Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 95–107

Identifying Potential Risk and Protective Factors among Non-Metropolitan Latino Youth: Cultural Implications for Substance Use Research


    • Department of SociologyUniversity of Nebraska-Lincoln
  • Deanna Meyler
    • Division of Sociomedical Sciences, Preventive Medicine and Community HealthUniversity of Texas Medical Branch
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10903-006-9019-5

Cite this article as:
Stone, R.A.T. & Meyler, D. J Immigrant Health (2007) 9: 95. doi:10.1007/s10903-006-9019-5


Immigration studies show that the social adaptation of second-generation youth is conditioned by the pace of acculturation among parents and children, cultural and economic barriers, and family and community resources for confronting barriers. This research, however, has primarily focused on the link between acculturation and acculturative stress on Latino adolescents residing in large urban communities. There is a lack of research on the social integration of Latino youth living in rapidly expanding non-metropolitan communities. Consequently, we explored cultural aspects and potential risk and protective factors for early onset of alcohol use for Latino youth. Our findings indicate these rural Latino youth face unique and common stressors compared to urban youth that place them at risk for alcohol use. Cultural expectations surrounding substance use, however, may serve as protective factors to substance use for Latino youth, particularly girls.


Hispanic AmericansAdolescentRisk factorsAcculturationMental health


Latinos comprise one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States in the past decade [1]. In 2002, there were 37.4 million Latinos in the civilian non-institutional population. Of the total U.S. Latino population, 40.2% (or 15 million) were foreign-born [2]. Among the foreign-born, 52.2% were recent immigrants who entered the United States between 1990 and 2002. Growth of the Latino population has been even more pronounced in Nebraska, increasing by more than 150%, compared to a national increase of 58% [3, 4]. The growth of the Latino population in Nebraska represents the largest percentage increase among the ten Great Plains states, including Colorado, Kansas, and Texas [5]. This growth is associated with economic trends in the rural economy. In particular, the meat-packing industry has played a primary role in attracting Latino immigrant labor into the rural Midwest [6, 7]. Previous research has indicated that rapid social and demographic transitions may place rural adolescents at risk for poor mental health and substance use [8, 9]. In rural communities, the Latino youth and their families face multiple risk factors including poverty, limited employment opportunities, small and isolated ethnic communities, and few formal support systems [8, 9]. Employment opportunities in the meat-packing plants are limited to low-paying, high turnover, and high-risk positions [8]. In addition, the location of the work in small rural communities provides little infrastructure for informal and formal services to help immigrant families, and school systems are over-burdened with the demand for English as a second language instruction [9]. Latinos are ultimately migrating to rural Midwest areas that are less culturally diverse than co-ethnic communities [8].

In addition, Latino worker families originate from diverse cultural and national origins in Mexico and Central and South America which may hinder collectivity abroad. Heterogeneity is important because earlier studies on immigrants have shown that when individuals settle where their culture is unique, it compromises access to employment and advancement, as well as psychological well-being [10, 11]. Dispersed immigrants may have less opportunity and agency in their new communities, increasing risk for mental health and substance use problems. Thus, the overall social environment associated with this unique immigrant experience challenges familistic roles and can create additional stressors likely to result in increased risk for mental health and substance abuse problems [1214].

Acculturation often produces increased difficulties within the family as many youth adapt to the host culture more rapidly than their parents, setting the stage for family conflict [1416]. Family conflict associated with the acculturation process has been linked to substance use and delinquency among Latino immigrants [1416]. The findings from a recent study exploring the effect of acculturation and acculturative stress on the intensity of alcohol use among 1,051 Latino immigrants and 968 U.S. males attending middle school in South Florida showed that the relations of acculturation levels and acculturation stress to alcohol involvement for immigrant Latinos takes place through the deterioration of Latino family values, attitudes, and familistic behaviors [14]. Consistent with these findings, other researchers have found that increased family conflict leads to greater incidences of behavioral problems and delinquent behaviors [15, 16]. It is also clear that the stresses associated with learning to live in a different environment and acquiring a new language are associated with increased risk for substance use by Latino immigrants, especially adolescents [1214]. The social adaptation of second-generation youth is conditioned by the pace of acculturation among parents and children, cultural and economic barriers, and family and community resources for confronting barriers [10, 1719]. Family conflict undermines parental authority and may strengthen the influence of deviant peers [20]. This research, however, has primarily focused on the link between acculturation and acculturative stress on Latino adolescents residing in large urban communities [17, 18]. There is a lack of research in our understanding of the social adjustment of Latino youth living in rapidly expanding non-metropolitan communities, particularly meatpacking communities. In this study, we identified potential risk and protective factors specific to Latino youth in two different non-metropolitan Midwest communities and provided some considerations for future research within this particular population.


