking clients if they used sustancias (substances) other than alcohol. One consumer innocently answered that he used oregano, pepper, onions, and herbs. For people in Latin America, the term sustancia generally refers to “jugo que se extrae de ciertas materias alimenticias” or, translated into English, juice extracted from certain food materials. To prevent similar misunderstandings, agencies working with substance abuse clients can use the term alcohol y drogas (alcohol and drugs), rather than as sustancias. Unfortunately, with the exception of very few cities such as Miami, FL, the scarcity of bilingual and bicultural mental health professionals contributes to the lack of accurate translations when serving Latino clients.

Another issue of language involves counselors assuming that because a client has a Spanish surname s/he speaks Spanish. It may be the case that the person is a second or third generation Latino, many of whom do not know or feel comfortable speaking Spanish. Some have made the effort in adulthood to take continuing education classes in order to recapture the language of their forebears yet may not consider themselves fluent.

Thus, when considering the mental health needs of Latino immigrants, it is important to take individual and environmental factors into account:  years of residence in the U.S., presence of a support system, residency status, and acculturation level. New arrivals, for example, especially if they have undocumented status, face different challenges than those who have documented status or have lived many years in the U.S. In addition, since many newly-arrived Latino immigrants come from Mexico, it follows that common needs of these newcomers will differ from those of, say, longer-established Puerto Rican or Cuban Americans.

Language Use and Public Policy

Federal policy in the Executive Order 13166, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that No person in the United States shall on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. This policy urges providers to comply with all regulations and to understand the importance of language access when offering services to limited English-proficient recipients. This Order not only applies to Spanish-speaking individuals, but to any person in need of services who does not have the ability to communicate in English. Unfortunately, community service providers fail to implement fully the provisions of this policy when they do not offer bilingual and bicultural services to Spanish-speaking consumers. In some cases, even basic documents may not be readily available in Spanish. For more information about this policy you can visit the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) at or

Trust and Current Issues

Language barriers and lack of acculturation are only two reasons why many Hispanics do not access medical, mental health, and other services, both public and private. In addition, they may not feel safe disclosing personal or sensitive information to service providers and prefer instead to seek assistance from faith-based organizations, family, or friends. Adolescents who are being physically or sexually abused, for example, may resist seeking assistance from a school counselor, whom they know must report the incident. The potential consequences of reporting can be devastating, especially if family members are undocumented. When family division by deportation is a possibility– as it is for an estimated 12 million Latinos living in the U.S. — fear of government agencies, school personnel, and service providers creates a tall barrier to service access.

Even asking for a Social Security number, a common occurrence for American citizens, can be a harrowing experience for an undocumented immigrant, one that promotes both anxiety and poor health. According to a report by the Office of the Surgeon General (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2001), the most common diagnoses in the Latino community are Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and Alcoholism. Acculturation stress itself often leads to or exacerbates these problems (Pawliuk, Grizenko, Chan-Yip, Gantous, Matthew, & Nguyen, 1996; Short and Johnson, 1997). Many immigrants who do not have immediate family nearby live in isolation, loneliness, and despair.

Alberto Peñalver, former medical director of the psychiatric emergency room at University of Miami/Jackson Health System, agrees that depression and anxiety disorders, along with adjustment disorders, are the most prevalent diagnoses among Latinos that he has witnessed in his 25-year career. In particular, those patients hailing from Mexico struggle with alcoholism and depression. Peñalver attributes this phenomenon to a combination of biologic and cultural adjustment factors, exacerbated by lack of a strong support system. Not properly treated, the resulting depression can lead to suicidal ideation and possible completion (A. Peñalver, personal communication, March 12, 2010).

Another manifestation of the underlying lack of trust in the Hispanic community can be seen in the contrasting views of the 2010 census. On one hand, it is not uncommon to find advocates explaining why it is both safe and important to participate in the census. On the other hand, a significant number of Latinos are refusing to complete the census form either out of fear of the government or because they want to pressure legislators to pay more attention to issues of the Hispanic community, especially immigration reform.

