September 15, 2011

As of 2011, Latinos are the largest minority group in the United States, outnumbering even African Americans. There are over 32 million Latinos in the United States, with an average age of 25 years. To put this into perspective, approximately one in eight people in the United States is Latino, which places the United States fifth among nations with the largest number of Latino inhabitants, behind Mexico, Spain, Colombia, and Argentina. Furthermore, within the last 5 years, 37.5% of the population growth in the United States was attributable to Latinos. Notably, the vast majority of this growth was not due to immigration but rather increased Latino births in the United States. in California, for instance, over 40% of births are Latino. For these reasons, learning more about the Latinos in the United States is essential. issues ranging from ethnic terms, nationalities, traditions, demographics, and health provide insight regarding this growing segment.

Whether to refer to this growing population as Latino, Hispanic, or Chicano can be confusing. The word Latino generally refers to someone who moved from Latin America to the United States or whose first language is Spanish. Hispanic refers to those whose descent is from Spain or Latin America. Most of the controversy regarding which term is politically correct stems from personal preference. Those who prefer Latino argue that it has a strong linguistic connection to Latin America, and thus encapsulates ethnic pride. On the other hand, those who find Latino less favorable argue that since Latino refers to those who moved to the United States from Latin America, it does not apply to those born in the United States. Conversely, avid supporters of the word Hispanic use it because it allows them to declare their Spanish decent and imply they were born in the United States. Those who find Hispanic less favorable argue it is a term coined by Anglos and thus lacks the same cultural depth as the word Latino. Nonetheless, many use both terms interchangeably because neither term is right or wrong. From time to time, regions will show a particular preference. For instance, currently, Latino is preferred in California while Hispanic is preferred in Florida and Texas. Adding to the list of choices is the word Chicano, another ethnic term that applies only to Mexican Americans living in the United States. The word Chicano is not only a word of ethnic pride but is also associated with certain political views that not every Mexican American may share and thus is not used by everyone in this group.

The term Latino or Hispanic encompasses a variety of nationalities that are often combined into one group or considered one nationality; however, this is an incorrect assumption. Latinos represent an array of different races, which include indians, black Latinos, whites, or mestizos, which is a combination thereof or of indian and European or black Latinos and European. Furthermore, there are over 20 different Latino nationalities which hail from different parts of the world such as Central, South, and North America, the Caribbean, Spain, and Puerto Rico. These nationalities are represented in the Latino population of the United States. Mexicans account for 66% of the Latino population, while Central and South America account for 14.5%, Puerto Ricans 9%, Cubans 4%, and other Latinos 6%. Despite political, social, and cultural differences among these different nationalities, the Spanish language and often religion tie them together. By and large, Catholicism has been the predominant religion in Latin

America; however, the Protestant Christian faith has made significant inroads.

Latino demographics by the U.S. Census supplies details on family, age, education, finances, and place of residence. Most Latino families have at least five persons and such large families tend to be Mexican. Also, remarkably, only 5% of the Latino population is over the age of 65 and over 35% is under the age of 18.

Even so, education among Latinos is very low. Less than 44% have a high school diploma, which indicates that at least two out of every five Latinos did not graduate from high school. Consequently, Latinos are more likely to work in service-related industries rather than in professional trades. Another result is that only 23% of Latinos earn over $35,000 and approximately 23% are living below the poverty level. Nonetheless, over 31% of Latinos continue to send money back to their country of origin. Furthermore, unemployment is substantially high among the Latinos at 6.8% compared to only 3.4% among non-Latinos.