The attraction of immigrants to unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in the Midwest is not a new phenomenon. At the time of the Mexican revolution in the early 1900s, Mexican refugees migrated northward to find employment in the slaughter houses of Chicago, the breweries of Milwaukee, and the steel mills of Gary [10]. Like the majority of America’s immigrants in the years 1865–1920, Mexican refugees were predominantly urban settlers in geographically concentrated ethnic enclaves, had modest educational and occupational skills, and were confronted with prejudices and discrimination [10]. Latino groups in the Midwest today are similar to earlier immigrants in that they are concentrated in the meatpacking industry, but are different in that they are migrating to rural areas that are less culturally diverse, except among Latinos. The cohesiveness of the Latino population in these rural meatpacking communities is further undermined by the fact that companies routinely turn over the labor force to minimize benefits [8]. This results in families moving from one Midwestern meat-packing community to another with little development of cohesive ethnic communities. With fewer formal support systems than in more co-ethnic communities, it is logical to anticipate that Latino youth will experience increased levels of acculturative stress in newly-settled Midwest non-metropolitan communities.

Accultrative stress, ethnic identity, and their link to problem behaviors

Although not all mediating mechanisms have been clearly identified, contemporary investigations reveal that circumstances surrounding the migration (e.g., segmented assimilation and acculturative stress) enhance risk for mental health and substance abusing behavior [10, 13, 14, 21]. Acculturation refers to the process of cultural change experienced by members of a minority culture as they adapt to a new host majority culture [22]. For immigrant Latino families, this change is associated with learning the language, values and behaviors needed to function in the host culture. This acculturation experience is associated with a number of stressors that result from conflicts with cultural values and behavioral standards [23]. Acculturative stress results from physiological and psychological changes brought about by acculturation-related demands [22].

Studies show that associated with acculturation processes, the overall environment for both youth and parents places youth at risk for problem behaviors. For example, research on Latino adolescents in large urban communities has revealed that more acculturated youth are at increased risk for early alcohol use [17, 18]. In addition, the overall social environment associated with acculturation processes for both youth and parents interferes with cultural-based family processes and erodes Latino values and familism [14]. Familistic values and extended family orientation are generally thought to serve as protective sources of emotional and instrumental support for Latino adolescents [19]. As this system is weakened by the migration process, there is an increased risk for ineffective family monitoring and supervision, which increases susceptibility to acculturation stressors and substance use [14, 2426]. The rapid adaptation of youth compared to parents often leads to increased intergenerational conflict, thus undermining parental authority and strengthening the influence of deviant peers [15, 16, 20, 2426]. One study found that among a sample of 244 first generation immigrants, more acculturated adolescents were more susceptible to antisocial peer pressure with boys more susceptible than girls [20]; however, another study found mediating effects of family conflict. For example, a study examining mediating effects accounting for the empirical link between acculturation status and delinquent activity for a sample of Mexican American adolescents found that family conflict mediated the association between acculturation and delinquent behaviors [15].

The research also suggests that migration stressors for immigrants associated with exit from their countries of origin and entrance into the United States further undermine family functioning and core extended family support [14]. For example, immigrant families often endure temporary absence of one parent in the initial stages of the process, isolation from informal support systems, and economic hardship. Overall, there is strong evidence that Latino youth experience acculturation stressors and these stressors have been shown to be linked to enhanced risk for problem behaviors [7, 8, 23, 24]. For example, acculturative stress was related to increased risk for substance use in a sample of Mexican American migrant youth in California [18] as well as in a mixed Latino sample of youngsters in New York [17]. Acculturative stress is also related to delinquency [27] and lower self-esteem [28] among Latino youth [29]. In particular, Latino youth are prone to a “pile up” of life changes and events that put them at high risk for negative symptomatology [3032].

Considerable research has been conducted on acculturation and acculturation-related stress for behavioral problems among Latino youth; however, relatively little attention has been paid to resilience factors such as strong cultural identity and familism. Gonzales and her colleagues argue that youth who maintain a strong traditional ethnic identity show some resilience in the face of acculturative and immigration stressors [33]. This is particularly true in the context of biculturalism, typically operationalized as bicultural competency [3436]. It is argued that youth benefit from participating in the host culture, but also from retaining positive and protective traits of their native culture. Strong ethnic identity is related to enhanced self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and has been shown to moderate substance use risk for Latino adolescents [37, 38]. Likewise, traditional ‘familism’ has been demonstrated to be a strong culturally-specific value among Latinos that serves to buffer Latino youth from negative substance use responses to acculturative stress [11, 39]. This research, however, has primarily focused on the link between acculturation and acculturative stress on Latino adolescents residing in large urban communities [17, 18]. There is a lack of research in our understanding of the social adaptation of Latino youth living in rapidly expanding non-metropolitan communities. Because early onset of behavioral and mental health problems is associated with long-term problems and consequences, we examined adolescents aged 12 to 16. Data from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiological Survey revealed that more than 40% of individuals who began drinking before age 15 developed alcohol dependence in later life, compared to one quarter of those who began drinking at age 17, and one tenth who began at age 21 [40].