Currently, reform of the immigration system is on the minds and tongues of the great majority of Latinos. At the same time, most Puerto Ricans and Cubans throughout the U.S., as well as millions of U.S. citizens originating from Latin American countries, would not directly feel the effects of reform. The estimated 12 million others, however–many of whom have lived and worked in this country for years, even decades– view reform as their last hope. Radio talk shows on Spanish-language stations devote considerable air time to informing listeners about their último salvavidas para la salvación, translated as their last life belt for salvation–prospective immigration reform.

Latino children born in the U.S., in particular, suffer the consequences of a broken immigration system.  Section 212(a)(9)(C)(i)(I) of the Immigration and Nationality Act renders inadmissible those aliens who were previously unlawfully present in the United States for an aggregate period of more than one year or who enter or attempt to re-enter the United States without being admitted. These aliens are permanently inadmissible; however, after they have remained outside the U. S. for at least 10 years, they may seek consent to reapply for admission from the Attorney General. Laws of this nature have separated families for years, making it almost impossible for children and parents to be together after parents have been deported to their homeland. In this way, current immigration laws not only punish undocumented individuals, but also their children, who if born in the U.S., are citizens of this country.

The current economic crisis in the U.S. is another major problem in Latino communities. Many larger cities have opened Latino centers with staff that advocate on behalf of families to ensure proper and just treatment.  In addition, they may distribute food, sponsor health fairs, and generally promote self-sufficiency and community empowerment. Lately, many centers have experienced a growth in demand for service. The economic crisis has greatly affected the construction, food, and hotel industries where Latinos often find work. Lack of employment opportunity has a ripple effect on the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of individuals living south of the borderi who rely on money sent home by family members working in the U.S.

Unfortunately, the challenges described above are only a few of those currently affecting Latino communities. Counselors and other clinicians working with Hispanic clients across the U.S. have or will probably encounter one or more of the following issues:  domestic violence, need for legal assistance, problems with landlords, driving while intoxicated (DWIs), divorce, lack of transportation, school dropouts, juvenile crime, and gang involvement.

Education and Literacy

There is no doubt that the disparity in educational achievement between Latino and mainstream youth is a cause for concern. Scholars cite high dropout rates (Calaff, 2008; Esparza & Sánchez, 2008; Gándara, 2010, Vélez & Saenz, 2001; Wainer, 2006), gaps in academic achievement (Gándara, 2010; Villalba, Akos, Keeter, & Ames, 2007; Wainer, 2006), lower levels of college attendance and graduation (Gándara, 2010, Vélez & Saenz, 2001; Villalba et al., 2007; Wainer, 2006) and fewer recipients of advanced degrees (Fry, 2002).

Lower socioeconomic status undoubtedly contributes to such difficulties. For example, when parents with three, four, or more children at home work for close to minimum wage, as is the case with many immigrant Latino families, it can be extremely challenging to focus on the children’s education.  Abraham Maslow (1954) described the way in which human beings must satisfy basic physiological needs (i.e., food and shelter) before pursuing higher order needs such as safety and security, belongingness, self-esteem, and self-actualization. When parents are struggling to survive, nothing else seems important. Parents may be suspicious of school personnel, feel unwelcome, and resist attempts at communication. Further, many Latino families have little history of formal education. The absence of academic role models leaves many students with the expectation of dropping out of school to obtain menial jobs. Most often the children of well-educated parents are the ones that follow in their footsteps with an awareness of the importance of achieving a college education.

The lack of higher education obtained by many Latino parents may contribute to lower college attendance among Latino youth. Moreover, according to a report from the Pew Hispanic Center (Fry, 2002), Latinos who do pursue postsecondary education  are more likely to choose two-year community colleges over 4-year university and postgraduate studies. School counselors and teachers, therefore, should consider these factors when helping students develop their academic plans. Educators should increase their familiarity with potential resources to help Latino students attend colleges and universities. Two such examples include the Hispanic Scholarship Fund ( and the Hispanic College Fund (

Suggestions and Strategies for Effective Counseling

The concept of cultural competence is crucial to successful interaction and therapeutic practice with Latinos. Cultural competence is the on-going process of becoming aware of our own identity, self-concept, and feelings, as well as our perceptions of those who are different from us. Though it is impossible to know everything about an individual’s culture, we can certainly develop an understanding of why we view others as we do. To increase this awareness, it may be helpful to ask the following questions, which here specifically pertain to the Latino population but serve as well for any cultural group:

  • What were the messages about Latinos, both positive and negative, that you heard in your home as a child?
  • What are some of the stereotypes or prejudices you hold regarding Hispanics?

