Hispanic Americans

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Editor: Yo Jackson
Date: 2006
Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology
Publisher: Sage Publications, Inc.
Document Type: Culture overview; Topic overview
Pages: 7
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Hispanic Americans (also known as Latinos/Latinas) are individuals whose ancestors came from Latin American countries, such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and other South and Central American countries, such as Colombia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Hispanic Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic minority groups in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Hispanic Americans are now the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, representing a total of 35,305,818 Americans or 12.5% of the total population. Hispanic Americans represent a very heterogeneous group of people in terms of race, ethnicity, region, and socioeconomic status. As a group, however, Hispanic Americans tend to be younger than other Americans (median age is 26 years), and the majority are located in metropolitan areas. Although Hispanic Americans live throughout the United States, the majority are concentrated in a number of regions and states, including the Southwest (e.g., California, Arizona), Texas, Florida, Illinois, and the Northeast (e.g., New York, New Jersey). For a variety of reasons, Hispanic Americans tend to be overrepresented in the areas of poverty and unemployment and underrepresented in the areas of education and high income.


Hispanic Americans have lived in the region that is now the United States for more than 500 years. The ancestors of today's Hispanic Americans were present when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World on the island of Hispaniola, which today comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. From the start, European settlers and indigenous people intermarried, giving birth to the mestizo culture that is found among most Hispanic American ethnic groups. The European conquest involved oppressive forces of enslavement, persecution, religious conversion, and the overall disempowerment of the indigenous people of the Americas by thePage 225  |  Top of Article conquistadores. Part of the process involved the extensive destruction and extinction of several indigenous groups, such as the Taino Indians of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Island and many native tribes and nations in what is today the southwest United States. The enslavement of people of African descent was also a part of this process and led to the intermingling of African cultures with European and indigenous groups; these groups became known as criollos and mulattos.

During the early 1800s, many Latin American countries fought for and won independence from their European colonizers, and the newly established countries created constitutional democracies. However, during this same period, the United States began to practice a policy of expansion known as Manifest Destiny, annexing portions of Florida, Texas, and the Southwest. At times, U.S. expansionist policies led to overt hostilities and warfare with the new Latin American democracies. As a result of these events, many Hispanic Americans were forcibly reclassified as "aliens" in their own land (such as Mexican Americans in 1848) or recolonized as noncitizens in U.S. territories (Puerto Ricans in 1898, although they were later made citizens in 1917). Migration and immigration continue to play a major role today among Hispanic Americans; many came to the United States for a variety of reasons, including political asylum, better jobs, and education. Although the majority of Hispanic Americans are U.S. residents, nearly one-half are immigrants.


Because of the unique and complex histories of Hispanic Americans, this large population has often clashed internally over the proper term by which they wish to be referred. According to Lillian Comas-Diaz, Hispanics are still "in search of a name."

The term Hispanic was created by the U.S. Census Bureau so that people of Spanish origin could designate themselves as such in the 1970 Census. This term is based on the Spanish historical and cultural origins of Hispanics. The term is considered controversial, even offensive, today because it represents only a part of the ethnic and racial heritages that have influenced the history and culture of Hispanic Americans. Further, the term is viewed as excluding Hispanic Americans who are of indigenous or African descent.

Latino/a is currently the preferred term to refer to people of Latin American heritage. The term is seen as more inclusive of the racial and ethnic diversity that make up Hispanic Americans. The term Latino/a represents the least common denominator among all peoples of Latin America and recognizes the romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French) that are the native languages of most Latin Americans. Today, the term has come to represent the common languages, values, and history that Hispanic Americans share while living in the United States. Because much of the Spanish language uses masculine and feminine connotations, the combined terms Latino/a or Latina/o are used to represent both genders (e.g., the National Latina/o Psychological Association).

Spanish people is a term that is sometimes used in the United States to indiscriminately refer to anyone who speaks Spanish. The term is both imprecise and inappropriate because it represents a group that is much larger than Hispanic Americans and includes people from other Latin American countries, the Caribbean, and Spain.

Americano/a is a Spanish term that is generally used to represent those who are not of Latin American heritage. However, the term has been used recently to represent Latinos/as living in the United States. The term, like Latino/a, also conveys a sense of commonality because it is based on language and traditions that bind Hispanic Americans together.


Hispanic Americans are a very heterogeneous group, coming from several different countries, though primarily from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. A smaller percentage come from other South and Central American countries, such as Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama and from the Caribbean, including the Dominican Republic.