In this study, we explored potential risk and protective factors specific to Latino youth in two different non-metropolitan Midwest communities. Based on the literature, we expected that the Latino youth in this study would experience stressors associated with parent-child communication, language acquisition, school and community integration and parent’s work status. Despite these challenges, however, we expected that the youth would experience strong social and family ties, a strong sense of cultural identity, and culturally significant traditions. Moreover, we expected that their experiences would vary by gender.


The relative lack of information regarding the acculturation experiences of Latino youth in the rural Midwest influenced our decision to use qualitative methods to explore the common and unique influences on risk behaviors in this context. Based upon a review of alternative qualitative approaches, we decided to use focus groups of youth to explore these topics. While not providing the richness and depth of ethnographic techniques, the focus group approach can be a very effective method for identifying central themes and providing a base for future qualitative and quantitative inquiries. Using an initial set of core questions to provide a general orientation, focus group interviews can yield information that might otherwise be difficult to obtain; particularly when we may not know all of the relevant questions to ask. Interaction of focus group participants is unique because it offers attendees a forum to build on each other’s thoughts and ideas [41]. Issues that are not readily apparent to the researcher when first entering a setting can often evolve in the course of these semi-structured discussions.

Study population

In collaboration with two non-metropolitan community school systems, we accessed and conducted focus groups with Latino youth aged 12 to 16. Although youth were asked questions about what culture meant to them and revealed unique elements of their culture, we did not ask participants their origins to help maintain anonymity; however, Latino youth in these communities were diverse in origins, coming from Mexico and Central and South American nations.

Sample 1. One of the communities was selected because of the small population base (N = 6028) and proximity to the university [1]. The community experienced rapid growth, 24.5%, in the past decade which was predominantly associated with the immigration of Latino workers and their families. At the time our study was conducted, the public school system had 89 Latino youth aged 12 to 16 years comprising of 27% of the student population in this school [42]. In this community, out of the total population, 14% were Hispanic (71.9% Mexican, 13% Central American, .6% Puerto Rican, .6% South American, .3% Cuban, and 13.7% other Hispanic) [43].

Sample 2. The other community had a population of 42,940 and experienced growth in the past ten years that was slightly above the average for communities in Nebraska (9%). Within this school system, approximately 30% of the youth aged 12 to 16 were Latino. Moreover, among this group, there was a mix of first, second, and third generation families. The second community and the immediate surrounding area had long been destination points for Latino families, beginning with migrant farm laborers settling the area around 1920, to the current meat-packing industry directed influx of new immigrants. At the time of research, there were 489 Latino youth aged 12 to 16 in this public school system. Due to a longer period of migration by Latinos, the second community may have offered more established social support networks for Latinos. In this county, out of the total population 6.6% were Hispanic (63% Mexican, 18.8% Central American, 1.5% Cuban, 1.1% Puerto Ricans, and 15.6% other Hispanic) [43].


We held informational meetings in each school district to speak with Latino parents and obtain consent to interview youth in groups and tape record their responses. Students were recruited through our meetings with parents and also directly by the schools through consent forms sent home with students. We received 36 parental consent forms in one of the sites and 35 in the other site. We attempted to contact 71 students for the study, but many of the students could not be reached to invite to a focus group session and other students did not attend their scheduled focus group. None of the youth declined participation after arrival to sessions. Only one youth who attended a session was excluded due to no signed parental consent form. Our total convenience sample for both sites was 49 students. However, because focus group leaders continued to recruit students after the sessions were scheduled not all of the 49 study participants were from our original contact list.

Focus groups were conducted in the respective schools of students to provide a familiar space for their discussions and in the language most appropriate for the group (Spanish and/or English). When focus groups were scheduled, the planned sessions were as homogenous as possible based on considerations such as age, gender, and English language fluency. In order to offer advantages of focus group methods, we consolidated focus groups in cases where there were too few participants. The introduction of each focus group included the reading and signing of a youth assent form that explained the purpose of the study, anonymity of results, tape recording of sessions, and opportunity to decline participation as well as the focus group facilitator announcing the same after turning on the tape recorder, but before asking questions (please see Appendix for focus group facilitator script).

We were able to maintain a distinction between younger and older adolescents through two focus groups conducted with 12–13 year olds (mixed sex), as 12–13 year olds are distinct to older youth [40]. We were also able to conduct one focus group among only male 14–16 year olds. Three mixed sex focus groups were conducted with 14–16 year olds, one of which was conducted completely in Spanish. The other five focus groups were conducted in Spanish and English or a combination of both Spanish and English (“Spanglish”). One 12–13 year old focus group and one mixed gender 14–16 year old focus group was conducted at the Sample 2 site, and four focus groups were conducted at the Sample 1 site, including the all male group and the session conducted exclusively in Spanish. During each focus group, participants were encouraged to address each question and shy participants were specifically asked to answer questions by focus group facilitators (please see Appendix for a list of questions asked). At the end of each focus group session, participants were each paid $20. The research was approved by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institutional Review Board as well as the school board of each participating community.