Usually, Latinos live in the city or metropolitan area in regions such as the West, South, or the Northeast. Remarkably, California, Texas, New York, Florida, and Illinois account for 70% of all Latinos in the United States. Moreover, 45% of Latinos are geographically concentrated in only five cities: Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The Latino culture is well known for particular cultural traditions such as machismo, familismo, marianismo, and personalismo. Cultural traditions are values, beliefs, and ways of life of a particular group. At an early age these traditions are learned and often emulated in adulthood. Machismo has both positive and negative connotations but unfortunately, the media often only portrays the negative aspects. Machismo is observable in a man who takes charge, possesses sole authority for decision-making, and retains certain rights for himself and his sons. Since these characteristics are often synonymous with sexism in American culture, machismo is often considered ethically wrong in the United States. Fueling this negative sentiment are cases of machismo that lead to domestic violence. On the other hand, the positive quality of machismo is evident in how the men care and provide not only for their immediate but extended family as well. Machismo can also be traced in many Latino men’s pursuit to be good sons, fathers, and husbands.

Familismo is another cultural norm shared by the Latino community. The core of Latino society is the family. Generally, Latinos derive their identity, purpose, and sense of belonging from the family. A typical family nucleus includes the immediate family, the extended family, and other adopted family such as compadres, which are essentially the equivalent of godparents but with a much more active role. High esteem for the family leads a Latino to base his or her decision-making on what will benefit the family and its future. Members of the family are considered an extension of support and are expected to help the family progress forward. Loyalty, sacrifice, and hard work are further qualities engrained in familismo. As the cornerstone of the family, Latina women nurture, preserve, and keep the family connected with the extended family.

The idealization of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is known as marianismo. According to Catholicism, Mary is the perfect role model for all women and mothers. Thus, Latina women are encouraged to pursue the pureness of mind, body, and soul; generosity; and hard work and sacrifice for the benefit of their family. Unfortunately, in the past, this burden restricted the role of Latina women; however, marianismo has somewhat relaxed among modern Latina women, enabling them to become more integrated in the workforce, business, and other roles in society. Despite these subsiding burdens, certain qualities of marianismo remain strong such as the importance of family, the dignity with which a Latina must carry herself, and the respect she must command from men.

In addition, personalismo embodies the significance placed on interpersonal relationships. Latinos prize friendship, camaraderie, and hospitality. A level of confiaza, mutual trust, cultivated in a relationship is cherished and the opportunity to servir, to help someone, is an honor. Other attributes stemming from personalismo are respeto and dignidad. Respeto means respect and for Latinos it encompasses courtesy, humility, and obedience. Also, respect for elders is strongly enforced and dignified conduct communicates selfrespect. In addition, dignidad, dignity, highlights the importance of self-worth, which is often demonstrated by a hard work ethic.

A common phenomenon regarding the preservation or eroding of cultural traditions is referred to as acculturation. Acculturation is the result of keeping one’s culture intact while adapting to another culture. Varying degrees of acculturation include partial, complete, and unacculturation. Partial acculturation refers to Latinos who have been in the United States at least for 11 years and are bilingual but speak Spanish at home; this represents 59% of the Latino population.

Complete acculturation refers to Latinos who were born and raised in the United States and do not speak Spanish but identify with other Latino traditions, which accounts for 13% of the Latino population. In the United States, Latino traditions are easily preserved because of the close proximity of Latin America, the large number of Latinos in the United States, and the mainstream media, which keeps the music and culture popular. Lastly, a lack of acculturation refers to Latinos who were born outside of the United States and have spent little time in the United States, accounting for 28% of the population.

Significant health problems affect Latinos in the United States. These include HIV and AIDS, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, tuberculosis, and breast and cervical cancer.

