Ellen and Tom Evans live in a nice suburban home in a safe neighborhood. They both have good jobs—Ellen’s a nurse and Tom’s a high school teacher—and have raised two teenagers who enjoy material comforts beyond Tom and Ellen’s own middle-class origins. Their children, Mike and Lisa, are good kids, doing reasonably well in school, who aspire to go to college and become successful professionals.
Maria and Jose Lopez are first-generation Mexican immigrants. Maria works part-time and Jose holds down two jobs—a daytime construction job and part-time evening work as a security guard—in order to support their four kids, who range in age from eight to 16. They live in a modest home on an urban street with lots of traffic and not much green space for recreation; they worry about the crime rate, the homeless, and the gangs in their part of the city.
So who enjoys a greater quality of life and tighter family bonds? The answer’s not as simple as you might think.
When we take a closer look, we find that Ellen and Tom are struggling to balance work and family obligations as they try to maintain their comfortable suburban lifestyle. Their closest relatives live in another state, and they have few friends in the community. “It makes me sad that our kids don’t see their grandparents regularly,” says Ellen. “It’s like they hardly know them.” Although not divorced, Tom confesses that “we’ve talked about it on and off but so far we are holding things together.” Ellen and Tom value family activities, but most of the time they do things separately from their children. “We each like to do our own thing, even though Mom and Dad want us to do stuff together,” says 14-year-old Mike. “I’d rather spend time with my friends.”
In contrast, the Lopez family enjoys a high level of support from their extended family and community. Their home is located close to their jobs, and they are part of a tightly knit Mexican-American community. Many members of their extended family—grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins—live in the same neighborhood, and they frequently visit one another. “I feel real lucky that my family is close by,” says Maria. “They help a lot with money when things get tight, and of course look out for the children. It’s great.” Unlike the Evanses, they do most things together—taking walks, going to movies, socializing, and attending church as a family.
The Evans and Lopez families both participated in a multi-year study we conducted of Mexican-American and Anglo-American families. The differences between the Evanses and the Lopezes are emblematic of larger differences between their ethnic groups. Indeed, over the course of a decade of research, we’ve found that Mexican-American families possess many of the strengths that we typically extol in American society—and which many Anglo-American families lack.
In general, Latino families are remaining strong and intact even though many parents have unstable jobs with low pay, limited benefits, and few opportunities for advancement—and despite the fact that roughly a third of Latino children live below the poverty line. They are facing great adversity—perhaps as much, if not more, than any other group in America. Yet divorce rates are lower for Latino families than they are for Anglo families with similar income and education levels.
In our research, we set out to discover why this is: What positive traits do Latino families—Mexican Americans in particular—bring to the United States, enabling them to persevere when so many other families flounder in a fast-paced, globalized world?
At a time when people are lamenting the death of the American family, we’ve found that many of the ideals of the American family are alive and well—and some of them are being imported from Mexico. Although our findings often run counter to conventional wisdom, we have found that Mexican immigrant families provide an inspiring model whose best features can be emulated by other American families.
All in the family
Decades of research has shown that kids do better in life if they grow up in a family environment that emphasizes closeness and support for one another. Studies have suggested that if children have strong, secure attachments to their parents, later in life they’ll be better prepared to cope with stress, form healthy romantic relationships, and respond to the needs of their own children. Other research has indicated that mutual support among family members and a high level of family cohesiveness serve to benefit children’s social and emotional development.
University of Washington researchers Marie Cauce and Melanie Domenech-Rodriguez argue that these strengths are defining features of Mexican-American families. They maintain a commitment to familism, which emphasizes the importance of family closeness and getting along with, and contributing to, the well-being of the family.
This has proven true in our own observations. For instance, we’ve found that not only is the family unit strengthened by this commitment to familism in Mexican-American families, but sibling relationships are stronger as well.
Mexican-American children in our studies receive more nurturance and social support from siblings and admire their siblings more than comparable Anglo-American children. Older siblings recognize that they are models for their younger brothers and sisters. “There are two things that stopped me [from joining a gang],” says Mario, a Mexican-American teenager. “Mostly it was because of my parents and my brothers. They watch me in everything I do. Then they try to do better than me. So if I try to get good grades then they try to get good grades. I’m cool with it.”