Data analysis

After systematic implementation of a series of focus group interviews, analysis must also be systematic to increase reliability [40]. During the analysis we considered several issues. Analysis of focus group data looks at the internal consistency of each interview, the frequency or extensiveness of topics discussed by participants, the intensity of comments made by participants and the specificity of responses. It also seeks the larger picture. Careful consideration of these points developed more reliable and clearer results [44]. Quotes of conversations noted below are only a sampling of responses by youth; however, each theme was discussed multiple times, at least three, during each session and represented at least fifteen minutes of total discussion time from each group. The quotes represent the overall sentiment expressed while also sharing the comprehensive and concise understanding by some participants. In general, female students aged 14–16 were the most verbose and engaged by the conversations while younger students and males had more difficultly expressing their thoughts.

A total of six focus groups were conducted with 12 hours of interviews. The sessions were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim and translated into English before analysis. Because navigating and understanding a large amount of data can be challenging, Miles and Huberman suggest that analysts develop coding schemes that rank prominent themes discussed during focus groups [45]. Based on the focus group transcriptions the following themes were identified using the qualitative data analysis program NUD*IST: (1) acculturative stress through parental stressors, language barriers, and perceived prejudices and discrimination; and (2) cultural values and beliefs through culture identification, gender norms, and substance use.


Unlike the older adolescents, the younger adolescents did not explicitly discuss risk factors for mental health or substance use. Older adolescents discussed more stressors faced as immigrants. In particular, the English-speaking focus group (considered an indicator of acculturation [46]) most readily discussed alcohol use and deviant behavior.

Acculturative stress

Parental stressors

Non-metropolitan Latino youth were quick to recognize stress experienced from immigration, particularly when discussing their parents. They often became animated when offered the opportunity to discuss their particular struggles and shared stories. For example, many felt that their parents’ training and skills were not valued in the United States. When a facilitator asked, “What is the most difficult thing about being here for you?” one 14–16 year old female responded that language skills shaped job opportunities for her parents.

“In Peru…my mother is a doctor, and my father is an officer. They arrived here, and they had to start from zero again. My mother used to tell me: “I was working at a store, making little money, when I knew that I could be making more money with my profession.”…I mean, you feel like, frustrated. I mean, not, not being able to work in your profession because you have to know English… So, she had to work in that job. So, you arrive here…and you start cleaning; sweeping, scrubbing, attending people. Having to sell tamales from one place to another, like this. That is the most difficult thing for them.”

This young woman understood that language was a barrier for her parents to obtain better paying jobs. Although wages in the United States can be greater than those in other countries, many parents were also seeking opportunities for their children; they were willing to work difficult jobs in the promise of brighter futures. Building on the story above, another girl in the same focus group shared a similar hardship for her family.

“My parents, when they got here, they also had to start from zero, from zero. My father came like ten years ago…And my mother was a teacher in Mexico, and it has been three years since she came here… And when they got here, at the beginning, my father did suffer a lot… And here, [my mother] has to work a lot, because she works many hours at [Meatpacking Plant]; and sometimes, she is, her back hurts, and sometimes it hurts her a lot. And the same thing with my father, the shoulders, they hurt him a lot.”

In addition to difficult work with physical repercussions, this youth’s parents were separated for seven years. She does not discuss where and with whom she lived, but she was separated from at least one of her parents for an extended period. As the literature above noted, many immigrants, both past and present, have endured long spans without a parent/spouse and the process can be stressful for families. Non-metropolitan Latino youth in our study told many stories of hardship that stemmed from the immigration experience. Acculturation stress can materialize from many sources during and after immigration. The work and stress of parents and other family members can impact the stress levels of children.

Language barriers

Challenges in acquiring the English language also caused stress for immigrant youth. Among youth in this study, as with past studies, language was a major contributor to stress. Sometimes youth with access to English as a second language classes learn English faster than their parents and become interpreters, placing extra responsibility on immigrant youth that other youth do not experience [33]. One 14 to 16 year old female pinpointed language as the greatest determining factor in social acceptance.

“I think that the most difficult thing of being a Latino is when they go to another country, and they do not speak the same language, they cannot communicate. Everything is more difficult for them, because they cannot communicate; they cannot get a job, or cannot go to school. And I think that the most difficult thing is that they do not know the same language that the persons where they live know.”

Language can create barriers to success for non-English speaking immigrants. For our sample, an inability to speak English resulted in fewer employment prospects, more difficult access to school, and social isolation.

In addition to language ability as a stressor, there were prejudices and stereotypes of Spanish speakers from out-group members. Youth consistently recognized their use of Spanish or non-English accent as a marker by others for delinquency. For example, students identified that Latinos were used as scapegoats or misunderstood because of language barriers.

“They are always blaming the Hispanics, that the Hispanics are the ones that cause the problems, and that is not true. If somebody arrives here speaking Spanish, and he does not know English, they want to treat him like a fool, but if you do not let them, they do it even more” (14–16 year old female).

Assumptions about intelligence and ability from peers contributed to stress levels, especially when linked to accent or language use. Language differences sometimes caused tension at school among friends.

