« Solution Focused Therapy | Main | December 2011 Reflections »

December 13, 2011

The Effects of Familismo on First Generation Latino Adolescents

When families immigrate to the United States, they are often hopeful and excited to start a new life. However, many face problems and pressures at both the personal and societal level. Each person must make conscious decisions of what new activities to engage in and how much s/he should immerse her/himself in the dominant culture. Acculturation, which is the retention of native customs and life style and the adaptation to a new culture, can cause personal and familial stress as the family changes at different rates and has different ideas about how much they should immerse in a new way of life and whether or not they should hold onto or relinquish native customs (Phinney et al. 2002). Acculturation is particularly stressful for first generation adolescents as they struggle to fit in with peers who may be of the dominant culture, but also because adolescences is time in which people explore who they are.

In recent years, the amount of Latinos entering the United States has increased drastically. The negative stigma of illegal immigration is affecting the Latino population as a whole, and race and socioeconomic status has everything to do with it. Little is said about the Canadians or Irish entering the United States illegally. This is likely due to the fact that Canadians are privileged in being Caucasian, and English speaking. The Latino population is one of the most oppressed groups and is often discriminated against in the United States.

Living in the United States as a first generation Latino adolescent can be a particularly difficult experience, as this group of immigrants must face discrimination each day at school for uncontrollable factors such as race and socioeconomic differences. However they also face language barriers and differences in family structure. As this population reaches puberty and face a time of great personal change, they face many societal pressures while wrestling with the question of how much to adapt and conform to society while also holding onto their own customs, culture, and beliefs.
Acculturation can be positive because it leads to feelings of belonging in one’s society, but it can also lead to alienation from family and community and it can lead to increased pressure to fit in with peers. For example, research by Adam et al. (2007) found that highly acculturated Latino teens were more likely to have sexual intercourse at an earlier age, followed by Caucasian Americans, and then less acculturated Latinos.

Family Structure based on Familismo

According to Altamirano (2011), one unique cultural concepts in the Mexican community include the idea of familismo. Familismo is the importance of family cohesion, and is often tied to machismo, which is a patriarchal family structure and a belief in traditional sex roles. Families that are less acculturated tend to place more importance on the familismo. Her research also indicates that a lack of acculturation can be utilized as a protective factor for the family because it minimizes the negative consequences of acculturation. Some of these negative consequences include dating violence (Galvan et al. 2007), suicidal behavior(Goldston et al. 2008), substance abuse (Okamato et al. 2009) and teen pregnancy (Adam et al. 2007).
Familismo is considered to be one of the positive factors in Latino families because parents are more involved in the children’s lives and often require their youth to bring friends and partners home for their approval (Altamirano 2011). This family involvement keeps adolescents accountable and encourages them to rely on their family. Familismo also instills the idea of helping other members of the family and the importance of being an accountable and productive member of the family (FAADA RADAR 2011). Familismo places importance on respect, honesty, and making decisions together for the benefit of all family members.

Research by Aretakis (2011) also suggests that first generation immigrants have more academic success than second and third generation counterparts. While this may seem to be a paradox, the role of familismo and a strong family foundation facilitated academic achievement. Aretakis attributes this to the family’s idea of the American Dream and a better future, which is why many people immigrate to the United States. Families who told their adolescent stories about their own school struggles had even greater academic efficacy. This collaboration between parents and youth enhances the views and tightens the bonds between family members.

The concept of the familismo tends to slow down the process of acculturation in the dominant society because members of the family are more often relying on each other than their peers. However, this concept is usually tied to machismo. Based on the culture, history, and Catholic faith of Latinos, most families follow this form of patriarchy within the family (FAADA RADAR 2011). The idea of the father or eldest male being the head of the household leads to stigmatized sex roles as the male becomes the sole decision-maker and the bread-winner. The role of the wife is to listen to her husband and takes care of the home and children. While machismo has positive aspects, such as the father striving to be the best possible father and husband and providing for his family, it has negative outcomes as well. For example, machismo is related to less help-seeking behavior and a belief that males are superior to females. This idea of male superiority can sometimes lead women to keep silent about abusive relationships or feelings of inferiority and lack of control.
The Problem of Acculturating at Different Rates within a Unit
When asked about desires for the future, less acculturated youth related their wants and needs tied to familismo (Altamirano 2011).