Latino families also often draw upon an extended network of loved ones to provide necessary support, care, and guidance for their children. In addition to biological parents, adult caregivers may include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and godparents, as well as older children who care for their younger siblings. “I think he’ll [stay on the good path],” says a Mexican-American mother about her son in a study by University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Margarita Azmita, “because not just myself but the rest of the family is not letting up on him. … They talk to him constantly, reinforce the positive things he does do.” This mother’s intuition is backed up by research: Moncrieff Cochran of Cornell University has found that extended networks of family support promote positive traits in adolescents, such as better school performance and attendance, and more positive social behavior.
The collective responsibility for children in Mexican culture is captured in the practice of el compadrazgo, which involves special friends who become godparents of children. In a survey of Mexican-American families in Los Angeles, anthropologist Susan Keefe found that 88 percent reported having compadres, with 80 percent of them living in the nearby area. Compadres serve as role models for their godchildren and are their potential surrogate parents as well. Moreover, most expect to provide food, shelter, and monetary—as well as emotional—support if needed.
Although Anglo-American families value their ties to extended family, too, their contact with family is less frequent and also requires travel across longer distances, due to the greater mobility of their families. Latino families, in contrast, are more likely to value living near family and do, in fact, choose to live in closer physical proximity to their relatives. Manuel, a Mexican-American dad in our study, was amazed that many people do not always appreciate the importance of staying close to family.
“I don’t know how people throw their parents into places where they die,” says Manuel. “We kept our parents with the household until they died. And they are never too old for you to listen to… you take care of your parents. You are going to support them because they raised you when you were a kid, and we never forget that.” Given such attitudes, it should not come as a surprise that we’ve found Mexican-American households are less socially isolated than their Anglo-American counterparts.
Respect for elders
In our observations of Mexican-American families, we find that parents teach their children to become bien educado, which means they develop strong social skills without being disrespectful toward adults. For example, children are taught to use the formal you (usted) rather than the informal you (tú) in their conversations with adults. Parents also encourage their children to participate in family rituals—another way to instill this kind of respect for their family’s elders.
Politeness is not the only goal of these kinds of practices; they also serve to nurture a sense of obligation to one’s family. We find that Mexican-American children in our study more often help their parents in household chores than do Anglo-American children—indeed, Mexican-American parents are more likely to require that their children complete such tasks before playing. They are also expected to play a more consistent and vigilant role in supervising their younger siblings than their Anglo-American counterparts. This ethic would seem to translate into other social spheres: When George Knight and his colleagues at Arizona State University watched different groups of children playing games together, they found that Latino children exhibit higher rates of cooperation and less competition than Anglo-American children.
Since immigrant children and adolescents often learn the language, customs, and norms of the host culture faster than their parents, they sometimes serve as cultural brokers or translators on behalf of their parents or grandparents. As Raymond Buriel of Pomona College has found, children and adolescents play a major role in helping their parents negotiate the legal maze, medical systems, and even workplace bureaucracies. These activities not only help the family unit thrive but provide children with opportunities to develop personal responsibility, self-esteem, and autonomy. (At the same time, children can use their linguistic edge to take advantage of their parents.
One 13-year-old Mexican-American boy admitted to Harvard researchers Carola and Marcedo Suarez-Orozco that he had told his parents that the “F” on his report card stood for “fabulous”!)
A great deal of scientific research has shown how important it is for both parents to be involved in raising their children. In previous studies, we (Parke and Coltrane) have found that children of involved dads are better adjusted than those with less-involved fathers. For example, they seem to have less depression and better social relationships with their peers.