“I have a friend that, many times she has thought that when we are talking in Spanish, she thinks that we are talking about her. Because sometimes, by mistake or some other thing, we laugh. Many times, she has accused us of laughing about her. Sometimes that has happened, but not all the times that she says” (14–16 year old female).

Language ability is a major cause of stress that may place youth at a higher risk for substance use/abuse. Communication, miscommunication, assumptions, and misjudgments all created stress in the acculturation process for non-metropolitan Latino youth.

Perceived prejudices and discrimination

When asked about the most difficult part of being Latino in the United States, a group of 14 to 16 year old males identified racial slurs as painful. Again stereotypes based on misinformation and perpetuated by peers may place youth at risk for substance use.

“What is the most difficult thing about being Latino? (facilitator). If somebody is racist, things like that, like nobody likes being called bad names.” “Which type of names?” (facilitator).

“Like ‘Specker’ or ‘Spic.’ I haven’t been called that way, but I have heard that they give these names to other Hispanics. So like ‘Wet Back’ and things like that… ‘Beaner,’ things like that I have heard. I also think that when Americans see somebody, I don’t know, they think that we already have that thing that … Like if you are from Guatemala and call you like ‘Mexican?’ Things like that. If you are from Puerto Rico, they tell you that you are Mexican. No way this is going to [be] like you, because you are not Mexican.”

The last young male in this excerpt pointed out that sometimes all Latinos are assumed to be Mexican. He saw the assumption as problematic. Several students pointed to the problems created for Latino youth when others believe stereotypes. “I have heard that they think that we are ignorant, that we are the ones that always cause fights, and they generalize” (14–16 year old female). Immigration hardship, language barriers, and cultural assumptions from others exemplify acculturative stress for the youth.

Cultural values and beliefs

Culture identification

Culture can mean many things, but for the non-metropolitan Latino youth in this study, culture was identified through ethnic pride, values, beliefs and customs learned from their culture of origin. Youth, particularly 12 and 13 year olds, were excited to talk about their culture of origin and the activities that held meaning for them. Sharing in the focus group was not unique as several discussed their pride and heritage in school.

“At my school I feel very proud of being Latino, because in this way, with my behavior, my way of being, of acting, I show other people, the North Americans from here, that we, Hispanics, are also very intelligent, that we develop our intellect very well, we solve any problem” (female aged 14–16).

Being a good student and involved in school activities gave youth the opportunity to share their culture and break down the barriers of cultural misinformation.

Other students explored their ethnic pride through community activities. For example, cultural customs, parties and family reunions remained central for many youth as they recognized customs from other countries as well. When a facilitator asked, “How do you feel when you express, in your community, that you are a Latino?” A young woman (aged 14–16) responded, “I feel proud to express that I am a Latino, to express my customs, to remember the customs I had in Mexico and also to respect the customs that people have here, and in other countries.” Another girl responded to the same question by wanting to share her culture with new friends.

“I feel great about being able to let other people know that we are Latinos, and if one day I have the chance of having some friends, a friend from North America, I would like to invite her to my house, so that she knows how we live, what we do, what we eat” (female aged 14–16).

Sharing of culture was a prominent theme in discussions of what it meant to be Latino for the youth. Another young woman agreed with members of her focus group and emphasized the sharing of culture. “I think that, what they said, my classmates, all that is true. Because you must share what you do in your country [of origin]” (female aged 14–16). Youth felt cultural sharing was crucial for common understanding and tolerance.

Other Latino youth identified what they felt were specific and positive cultural elements. For example, a sense of humor was important when exploring ethnic identity. A 14–16 year old female respondent noted that joke telling was part of her culture.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is our ‘picardia’ [author’s note: sort of a sense of humor, an attitude towards life, similar to naughtiness, but without a bad connotation]. Our… the way we are, it always distinguishes us, because we are very talkative people, very funny, we are like clowns, we tell a lot of jokes.”

Overall, non-metropolitan Latino youth expressed great pride in their cultural heritage. Customs, celebrations, family, and a sense of humor all played a role in the culture. The youth expressed sharing these cultural elements with non-Hispanic whites in order to de-mystify preconceived stereotypes of their group.

When youth were asked about individual cultural characteristics, many identified that there were differences between Latinos. In particular, the youngest respondents, aged 12 and 13, were very excited about participating in holiday events and festivals specific to their culture of origin. A facilitator asked, “What other things do you do that show you are Latinos?” and youth immediately responded “Holidays.” The facilitator went on to inquire about the types of festivities. Youth listed the Three Wise Men, Cinco de Mayo (the Fifth of May), and Día de los Muertos (All Saints Day) among others. In addition, food and music were seen as ways to distinguish between and within cultures of origin. Youth were quick to identify distinctions between experiences from their country of origin and those in the United States.

“Yes, it [being in the US] is different because I am used, especially with foods, I am used to eating bread in the mornings and in the evenings, and rice at noon. And when I see a person from Mexico eating, I see tortillas in the morning, tortillas in the afternoon, and tortillas in the evening. And I do not see much rice” (14–16 year old female).