Diabetes among Latina women has risen substantially, affecting over 25%. The number of deaths diabetes causes among Latina women has doubled in the last 30 years and now causes 33% of all their deaths. Risk factors which make Latina women susceptible to diabetes include genetics, obesity, impaired glucose resistance, and higher insulin resistance levels. While Mexicans in particular have higher incidences of glucose and insulin resistance, an alarming 46% of all Latina women are overweight. The health of the eyes and kidneys often deteriorate due to the debilitating effects of diabetes. Among Latina women compared to non-Hispanic white women, (a) retinopathy, an eye disease, is twice as high; (b) kidney disease leading to kidney failure is also twice as high; and (c) ketoacidosis which leads to diabetic coma is 50% higher. Moreover, vascular problems, which impede the flow of blood in the veins, are 7.6 times more likely to occur in Latinas. Further, an overwhelming four times as many Latinas will suffer from a stroke or heart disease due to diabetes. Since diabetes is more prevalent among Latina women, gestational diabetes is another cause of concern because it can lead to toxemia causing health problems for both the baby and mother.

In the United States, Latinos have been facing an HIV and AIDS crisis since 1983 when Latinos accounted for 14% of all AIDS cases. This crisis reached a critical level in 1999 when Latinos accounted for 20% of new HIV infections reported in the United States. Of the total new HIV infections among women in the United States, Latinos comprise 18%; Latinos account for 20% of the total new infections among men. In order for an HIV prevention program to be effective it must be tailored toward the different Latino cultures within the community. These different nationalities have varying customs, perceptions, and amounts of information which affect their risk behaviors. These risk behaviors affect the method of transmission such as injected drug use or unprotected sex among homosexuals, bisexuals, or heterosexuals.

Many of these preventable diseases are left untreated among Latinos due to lack of access to health care. Health care access includes information, screenings, basic health services, and medicines. Access to health care in rural areas for Latinos is difficult due to lack of transportation to medical centers. Affordability of health care services is another barrier for Latinos, especially for those who do not have health insurance. However, the primary barrier to health care access is language. If a Latino cannot communicate or understand English, he or she will be unable to utilize the health care systems and often does not have information regarding available health services. Furthermore, a health provider or center that is not culturally sensitive may make Latinos feel uncomfortable, causing them to not return.

Latinos are the most likely ethnic group to not have health insurance. Accordingly, only 43% Latinos have health insurance, compared to 73% of Caucasians. Often this is because the employer does not offer a health insurance plan and, even if they did, a Latino will usually waive the benefit because it is too expensive. An additional fear that deters Latinos from enrolling in a health plan is that it may affect their ability to obtain citizenship. However, Latinos who do not qualify for Medicare or Medicaid may still be able to receive care under the Hill-Burton Act. This federal law allocates money to hospitals to provide health care to persons without health insurance. Furthermore, there are local programs which will provide free breast and cervical screenings.

In conclusion, Latino traditions of family, respect, and hard work are values which can benefit every community. However, in order to improve education, jobs, and health care for communities across the United States, Latinos must be an integral part of the solution. Likewise, health problems such as diabetes, HIV and AIDS, and lack of health insurance among Latinos must be addressed in order for our communities to be healthy.

Latinos have changed the demographics of the United States dramatically. U.S. Census statistics indicate that Latinos are no longer a minority group that can be ignored. Hence, Latinos are not just a fundamental part of the United States’ past and future but a significant part of our present.

SEE ALSO: Access to health care, Acculturation, Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, Agricultural work, Cancer, Cardiovascular disease, Diabetes, Health insurance, Immigrant health, Marianismo, Rural health

Suggested Reading

  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) (2000). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention. (2000, July). Protecting the health of Latino communities; Combating HIV/AIDS.
  • Krauss, N. A., & Weinick, R. M. (2000, November). Access to care: Lack of English ability creates a substantial barrier to Hispanic children’s access to health care. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
  • Manduley, D. (2000, August). Diversity at work. Latin American and Caribbean.
  • Monheit, A. C., & Vistes, J. P. (2000). Health care costs and financing: Gap in health insurance coverage for Hispanic men widened between 1987 and 1996. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
  • Therrien, M., & Ramirez, R. R. (2000, March). The Hispanic population in the United States. Current Population Reports, U.S. Census Bureau.
  • United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2001, April). Diabetes and Hispanic American women.
  • United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2001, May). Health care access and Hispanic American women.

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