Although popular culture tends to describe Mexican immigrant men as more macho and less involved in family life, we are finding that these aren’t accurate stereotypes. Instead, we find that Mexican-born men often exhibit higher levels of commitment to family and spend more time interacting with their children in nurturing and emotional ways than do Anglo fathers (or more acculturated Latino fathers, for that matter). Compared to Anglo-American fathers, Mexican–born fathers in our study are somewhat more involved with their children, interacting in traditional masculine activities like coaching soccer or playing games, but also in more routine activities like supervising children or taking them shopping. Yvonne Caldrera at Texas Tech University has found similar involvement among Mexican-American fathers. “I do the housework but he also helps,” says one Mexican-American mother in Caldrera’s study. “I go to work at 6 in the evening… and from there on he’s in charge of the house. He feeds the children dinner and he leaves the kitchen clean for me.”
We attribute these higher levels of father involvement to the influence of familism in Mexican-American families—that is, high levels of family cohesion, cooperation, and reciprocity encourage these men to focus on the health and well-being of their children, and to interact with them in warm and intimate ways. For example, the emphasis on eating meals together and participating in family activities on weekends provide lots of opportunities for fathers to interact with their children and monitor their activities. In fact, in our study, families that engaged in rituals together—shared outings, mealtimes, and weekend activities—were the ones in which parents more closely monitored their children. Other research shows that this monitoring is associated with fewer social problems for adolescents, such as delinquency and substance abuse.
The bicultural family
We often assume that immigration is a one-way process: People from other countries come to the United States to settle and work, and they routinely adopt the values, customs, and practices of the host country. This is an oversimplified view that ignores the mutual influences between cultural groups.
We have found that many Mexican-American family members embrace a bicultural orientation, picking and choosing traits and practices of the dominant culture that help them to survive and thrive, while still retaining distinctive aspects of their culture of origin. “We must adjust to the way of life here,” observes Juan, a Mexican-American father, “but it shouldn’t affect [my children] speaking Spanish and learning it correctly.”
Rather than a liability, a bicultural orientation comes with clear benefits. Both children and adults who straddle the cultural fence, in fact, have better physical and psychological health, including higher expectations and feelings of positive self–worth, according to Raymond Buriel.
Other scholars, including Jeannie Gutierrez of the Erikson Institute and Arnold Sameroff of the University of Michigan, find that bicultural mothers have a more sophisticated understanding of children’s development than do Mexican-American mothers who have become more integrated into American culture, while their children do better both academically and socially.
This is a key lesson that immigrant families might have to teach many non-immigrant families: Understanding other cultural practices, values, and beliefs may not only increase our tolerance and acceptance of differences—a lesson that is valuable for both children and adults in our increasingly multicultural society—but also contribute to our own well-being. Just as biculturalism is beneficial for Mexican-American immigrants, it could benefit other families as well.
Mexican-American families teach us that a renewed commitment to the centrality of family in our lives could provide significant social and emotional benefits, such as greater buffers against the stresses, strains, and sorrows of everyday life. Our own research suggests that the negative impacts of financial hardship and other stressful life circumstances on children are reduced in Mexican–American families with high levels of family cohesion. From the model provided by Mexican-American families, we could also learn a lot about how community identity and community responsibility promote the welfare of children. The presence of many eyes and ears to monitor our children in public places would be a welcome change for many overextended, overworked, and under-available families.
We are not advocating a Pollyannaish return to a nostalgic vision of family life. We recognize that some of the hierarchical aspects of traditional Latino family life are not desirable for many Anglo families—nor for many Latino families. Modern women who are active members of the workforce are unlikely to welcome a return to patriarchal practices where husbands rule and women obey. At the same time, in fairness, the stereotype of the patriarchal Mexican-American family is outdated. Most research shows that Mexican-American couples have moved toward a more equal balance of power and rights between spouses. Our research shows that Mexican-American couples share parenting and housework in response to the same sorts of practical pressures faced by other couples.
By no means should we give up the positive gains toward more equal family roles for men and women in the United States that have been achieved over the last 30 years. But we would like to graft onto this newly emerging model some of the passionate commitment to family and community that characterizes the Mexican immigrant family. A new family form could emerge that is a fusion of our egalitarian family model and one that is better anchored by extended kin, neighbors, and communities committed to the common good of our children. Such a synthesis may be possible, and it is certainly desirable.