Participants in this same focus group made similar statements and other participants in the project consistently brought up food and music differences between Latinos. Food and music are not the only culturally unique pieces for Latino identities, but for youth they were easy to identify.

Gender norms

At the beginning of this project we did not develop questions that specifically explored differences between female and male non-metropolitan Latino youth. We were aware of gender differences and how they can protect youth from substance use, but decided to let youth identify any differences between their treatments based on gender. We quickly learned that the youth consistently identified differences in their treatment and socialization and linked these differences back to culture and cultural identity. Young women often discussed how they were expected to fill traditional female roles. Young Latinas were expected to be modest, homely, and not sexually promiscuous.

“I think the majority of “Latinas,” especially women, we are more modest, more from “the house,” not everybody, I do not generalize. But the majority of us, those that I met here, we are more from our house [author’s note: meaning they belong/stick more to their home], we are not… like crazy neither, we don’t enjoy being in fights, or anything like that. We are like children.” (14–16 year old female)

This respondent related the expectations of herself and other young women as being “like children.” Latina youth consistently related their behavior expectations to a childlike status. They did not, however, identify childlike status as problematic. One female respondent linked socialization about sexual intercourse back to a childlike status when exploring how she would raise her own female child. She was frustrated that her mother did not talk with her about intercourse and how to interact with men. She wanted to change this situation one day with her own children. Many youth of all cultures can experience what they feel is a lack of information and guidance about intercourse; however, this young woman linked a positive outcome back to tradition and marriage. In response to socializing her own children, the respondent said

“And if for example, it is a girl, to teach her how to conduct herself,…once she is well educated, I would like to teach her to cook…how to walk, to know how to treat a person, a man, and a woman, how to take care of herself, how to prevent things. For example, talk to her about sex, so that they are always… they never be shy. Because sometimes Latinos, parents always are concerned with that. They do not keep them away from sex… My mother studied, and happily she reached the altar chaste. And so, she tells me… “I would like you to reach the altar chaste.” She says. Because for us is important to have a white dress, like God commands us. Right?” (14–16 year old female)

This participant saw religion as having an important role in the socialization of Latina youth when thinking about sex, although did not further explore influences from religion. The quotes indicated that youth were aware of their religious and cultural influences for decisions about dating and sexual expression. Cultural expectations around dating could be protecting some youth from potentially destructive behaviors, especially those youth that remained enculturated.

In general, critique of childlike expectations was not offered, although some frustration was displayed during discussions of how brothers were allowed more freedoms such as later curfews. The explanation as to why boys were offered more freedom was they “know how to take care of themselves.” Some female youth contested this assumption, but maintained their gendered expectations nonetheless. A few talked about deceiving their parents to undermine gendered rules, but they also expressed guilt at doing so.

“Well, it is different because men or boys have more freedom than girls do because boys know how to take care of themselves. Well, this is what my dad says. And we, women, go through more risks than men… yes. My parents don’t let me have a boyfriend because I can have sexual relations or something like that and they say here [in the United States] it is not like there [in my country of origin]. There having a boyfriend or girlfriend implies only kissing, holding hands and here it means to have sex and all that.” (12–13 year old female)

We must note that although many comments began about socialization in general, they often ended referring to sex. Females were receiving many messages about sex that were not reiterated in the focus group with males. Non-metropolitan Latina youth were receiving specific messages about appropriate gender scripts, in particular sexual intercourse, and recognized how their socialization was different in comparison to their male counterparts. In addition, many participants noted that the constraints they felt for conduct were different compared to their non-Latina friends. Several Latinas felt their non-Latina friends had later curfews and fewer restrictions from their parents. Male respondents noted they felt fewer restrictions to their conduct. The messages non-metropolitan Latino youth were receiving about behavior expectations were contradictory between genders and compared to their non-Latino peers. Stress from inconsistent gendered expectations can contribute to acculturative stress.

Substance abuse

The final issue examined during focus groups for this paper was that of substance abuse. As we seek cultural protective factors, we must understand how our unique population feels and internalizes messages about substance use. In particular, gender once again became important. Similar to the gendered expectations about sex, non-metropolitan Latinas identified gendered expectations about substance use; alcohol use in particular. One female respondent felt that everyone drank alcohol, but that Latinas were not expected to consume alcohol.

“Like, I think drinking, a girl drinking is like really, really weird. Like guys say: “Oh my Gosh she drinks!” Like everybody drinks. Like she said, like, a girl coming out of a bar, that will be really weird, but to guys it is like normal. Like there are a lot of guys that drink, but not many, not that many girls that drink.” (14–16 year old female)

Culturally the respondent recognized that she should not drink, whereas it is more acceptable for guys to drink. She believed that all people drink and yet knew it was viewed as awkward if women did.

A male respondent reiterated gendered expectations for alcohol consumption and linked them to overall assumptions about the behaviors of Latinas as discussed in the section on gender.