Note that we may not be aware of all the messages we have received and stored as beliefs and prejudices. As a result, we may act coldly, disrespectfully, or even meanly toward certain groups although we have no conscious intention is to ignore or hurt them. Because beliefs and prejudices are ingrained, we can passively discriminate without even realizing it.

Lack of cultural awareness can have a significant impact on the counseling process as well. Not knowing or understanding a client’s culture can produce an enormous barrier to effective service; thus, counselors need to ask questions and listen actively to learn more about clients’ cultural beliefs, values, customs, and traditions. Remember that every client–Latino or not– has a unique cultural upbringing. Values and perspectives of two clients, even if from the same country, can differ significantly. Acceptance and respect for difference is key to successful interaction. Further, failure to attend to culture in a counseling setting constitutes not only poor, but also unethical practice and actually may be detrimental to the client.

In addition, providers should understand that values and beliefs are not static but rather, continually evolving. People change; therefore, cultures change as well. Likewise, cultural competence is an ongoing process. The willingness to dedicate time and energy to serve your clients with empathy and respect will make all the difference in counseling outcomes. Your Latino clients will certainly appreciate it.

Graduate programs play a large role in helping new counseling professionals develop cultural competence. First and foremost, employing a diverse, culturally competent faculty provides students with exposure to different points of view. The 2009 Standards of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP, 2009) promote diversity, equality, and inclusion in universities and ancillary educational institutions. It is my view that professors, teachers, counselors, social workers, and every single employee–including front end workers– in educational institutions should attend ongoing mandatory trainings to develop skills for interacting with students and visitors from diverse cultural backgrounds. Further, this practice should be expected in schools, community agencies, and organizations involved with human services. Since U.S. demographics are constantly changing, responsive providers and institutions would do well to modify outdated practices geared to homogenous, mainstream clientele.

One such responsive modification may result from the understanding that many Hispanics are not available for meetings or counseling sessions during regular business hours. A significant number of Latinos work into the late afternoon and evening, making it difficult to attend parent conferences or take a family member to a counseling session. Many fear losing their jobs if they miss work, and this could very well be the case. Being flexible and available after regular hours, or even weekends, may be convenient for the consumer and eventually render better results.

In addition, most Latino communities suffer from a general lack of information about mental health, a trend that does not appear to be changing. Outreach in the form of educational programs in schools, community groups, churches, and the like will help educate the community about the signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, alcoholism, personality disorders, and eating disorders, to name a few. Education is crucial to prevention, yet, unfortunately, many communities lack the financial resources or qualified staff to conduct preventive campaigns.

Maximum utilization of the limited available resources should include acknowledging the stigma associated with visiting a mental health professional. A widespread belief among Latinos is that others will think they are locos (crazy) if they make an appointment with a counselor or therapist. Similarly, many Latinos feel uncomfortable in counseling or therapy when they have to share personal experiences. “La ropa sucia se lava en casa” is a common Spanish expression that translates, “You wash your dirty clothes at home,” meaning that it is frowned up to disclose personal or family problems to strangers.

Proactive educational efforts regarding mental health for children and adolescents should also be a priority for service providers and community stakeholders, including school administrators and educators. This may not only help decrease the stigma associated with mental health concerns, but can also improve children’s behaviors and adaptive coping skills, particularly among recent arrivals to the U. S. Maladaptive behaviors seen in Latino children are often the combined product of genetic or biological components and environmental challenges; therefore, involving parents in preventive efforts is vital.  Explaining the importance of strong support systems within the immediate and extended family and providing information about local social organizations are productive means of ameliorating behavior problems.

When Latinos decide to seek help from counselors, they will most likely benefit as much as any other client as long as services are provided in a culturally appropriate manner (Sue, Zane, & Young, 1994). Creating an environment that clients perceive as non-threatening, informal, comfortable, personable, and familiar is a good start. Furthermore, confidentiality, as is commonly understood by most mental health service providers, is an unfamiliar concept for many new immigrants and should be thoroughly explained. Many Latinos also will have concerns about psychotropic medications and will need to discuss the physician’s recommendations for psychotropic medication. It is wise to remember, too, that an individual might invite the services of a curandero, in which case, counselors should prepare for the possibility of working alongside a folk healer.