More acculturated teens tended to deviate from the familismo values. In less acculturated families, the familismo is a strong ideal in which the family strives. However, problems arise within families and couples when one person begins to acculturate at a faster rate than the other. And there does seem to be trends in rate of acculturation. Findings by Phinney et al. (2002) suggest that first generation males who were less educated maintain the most traditional sex roles and attitudes for machismo when compared to later generations. Also, women who were more acculturated held more egalitarian sex role beliefs. Galvan et al. (2007) suggests that as families continue to reside in the United States, they face more and more acculturative stressors.
These acculturative stressors include family acculturation conflicts (such as gender roles) and conflicted ethnic identity. Adolescent Latino immigrants begin to observe their non-immigrant peers and notice the different types of family structures and relationships, and they start to question their own families and selves. This questioning can often lead to conflict within the home. This in turn leads to identity questions, such as: Who am I? Am I an American? Do I have a voice in my family? Should I?

Life can get even more complicated when the female begins to acculturate at a faster rate than her male counterpart. Much dating violence between adolescent Latino couples occurs when the female begins to acculturate and achieve independence, because the male feels that this is an attack of machismo (Altamirano 2011). Also, disapproval of dating violence and reporting dating violence was more common among highly acculturated Latinos compared to those who were less acculturated. Also, females who acculturate faster than others report feelings of hopelessness and suicide ideation because of the stress of adapting to an individualistic society when coming from a familismo upbringing and the stress of different rates of acculturation within the family (Goldston et al. 2008).

This phenomenon occurs when females begin to observe non-immigrants and realize that the female can attend college, begin a career, and attain success just like a male. These new ideas seem like an attack to the male, because in machismo, the male is central and necessary. So, if a woman no longer needs a man, then he often feels worthless and unappreciated, leading to stress within the family. This can also cause unrest within the familismo because there may be two dominant people in the family, and the others may not be accepting of this change.

There are also many adjustment discrepancies between parents and adolescents when someone in the family begins to acculturate more quickly than others. According to Goldson et al. (2008), Latino youth often face structural and cultural barriers when trying become a part of dominant society. Non-immigrant peers may not socialize with Latino youth based on language differences, racism, or parental views of associating with oppressed populations due to stereotypes based on illegal immigration. Structural barriers may include inability to obtain legal, medical, or financial assistance if a family is undocumented, and difficulty keeping up in schools that do not offer bilingual education. It is also difficult for Latino families to obtain family therapy to work through problems because many therapists do not take familismo into account and counsel clients in ways that include this important way of life. Also, the father may have feelings of loss of machismo and pride at needing outside assistance and resent the counseling.

Why is this Important for Social Work?

Understanding the acculturation of first generation Latino adolescents is absolutely necessary in today’s society. As the amount of Latino families entering the United States increases each year, it is important for social workers to understand how Latino immigration is unique because of the unique cultural beliefs of this population. Many Latino families may resist seeking help and be resistant to therapy once there because of loss of pride. Latino families pride themselves on familismo and taking care of the families problems within the family. Outsiders are not welcome in the familismo, so seeing a social worker would already be viewed a personal failure to members of the family. Social workers need to take this into consideration and assist the family in working through and solving their own problems instead of giving advice and attempting to place themselves in the shoes of family members.

It is also important for a social worker to observe the family’s view of machismo. Since many families place the father or eldest male as the dominant person in the family, it is important for social workers to recognize this and respect it. It is not the social worker’s role to acculturate the family and change their dynamics and beliefs. Social workers should certainly help the family communicate with one another and promote equality, but it is imperative that the social worker respects the family’s values of machismo in order to maintain respect and trust with the clients. Machismo has positive implications, such as pride and looking out for the family by the dominant male, so these strengths can be enhanced through therapy instead of trying to break down the family’s structure and views.

Finally it is important for social workers to be able to observe how acculturated each family member is when working with them. Members of the family will be facing different stressors based on their level of acculturation, so the best way to assist is to learn who is moving at quicker paces than others. This information, along with information about acculturation, can be shared with the family in order to open communication between members. This will help parents and children learn what each other is experiencing and can strengthen their familismo bond while also allowing each member to be a part of the dominant society, if that is their desire. Family is important, and if a social worker can help a family to realize that they can acculturate but also maintain familismo, then the family will be able to benefit from each other’s care and companionship but also feel like they fit into dominant culture as well.
The Biopsychosocial Dimension