“Well, I think that people are just used to seeing guys [drinking]. Like they expect guys to drink, but when you see a female drink, I think it shocks them, because you… they are not used to seeing so many girls drinking as much as guys do. Because like they expect girls to be like nice, like family, and like have more moral values, and stuff like that, than guys. So I do not think people will get shocked. You would expect that guys do it a lot more than the girls.” (14–16 year old male)

If Latinas are expected to be “of the home” or “like children,” they should not be drinking alcohol either. The “host” culture, however, sees all people drinking and Latinas face acculturative stress in negotiating these differences in expectations.

Stereotypes were also discussed when examining substance use. Many respondents stated that some non-Latinos assume Latino men are gangsters. Youth recognized that the stereotype was built from cultural misunderstandings, and yet problematic and hurtful.

“I think that like those people think of like Latino like guys, like they all categorize them like gangsters, and bad. But, I think that they just like misunderstand the culture, because like not everyone is going to act like crappie and stuff. And it is like not like all the Latino guys are out like doing drugs, and stuff, you know. We just do regular things, and just some people are like afraid. And like some parents may not want their kids to be friends of Latinos, because they think they will be a bad influence on them, but that is just a lie.” (14–16 year old male)

Stereotypes about behavior of Latinos were revealed with a different impact compared to language use mentioned above. Stereotypes are hurtful, name calling and assumptions about ability can cause stress for youth. However, when youth are denied possibilities of friendship and camaraderie with peers due to stereotypes, stress can be compounded.

Non-metropolitan Latino youth wanted to be accepted for who they were without stereotypes. They expressed frustration at trying to break down misconceptions and their acculturative stress was prominent throughout all the focus groups.

“I think it is tough, just the challenges that we face. I mean like people who are racists, or like trying to prove to other people that we are better, and that we can do the same things as white people. I think the more…, the hardest thing is like trying to show people that we are not like the other Latino people [the bad examples], because when somebody looks at you they think of “Cholos,” drugs, parties, all that stuff. Maybe it is true for some people, but like for the rest is not. I mean, not all Latinos are the same. Each one of us is different. Maybe one likes to party, maybe one likes to drink, maybe one likes to be with the “Cholo” people, I do not know. But… I mean, everybody is different, and I think that is one of the challenges we face.” (14–16 year old female)

Recognizing similarities and exploring differences brought youth together in each focus group. Although Latino youth could be more vulnerable to early onset of alcohol use, Latina youth have received protective messages from their families and communities about sex and drug use.


In this study, we explored cultural aspects and related social adjustments in the context of risk and protective factors among a group of understudied non-metropolitan Latino adolescents. Given the context of migration of this group, i.e., settlement in less culturally cohesive communities and an infrastructure less capable of responding to formal or informal needs [8], as expected, we found that respondents experienced stressors associated with parent-child communication, language acquisition, school and community integration and parents’ work status. Despite these challenges, however, the youth indicated strong social and family ties, a strong sense of cultural identity, and access to cultural traditions. In addition, our findings indicated that cultural expectations may serve as protective factors to early onset of alcohol use for Latinas. None of the youth indicated that cultural experiences would protect the boys.

Consistent with past and current research, Latino immigrant youth experienced several forms of psychological stress and also emphasized their parents’ distress. Many felt their parents’ education from their country of origin was not valued in the United States. When a facilitator asked, “What is the most difficult thing about being here for you?” one 14–16 year old female responded that language shaped job opportunities for her parents. In one focus group a 14 to 16 year old female pinpointed language as the greatest determining factor in social acceptance. Current studies show that factors associated with the immigration experience, economic hardship, parents’ employment obligations and dislocation stressors often disrupt familial values and interfere with effective parental monitoring [21, 24, 47]. Based on students’ responses, their stressors and those of their parents were not mutually exclusive. Thus, we need to promote cultural awareness in schools and in the community in order to facilitate successful social integration.

It is clear that some risks of the non-metropolitan setting may be unique from those identified in earlier research. Rather than moving into large, stable, homogeneous ethnic communities, the families of these youth have migrated to places of multiple Latino national backgrounds. The Latino population in these newly-settled areas was comprised of people from Mexican and Central and South American origin. There were important commonalities, however, between students from different Latino subgroups students such as their experiences with negative stereotypes and similar reactions from the majority culture youth. In contrast, there were distinctions in food, music and cultural celebrations. These findings lead us to speculate that the diverse cultural origins of the non-metropolitan immigrant Latino population might hinder the development of a cohesive ethnic community that has the capacity to provide critical social support to immigrant families. Consequently, the research revealed important implications for mental health and substance abuse problems. As noted in earlier ecological studies of immigrant communities, the rate of schizophrenia and alcoholic psychoses were highest in neighborhoods of first immigrant settlement with fewer formal support systems [10, 21, 48]. These findings suggest that there is a need to develop formal and informal support systems to prevent risk of mental health and substance abusing behavior among Latino adolescents in non-metropolitan areas. Support systems would provide services for families in communities that until recently were populated predominantly by European Americans and have few existing resources (e.g., social services) for new immigrant populations. Moreover, the social ecology of these areas is distinct from that of the West and East Coasts and the Southwest regions of the United States, where much of the prior research on Latinos has been conducted.