Mexican Americans

Mexican Americans, also known as Chicanos/as, are the largest ethnic group of Hispanic Americans, representing more than 20 million individuals and approximately 64% of all Hispanic Americans. The majority of Mexican Americans live in Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado and trace their ancestry to an area that was originally Mexican territory in the southwest United States. As a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848, Mexican AmericansPage 226  |  Top of Article came to hold a unique status, being both early settlers and the largest group of new arrivals ever. That is, overnight, Mexican Americans were deemed to be aliens in a land they had owned and lived on for many centuries; property and ranchos that had been in their families for generations were turned over to the United States.

Further military strife between the United States and Mexico continued into the 20th century. As a result of the defeat of the Mexican people during this time, poverty, disrespect, and economic oppression set in. Mexicans and descendant Mexican Americans were forced to take low-wage and temporary jobs on farms and in factories. Immigration across the United States–Mexico border continues today, as it has for many generations, affected by cycles of economic downturn on either side and the need for inexpensive labor and driven by the large, continuous border that the two countries shared.

Mexican Americans have deep roots in the region of the United States that was once Mexican territory. Recently arrived Mexican immigrants often already have long historical ties to the Southwest. Journalist Juan Gonzales, for example, recounted the migratory circuit between Mexico's Baja California and U.S. California, which was used by the same extended family of miners and farmers for nearly two hundred years. Issues of acculturation and immigration are made more complex by this circuitous generational migratory history.

Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans are the second largest ethnic group of Hispanic Americans, numbering more than 3 million and representing 11% of the Latino/a population. Puerto Ricans have a much shorter history of contact with the United States, though they share a similar history of conquest, extinction, and enslavement with other Hispanic Americans. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for nearly 400 years until the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the island became a U.S. territory. The political status of Puerto Ricans is one of ambiguity and contradiction. For example, Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917 and are eligible to be drafted for military service. However, Puerto Ricans do not pay federal taxes, nor do they vote; thus, they have neither taxation nor representation in the U.S. government. Puerto Ricans come and go from the mainland United States and Puerto Rico, often in search of better-paying jobs. A major migration of Puerto Ricans occurred shortly after the end of World War II until 1960, during which time more than 1 million Puerto Ricans moved to the United States. Many settled in the northeast United States. Today, nearly as many Puerto Ricans live in the United States (3 million) as in Puerto Rico (4 million). As U.S. citizens, however, Puerto Ricans have suffered none of the economic and psychological effects of immigration that stem from being an undocumented worker. Nevertheless, Puerto Ricans have had a tense relationship with the United States, stemming in part from Puerto Rico's use as a current military testing site. Another area of tension today is the island's unclear political relationship with the United States government. Puerto Ricans remain split regarding whether to move toward statehood and independence or to remain a commonwealth.


Cubans are the third largest group of Hispanic Americans (1.5 million or 5% of Hispanic Americans) and the most recently immigrated of the three largest ethnic groups. Cuba shares a similar history with Puerto Rico. It was briefly a territory of the United States after the 1898 Spanish-American War until 1902, when it became an independent country. Beginning with the Cuban Revolution in 1959, several waves of Cuban immigrants made their way to the shores of the United States, most commonly settling in Florida (primarily Miami and Tampa). The early waves of Cuban refugees were typically wealthy and well-educated, of European descent, and from the middle to upper socioeconomic classes. Beginning with the Marielito boatlift in 1980, however, poorer Cubans of mixed racial backgrounds began immigrating as well. The most recent wave of Cuban refugees, the balseros of the mid-1990s, were made up of Cubans who floated on makeshift rafts and rowboats in an attempt to enter the United States illegally. Unlike previous waves of Cuban immigrants, who were embraced by the U.S. political system as political refugees of an enemy communist government, the balseros were viewed with hostility and suspicion. With the Cold War over by 1994, the United States began to view Cuban immigrants with the same feelings of dread and fear as other immigrants.

Because of the wealth and education of the first waves of Cuban immigrants, this ethnic group had the resources to establish one of the first bilingual education programs in the country. The area known as LittlePage 227  |  Top of Article Havana in Miami, Florida, became a major cultural and economic center for Cubans, developing a loyal market that often hired workers and purchased goods from their own community. Today, an entire generation of Cuban Americans has been raised in the United States; their only experiences of Cuba are the lively stories told to them at family gatherings. Returning to Cuba is a politically and financially difficult process to manage, as well as an emotionally evocative experience. Many Cuban Americans still have family members living in Cuba whom they have not seen for years, even decades. Although there is still much pride in Cuban heritage among the newer generations, acculturation into Cuban or Hispanic American culture is usually mixed with Anglo or mainstream American culture. One result has been the evolution of the Spanish language to reflect a mix of English and Spanish idioms, often referred to as Spanglish.