As in most aspects of social work, the issue of familismo on first generation Latino Immigrants can be viewed from the Biopsychosocial dimension. The biological approach is relevant as Latino adolescents deal with many health care issues. According to Cepeda (2010), Latino males are three times more likely than white males to contract HIV, and Latino females are five times more likely than white females. Cepeda suggests Latinos are in great health when they first immigrate to the United States, but their health declines after acculturation. This is often due to substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and obesity. These issues in the Latino community are based on the familismo and machismo views of taking care of everything within the family and relying on the father-figure instead of an outside source. Research shows that there is often less help-seeking (medically) in less acculturated adolescents. An adolescent’s knowledge that s/he may not be able to receive adequate health care due to the previously mentioned factors, along with immigration status and a possible lack of documentation and language barriers, can be a great stressor for the adolescent and the family.

Similarly, less acculturated Latino adolescents are also less likely to seek help for Psychological issues. Once again, the reason for this is often due to the familismo and machismo. However, many adolescents face great psychological stressors. Much stress is caused by the question of identity, the family structure, and how much to acculturate. Based on the stress that Latino youth face, this is the second highest group to engage in suicidal behavior (Goldston 2008). Clearly, social workers need to find new ways of helping the Latino population and to do so in a way that incorporates familismo.

The social dimension is more difficult to address at an individual level. Current immigration policies in the United States make obtaining Medical and Psychological care difficult, but they also affect other social aspects as well. For example, many schools do not have strong programs for Spanish speaking students and require that they quickly learn English in order to engage in school work rather than integrating Spanish into the curriculum. Taking large amounts of time to learn English takes away from learning other subjects and often leaves students behind in lower level classes. If students are highly acculturated but are in lower level classes, they will likely engage in other activities that encourage substance abuse and sexual intercourse at a young age. As mentioned previously, this is not the case for less acculturated adolescents. This may negatively or positively affect females who are less acculturated. They may place less importance on school because their aspirations are not as high because of machismo views, or they might do very well in school because of the support from home based on familismo. Nevertheless, policies such as forcing social workers to report undocumented immigrants negatively affect many Latino families.


Living in the United States as a first generation Latino immigrant is difficult for a variety of reasons. Youth, who are already searching for their identity, must now add the role of immigrant and minority to their perception of self. Latino youth face discrimination based on race, language, and customs such as familismo and machismo. They have more difficulty obtaining biological, psychological, and social assistance because of their customs and the oppressing policies that the United States enforces. Acculturating has both positive and negative effects on the individual and the family, and it is quite difficult to mediate between family members because of different views on acculturation and how that affects familismo. Social workers need to become more knowledgeable about Latino culture in order to support the family and help them mediate their own way without forcing acculturation or dismissing their customs. There is so much social turmoil being raised in the media and by oppressed populations in recent weeks, that now is the time for change.  


Adam, M. B., McGuire, J. K., Walsh, M., Basta, J., & LeCroy, C. (2007). Acculturation as a predictor of the onset of sexual intercourse among Hispanic and white teens. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41,5.
Altamirano, B. (2011). Effects of acculturation and gender of Mexican American teen’s perception of
dating violence prevention programs. Arizona State University Libraries.
Aretakis, M. T. (2011). Immigration, acculturation, and academic attitudes and performance among Latino adolescents.
Cepeda, E. J. (2010). Latino acculturation: A paradox that points to the health system’s failings. The Oregonian.
FADAA Radar (2011). Just the facts. Regional Alcohol and Drug Awareness Resource. www.fadaa.org. Accessed October 17, 2011.
Galvan, D. B., Malcarne, V. L., Castaneda, D. M., Hokoda, A., & Ulloa, E. C. (2007). An exploratory study examining teen dating violence, acculturation and acculturation stress in Mexican-American
Adolescents. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, 14,3.
Goldston, D.B., Molock, S.D., Whitbeck, L.B., Murakami, J.L., Zayas, L.H. & Hall, G.C. N.
(2008). Cultural Considerations in Adolescent Suicide Prevention and Psychosocial Treatment.
American Psychologist 63: 14-3.
Okamoto, J., Ritt-Olson, A., Soto, D., Baezconde-Garbanati, L., & Unger, J. B. (2009) Perceived discrimination and substance use among Latino adolescents. AM J Health Behavior, 33, 6.
Phinney, J. S., Flores, J. (2002). Unpackaging acculturation: Aspects of acculturation as predictors of traditional sex roles attitudes . Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 33, 3.

Posted by desolada at December 13, 2011 10:18 AM


Login to leave a comment. Create a new account.