As we seek cultural protective factors to substance use, understanding how unique populations talk about substance use may be useful. When we began this project we did not develop questions that specifically explored differences between females and males, although we anticipated differences. Consistent with previous studies, however, the youth identified differences in their treatment and socialization [49]. For example, several females discussed how they were expected to fill traditional female roles. Other youth recognized that it was culturally-appropriate for men to drink alcohol, particularly in social settings such as parties. In terms of protective factors our results revealed that Latinas were protected from substance-abuse behavior through traditional cultural expectations. The respondents linked the gendered expectations back to the general perception of Latinas. Although, according to Vega, familistic values among immigrants serve as protective sources of nurturance, guidance and support for adolescents, future studies need to examine the role on gender-related expectations [19]. For instance, in expressing her frustration, one of the females talked about deceiving her parents to undermine gendered rules.

The current study provided insightful findings in terms of possible risk and protective factors such as acculturative stress, gender norms and normative expectations surrounding substance use by non-metropolitan Latino/a adolescents. Some limitations, however, need to be addressed. First, this study was conducted with non-metropolitan Latino youth; thus we cannot generalize our findings to all Latino youth. Second, although sharing of ideas can generate rich information, participants’ responses can be influenced by others in the focus groups and respondents can be reluctant to provide sensitive information. Third, five of the six conducted focus groups were gender mixed. Typically, focus groups are homogeneous in order to yield more gender-sensitive responses; however, participant constraints required gender mixed focus groups. Despite this limitation, we sought cultural insight that can be, and often revealed itself as, universal for both boys and girls. A fourth issue is that the qualitative nature of the study only permitted descriptive analyses, and did not allow an examination of predictive relationships among the study variables. Future research, however, can build on these descriptive analyses. Once the key themes are identified, survey research may give us a better understanding of how risk factors interact with protective factors to influence early onset of substance use and mental health problems for non-metropolitan Latino boys and girls. Finally, because the study participants are from two non-metropolitan areas that differ from one another, the study groups are not comparable. One community was almost seven times as big as the other and had more resources and social networks for Latinos. One of the communities had only 89 Latino youth while the other had 489 Latino youth. Future research should conduct several focus groups in multiple sites more similar to each other in population size and density and racial composition. Comparison data with other racial/ethnic groups could also shed light onto differences that are culturally-based versus gender-based.

Despite these limitations, this exploratory study has important implications for future research and prevention efforts. Available evidence indicates that acculturation processes generally involve increases in family conflict, inconsistent discipline, and decreases in parental monitoring, support, and acceptance. Consequently, the acquisition of English language skills by the youth expands existing social networks, where non-family members (friends and peers) become a reference group for values and behavior, including alcohol use/abuse. Although rural Latino youth are at risk for early onset of alcohol use and related health problems, we actually know very little about culturally specific risk and resiliency factors among this population. If systematic and powerful preventive interventions are to be developed for these rural youth, it is of critical importance to better understand the specific contributions of cultural and contextual factors to the risk of early onset of alcohol use and early transition to regular substance use.

Implications for policy, prevention, and intervention

The research has important policy implications for the successful social integration of rural Latino youth. Our data showed that rural Latino youth experience common and unique stressors as demonstrated in past and current research. Our work suggested that implementing programs at the school and community level may buffer the impact of these stressors for this particular population. School programs that promote cultural awareness for all ethnic groups are needed. Offering courses that integrate the sociology of gender or the sociology of marriage and family could help males and females deal with the divergent gendered expectations experienced at home. Finally, implementing formal and informal support systems at the community level (e.g., culturally-competent school counselors, social and health services, translators, free English as a second language classes) may alleviate feelings of social isolation, parental conflict and stress in these rapidly growing rural Latino communities.

This exploratory study took the first step in identifying potential risk and protective factors such as perceived parental stress, feelings of social isolation, perceived discrimination and gendered expectations. Future studies, guided by a theoretical model that specifically addresses the unique influence of general and culturally-specific risk and resilience factors for these youth, are needed to examine the interplay of acculturation and acculturative stress in predicting substance use and mental health outcomes [50]. The information gained will provide a solid foundation for how culturally-informed prevention and treatment programs should be designed to effectively address risk and protective factors for substance use among Latino immigrant adolescents in non-metropolitan settings.


Funding for data collection was provided by a grant to Dan Hoyt from the Tobacco Settlement Funds for Biomedical Research Enhancement Funds. Support for manuscript preparation was facilitated by a faculty fellowship funded by a grant to Marcela Raffaelli and Gustavo Carlo from the Nebraska Tobacco Settlement Biomedical Research Enhancement Funds. Thanks to Dan Hoyt, Kimberly Tyler and the anonymous reviewers who provided important insights for this paper.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006