Understanding the culture and experiences of the diverse Latino community is a critical skill for social work professionals.
According to the Census Bureau, more than half of the children living in the U.S. in 2014 were non-Caucasian, with Latinos making up the largest portion. This makes it essential for present and future generations of social workers to gain competence in serving Latino clients, especially in the wake of a election causing uncertainty.
Understanding the Latino Community
Understanding the Latino community, and the range of individuals that contribute to the make-up of this community, is a vital part of the cultural competence that those considering social work as a career need to develop.
The Influential Role of Family in the Latino Community
A major familial characteristic among Latinos is a strong family loyalty. ‘Familismo‘ is a universal Latino term that refers to the importance of family closeness and connection. As well as biological kin, it can extend to close friends and neighbors. These relationships also represent key influence roles in decision-making.
An important example of this is the way in which adult Latinos relate to their children. As explained by Dr. Janine Young of the Denver Health Refugee Clinic, it’s not uncommon for the mother, father, grandparents, aunts and uncles to accompany their children to doctor visits, and to want to have a say in how the child will be cared for.
For social workers, this high level of family participation is an opportunity to create an open dialog among family members and understand their relationships. For example, if a Latino child displays evidence of being bullied, then the social worker knows who needs to be involved and who can help support the child and address these issues.
Shifts in traditional family power dynamics are influencing communities and families across the U.S, and the Latino community is no exception. Social workers need to be aware of both old and new family archetypes, and understand and navigate these shifts.
Social Work: Bridging the Culture Gap
According to the Pew Hispanic Center’s National Survey of Latinos, 52 percent of Latinos aged 16 to 25 identified themselves first by their family’s country of origin, and only 24 percent used the term “American” first. This suggests that many Latinos may still struggle to feel that they are fully accepted by their host country.
According to Seipel and Way, people from non-Latino social work backgrounds will often be perceived as lacking understanding and sympathy for Latino culture. This assumption can result in a client choosing to end services prematurely, before a program’s benefits are realized.
The importance of multicultural awareness was demonstrated in a pilot test of Spanish language-based in-school therapy for Latino immigrant students who had been victims of community violence. Students who were included in the study saw significant improvements in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive symptoms compared to pupils who were put on a wait list.
Community education programs that show the positive impact of social work can help to reverse this trend. At the same time, social workers should examine and question their own cultural biases, and find opportunities to learn more about Latino culture – such as through studying their history and language, or by attending cultural events.
Immigration and its associated social issues and racial biases significantly impact the Latino community. In 2014, Mexican immigrants accounted for 28 percent of the 42.4 million immigrants in the U.S. Immigrants from El Salvador accounted for three percent and those from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala accounted for two percent each.
Immigration can be both stressful and traumatizing for Latinos, especially when faced with strict immigration policies and strong debate around border security. Social workers need to understand why their Latino clients chose to immigrate – whether it was to be reunited with family, for economic reasons or to escape political oppression.
It’s also important to note that there are 30 million more U.S-born Latinos in the U.S. today (35.9 million) than there were in 1960 (5.5 million). As a result, social workers need to consider how their individual experiences may differ from those who immigrated to the U.S, and how they can best serve each group.
It is not uncommon for children and grandchildren of immigrants who are still illegal to experience anxiety over continuing threats to deport their older relatives. Organizations that can provide legal support, advocacy and advice include:
- National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
- The Committee for Hispanic Families and Children (CHFC)
- Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA)
The Future of Social Work Delivery: Mutual Trust and Cultural Competence
When social workers lack strong American-Latino bicultural awareness, they risk being perceived as culturally insensitive or in extreme cases, potentially agents of oppression.
As the Latino population grows and more Latinos seek social services, learning the language, history and family dynamics of Latino communities are becoming more important for social work providers.
Social workers can begin by providing a non-threatening environment for Latinos and their families where open discussion is encouraged. It’s vital that social workers allow their Latino clients to communicate their individual issues and experiences without reverting to cultural stereotypes or assumptions. They should approach social work delivery with cultural humility and an understanding of the importance of cultural competence.
By making the effort to become more culturally competent, social workers are better positioned to build trust with their Latino clients and support their personal growth and adaptation.
Social workers play an important role in helping people of all backgrounds find their place in society. Invest in your own education and keep up to date with an advanced degree.
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