Dominicans immigrated to the United States more recently; they come from the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, which shares an island with Haiti. Dominicans are typically racially mixed, sharing both African and European roots represented in a variety of phenotypes. Between 1961 and 1985, almost 500,000 Dominicans legally immigrated to the United States and Puerto Rico. Most have settled in the Northeast, particularly in New York City; Dominicans now make up the second largest ethnic group of Hispanic Americans in the Northeast. Many Dominicans came to the United States to search for jobs and a better living, but they also migrated in response to political unrest in their country. Though most Dominicans are generally better educated and more adept at business, many have experienced racism and discrimination in the United States, including discrimination by other Hispanic Americans. Today, Dominicans are among the most politically active Hispanic Americans.

Central Americans

Central Americans come from Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica. Although Central Americans have been immigrating to the United States for some time, during the 1980s, the number of Central American immigrants increased as a result of devastating civil wars and economic crises in the region. In addition to having low skills and little formal education, many Centroamericanos have suffered the traumatic effects of having survived a war. Central Americans are greatly influenced by their indigenous roots as well as their African and European heritages. Today, settlements of Central Americans in major U.S. cities rival those of many Central American cities, and they have helped to redraw the Hispanic American mosaic beyond the three main groups that are typically discussed.

South Americans

South Americans come from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Because of its greater distance from the United Status, a different relationship has evolved between the United States and the South American countries. Much of their relations have been driven by economics, military training and agreements, and other forces; no South American country has ever been colonized by the United States. Although extreme poverty exists in South America, many of the South Americans who immigrate to the United States tend to be wealthy and educated, seeking greater resources or entrepreneurial opportunities.


Despite the heterogeneous nature of both their history and culture, Hispanic Americans share a number of cultural values. The most important value is familismo, the belief in maintaining close connections with family. Hispanic Americans display a willingness to sacrifice at the individual level in service to the family, and there is a shared sense of responsibility within Hispanic American families that is marked by specific role responsibilities for the mother, father, son, daughter, and abuelo/abuela (grandparents). Even Hispanic American families who have lived in the United States for several generations and become acculturated into U.S. society exhibit fairly strong values of familismo. Though the customs surrounding familismo may have changed (e.g., young people may date without the presence of an older relative), new customs have arisen that continue to express this core value (e.g., siblings may live together or close to each other while attending college away from home and family).

As a result of the increased availability of jobs and education to all members of the family, along with recurring migratory cycles, changes can be seen in thePage 228  |  Top of Article structure of Hispanic American families, which have traditionally been headed by the father. Examples of these newer family structures include (1) single-parent familias, who may face issues of poverty; (2) bicultural familias who cross generations; and (3) immigrant familias, who may need to deal with acculturative stress and trauma.

Hispanic Americans typically have strong extended family networks, and they are often in close contact with uncles and aunts (tios/tias), cousins, and non-blood relatives, such as godparents (padrinos or compadres/comadres). Godparents may serve as substitute parents at times, and they are expected to be a part of major family activities.

Personalismo refers to the value of positive social skills and relationships, which is considered an integral part of the familistic framework of Hispanic Americans. It is common to have close relationships with most Hispanic American family members, friends, and other relations that are marked by warmth, humor, and friendliness. Agencies that serve large Latino/a populations should be aware of this essential core value, making sure that personnel are well-trained to greet clients in a personal manner (use of a personal names, brief small talk).

Spirituality is another core value that is central to Hispanic Americans. Although most Latinos/as follow the Roman Catholic religion, it is important to understand that regardless of their religion, spiritual beliefs are likely to dominate the worldview of Hispanic Americans. An outgrowth of these strong religious beliefs is fatalismo, the belief that what is fated to happen will occur despite individuals' efforts, and events must simply be endured. Part of the practice of spirituality among Hispanic Americans is the adoration of certain religious figures (e.g., the Virgin of Guadalupe among Mexican Americans), the observance of special days of recognition throughout the year, the presence of altars or religious figurines in the home, and daily prayer. Indigenous religions such as Santeria continue to be practiced by many in both overt and covert ways; many of these religions use indigenous healers, such as curanderos. The values of marianismo and machismo refer to women's spiritual orientation and gender role to endure the hardships of life and to men's duty to take care of their family and carry on the family name, respectively.