It pays to remember that every client is the expert on his/her culture. Appropriate self-disclosure and questions about the client’s cultural heritage likely will enhance the counseling process. Allowing the client to share this information forges rapport and partnership in the counseling setting with the added benefit of teaching you about their beliefs, values, customs, and traditions. Pay close attention to the client’s first language and offer assistance (i.e., an interpreter) if s/he does not seem comfortable speaking English.  In addition, because Latinos may wait for advice from the counselor, a focus on reflecting feelings or meanings may have limited usefulness. More helpful is a more directive approach within boundaries of cultural and ethical appropriateness. Finally, it would not be unusual for a Hispanic client to share a small gift or prepare a dish for his or her counselor. Despite ethical standards, be forewarned that reluctance or refusal to accept a gift may be considered cold or rude.

I would like to end this chapter with a common Spanish saying: “La práctica hace al maestro,” which translates as, “Practice makes perfect.” It is impossible to learn all the customs and beliefs in Latino cultures; however, the more you interact with your clients and with people of diverse cultures in general, the more you will enlarge your cultural spectrum. Expose yourself to Latin culture by attending festivals, cultural events, health fairs, church services, graduations, baptisms, and social gatherings. You will develop a better understanding of how Latinos interact and behave. And, believe me, the great majority of us will appreciate it!

Strategies to Attract and Retain Bilingual/Bicultural Professionals

A large number of states currently lack bilingual professionals and clinicians. The following action plan can help community counseling agencies and schools increase their capacity to work with Spanish-speaking clients and students.

1) Alliance with Local Colleges and Universities

Agencies can develop relationships with local colleges and universities that offer courses and degrees in areas related to human services (i.e., psychology, social work, counseling, etc.). The agency may assign a staff person to coordinate regular meetings with faculty and to attend job fairs offered at the college/university. Agency and school staff can invite professors and students for visits in an attempt to increase awareness of the need for bilingual staff.

2) Contact Colleges and Universities in the U.S.

Agency administrators should continually send emails with information about their programs to colleges and universities across the nation, especially to regions with high Latino populations (i.e., Texas, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, New York, etc.), expressing the need to recruit bilingual/bicultural staff. Agencies may participate in online special groups and chat rooms to inform the audience about their services and the population with which they work.

3) Create Alliances in Latino Communities

Providers may participate in meetings offered by different organizations across their community (i.e., Latino Chambers of Commerce, non-profit Latino Organizations, Spanish-speaking faith-based organizations, etc.), describing their services geared to diverse populations. Agencies should demonstrate their commitment to minority families in the community by providing mental health education and training for leaders of community and faith-based organizations. Agency staff can also visit and coordinate regular meetings with local institutions in order to conduct outreach. Involving the Spanish-speaking media may be a key part of this process.

4) Offer Open Houses to Bilingual Candidates

Providers should have an open house every quarter to learn more about bilingual/bicultural newcomers to the area. To this end, they should establish alliances with the media, faith-based institutions, and other Latino organizations to inform the public about the open house events and the need to access the skills of bilingual arrivals.

5) Utilize Current Bilingual Staff’s Networks and Acquaintances

Providers should encourage existing qualified bilingual employees to search for other professionals in their sphere of influence, at places they visit, or among groups that may have qualified professionals interested in joining their workforce. Management in the community of providers as well as in schools should explain the need and importance of discovering a diverse group of qualified bilingual individuals to deliver services to limited-English proficient clients.

6) Incentives to Bilingual Staff

Providers can offer bonuses and incentives to bilingual candidates to lure them to their employ. Management in the community of providers and schools should consider other means of attracting and remunerating qualified bilingual professionals.

Finally, community agencies and schools should develop and implement a Cultural and Linguistic Competence Plan that delineates a specific vision, goals, and outcomes when working with Latino clients. Creating cultural and linguistic awareness and knowledge within an organization enhances recruitment opportunities for bilingual/bicultural employees.



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