As a result of generational and cyclical patterns of immigration and migration, Hispanic Americans must deal with the clash of cultural worldviews that stems from interactions with one's own ethnic group, other Hispanic Americans, and mainstream U.S. society. Hispanic Americans differ from one another in their degree of acculturation. A number of acculturation models have been proposed, but most describe a process of interaction between individuals and various cultural groups, particularly one's own cultural group and the dominant society.

Acculturation depends on several components, including the degree of identification with one's culture of origin, the importance of contact with other cultures, and the balance between U.S. culture and one's culture of origin. Acculturation is a dynamic process that changes over time and place in terms of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Factors that contribute to acculturation include age at migration and education. Aspects that are typically measured to gauge one's acculturation into the dominant culture and retention of the culture of origin include language usage, customs, family style, cognitive style, coping style, emotional and interpersonal behaviors, and political awareness. Typically, acculturation is conceived as a continuum ranging from overall assimilation to the dominant culture, to retention of the original culture, to the adoption of both or multiple cultural worldviews (i.e., bicultural). Although most scholars conceptualize acculturation as an all-or-nothing process, others believe that it is possible to be differentially acculturated across several domains. Typically, multicultural psychologists emphasize bicultural orientation as the most adaptive and link it with psychological health factors.

According to psychologists Julie and David Smart, variables that uniquely affect acculturation for Hispanic Americans include (1) discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity, (2) emphasis on social and family ties, (3) illegal immigration, (4) geographic proximity, and (5) the legacy of war within one's own country and with the United States. Many instruments are available to assess acculturation among Hispanic Americans (some with ethnic group specificity), such as the Acculturation Scale for Mexican Americans–II, by Israel Cuéllar and colleagues, and the Behavioral Acculturation Scale for Cubans, by Jose Szapocznik and associates. Other measures are more generic, such as the Abbreviated Multidimensional Acculturation Scale by Maria Cecilia Zea and colleagues.

Integral to the acculturation process is the experience of acculturative stress, which arises from thePage 229  |  Top of Article movement from one cultural context to another. According to Julie and David Smart, acculturative stress is often characterized by three aspects: (1) lifelong duration, (2) pervasiveness, and (3) intensity. Individuals may experience acculturative stress in stages. A common portrait of acculturative stress among Hispanic immigrants may go something like this: Initially, there is relief and joy about being in a new country and having new hope. However, multiple stressors associated with language barriers, finding a job, and other important resources may lead to post-decision regret. Perhaps the most significant aspect of acculturative stress for Hispanic Americans is the loss of social support in the form of family, which can lead to pervasive feelings of anxiety and loss of control, affecting their ability to cope with challenges. Treatment can help Hispanic Americans focus on finding new resources such as employment, church, job-skills training, and language skills, as well as others who speak their native language. Rebuilding a sense of community and family is essential to mitigate the effects of acculturative stress.


Hispanic Americans face a number of challenges with regard to education: Only 54% graduate high school, and only 8.5% graduate college or university. At 50%, Hispanic Americans have the highest high school drop-out rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States (70% of these drop out by the 10th grade). A history of racism and segregation of Hispanic Americans has played out in the school system. Hispanic Americans, like other racial and ethnic minorities, have often been steered away from college-oriented programs.

Psychological concerns that are related to these harsh educational realities include the misuse of high-stakes testing by psychologists, including the incorporation of standardized assessment protocols that are unvalidated on Hispanic American populations (alternatively, Latino/a educators and psychologists have proposed using nonstandardized assessments to mitigate the misuse of assessment); school system tracking; and the continued use of college entrance exams by admissions personnel, despite evidence that these exams have poor predictive ability for Hispanic Americans and other people of color. Acculturative stress and culture shock are issues for many Hispanic American students, as are depression and anxiety. Given their lack of educational resources and role models, Hispanic American students may lack the motivation to succeed in school; the development of positive and realistic academic expectations is a critical need for many. As a result of oppressive historical forces, many Hispanic Americans may lack the self-esteem necessary for school achievement; there is evidence demonstrating that positive self-esteem and Latino/a identity can be a source of pride and motivation to succeed in education.

The identity struggles that characterize adolescent youth are more complex for Hispanic Americans because they must learn to adjust and develop cultural competency for a number of settings and cultural groups. Sex role socialization and conflicts may further complicate identity development and acculturation. To create effective counseling and educational interventions, it is important to examine programs and schools that have been effective in helping Hispanic students, such as the active involvement of parents, teachers, and administrators.



Historically, psychology has played a negative role in misdiagnosing Hispanic Americans. Culturally appropriate behaviors, such as those exhibited in a familistic orientation, for example, have been misdiagnosed as enmeshment by those who are unfamiliar with Hispanic American cultural values. Clinicians who are not trained in cultural awareness may miss important culture-bound syndromes such as ataques de nervios, a type of anxiety and anger response found among Hispanic American women. A culture-centered clinical interview, as well as culturally oriented assessment techniques (see next section), have been developed to build trust with clients and to deal with potential resistance to therapy.

With respect to Hispanic American students, the following alternative-assessment approach has been suggested by educators Ann del Vecchio, Cyndee Gustke, and Judith Wilde:

  • Define the purpose clearly.
  • Gather information over time.
  • Assess broad progress in multiple skills, such as conceptual understanding, problem solving, and reflective thinking.Page 230  |  Top of Article
  • Focus on the process, not just drills.
  • Integrate diversity, such as language and learning styles (e.g., cooperative, rather than individualistic or competitive).
  • Foster active student and parent involvement.
  • Create a climate of trust.
  • Use anecdotal records and observations, classroom products, and checklists.


Counseling and therapy with Hispanic Americans should incorporate historical, cultural, and language considerations. Effective strategies for use with Hispanic Americans have been identified by psychologists Azara Santiago-Rivera, Patricia Arredondo, and Maritza Gallardo-Cooper. In the early stages, incorporating personalismo and related values, such as respeto (respect), dignidad (dignity), simpatia (pleasantness), confianza (trust and familiarity), and cariño (endearing qualities) is essential to building a trusting working relationship. Other strategies that might be incorporated include telephoning clients prior to the first appointment; engaging in small talk (platicar) as a way to engage the client; educating clients about the counseling process and structure and issues of confidentiality; utilizing apologetic terms prior to asking direct questions (e.g., "Excuse me, but I need to ask some difficult questions"); and accommodating language preferences, such as the use of translators.

The middle to late stages of therapy and counseling may incorporate microskills that are common to most psychology training programs, as well as a number of culture-centered techniques, such as the innovative storytelling cuento approach developed by Robert Malgady and his colleagues. Language switching (from English to Spanish and back to English) should also be observed, particularly for emotional content.

Group- or family-oriented methods have been found to be highly effective, particularly in light of the collectivistic orientation of most Hispanic Americans' cultural frameworks. Jose Szapocznik and his colleagues in Miami, Florida, pioneered an innovative family intervention technique, the bicultural effectiveness training model, which sought to minimize generational tensions arising from acculturative stress by externalizing them to the environment. Lillian Comas-Diaz and her colleagues in Washington, D.C., developed the Latino transactional model based on cultural values and the unique interpersonal style used by many Hispanic Americans, such as indirect problem resolution. Such models contextualize interventions within a cultural framework that is congruent with most Hispanic Americans, and thus they have a greater likelihood of effectiveness.

Group therapy has been used effectively with Hispanic Americans, for both men and women. However, given the strong gender role socialization of Hispanic Americans, maintaining groups that are men only or women only will go further toward increasing trust and easing communication, increasing the overall effectiveness of the group strategy.

—Marie L. Miville


Comas-Diaz, L. (2001). Hispanics, Latinos or Americanos: The evolution of identity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 7, 115–120.

Garcia, E. E. (2001). Hispanic education in the United States: Raices y alas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Garcia, J. G., & Zea, M. C. (1997). Psychological interventions and research with Latino populations. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Gonzalez, J. (2000). A history of Latinos in America: Harvest of empire. New York: Viking Press.

Gonzalez, M. L., Huerta-Macias, A., & Tinajero, J. V. (1998). Educating Latino students: A guide to successful practice. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

Padilla, A. M. (1995). Hispanic psychology: Critical issues in theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Santiago-Rivera, A., Arredondo, P., & Gallardo-Cooper, M. (2002). Counseling Latinos y la familia: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Slavin, R. E., & Calderon, M. (2001). Effective programs for Latino students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Smart, J. F., & Smart, D. W. (1995). Acculturative stress: The experience of Hispanic immigrants. Counseling Psychologist, 23, 25–42.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3470000126