It is hard to overstate the optimism that Latinx immigrants have when they arrive in the United States. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term used in the United States to refer to Latino/Hispanic individuals of Latin American or Caribbean heritage.)
These Latinx people feel they have moved to a better life. Their hopes and expectations are high, and this optimism helps carry them through difficult times. Positivity is a great protector of mental health and a driver of success. But it is not enough to deal with everything Latinx families face.
Optimism is just one of many strengths people from these communities bring with them. There are many others common to people of Latinx heritage, whether they are born in the United States or are recent immigrants. They include a strong work ethic, with many people working long hours in multiple jobs and doing them well, and rarely missing work or calling in sick, even when they are ill. For example, it is common for mothers to have very busy lives, looking after their children, taking night classes after work, and working weekends.
Additionally, the strength of Latinx family cohesion often holds its members safely, thanks to a love and joy of family life. It is well documented that most Latinx adults will do anything and everything for their children. And there is a strong family commitment to learning and education.
Services – be they around education, health care, or child care – do not capitalize Latinx families’ many strengths.
Visiting Latinx homes, researchers usually bring educational toys to observe children’s play. In our work, when we give parents a small stipend for participating in our study, many parents ask, “Where can we buy these toys?” They see how their children enjoy a shape sorter, for example, and they want to buy one for them. At school, it is not unusual for children to ask for more books to bring home: “One is for me, and one is for Mom,” they might say.
Latinx families face challenges in learning a new language, but many encourage and value schooling as a way for their children to learn English and become successful members of U.S. society. When a young Latinx person defends a dissertation, family members often attend to witness and provide support. Everyone in the family goes to graduations, as is often the case with African American families and when families celebrate the first generation to go to college. Children succeeding is seen as a community achievement, not merely an individualistic collecting of a degree.
But too often, services – be they around education, health care, or child care – do not capitalize on Latinx families’ many strengths. Instead, they sometimes take them for granted and frequently fail to engage with them. Worse, current approaches in policy and practice often exacerbate difficulties that could have been addressed easily.
Price of policy failure
This complacency creates a pathway to disengagement, disillusionment, and well-documented underachievement among Latinx youth. For example, foreign-born children come to school and are initially very interested in learning. They have their computers and are full of commitment. However, after a few weeks, hopes may have been dashed and some students wonder why they should stay in school when they get little help to learn English, and their home cultures and languages receive minimal validation in school.
Many of these youth start disengaging from the educational system as they face competing demands, including providing money for their families or, during the pandemic, helping younger siblings with virtual learning. They are lured by jobs that may not pay enough but, for an adolescent who has come from Guatemala, even low pay can look like a huge amount of money.
Soon, young people are lost from education because they have not seen enough benefit from getting involved in their learning. High schools should be trying harder to retain these young people, not only by acknowledging Latinx culture more overtly and supporting the learning of English, but by, for example, providing trade training.
Meanwhile, positivity can protect only so much if life is really tough, especially over a prolonged period. During the first few months of the pandemic, Latinx optimism sustained mental health, according to research. An umbrella is useful when it suddenly rains because it offers fairly good protection. But it is no match for a hurricane or a lengthy period when, perhaps, the adults in the family lack adequate work, money is tight, there is not enough child care available, and parents are also expected to support their children’s remote learning when their grasp of educational methods and English might be slight.
There are signs that the COVID-19 hurricane has overwhelmed at least some of those Latinx umbrellas. During the early months of the pandemic, Latina females had the highest rates of unemployment, adding extra pressures to household incomes. There is also robust evidence that Latinx children did not receive the support they needed for remote learning. Often, Latinx households lacked people who could provide the right level of support because of the differential English-speaking ability in homes. Additionally, children did not have extra iPads to work from, and in some cases, they missed online testing in families where a single phone was shared by the entire household.
Impact on Latinx young people
Cracks in Latinx family systems have been identified in college and high school enrolment among Latino young adults. During the pandemic, as their parents struggled to cope with extra demands, many of these young people were expected to drop out of college to help their younger siblings with learning. They have been further squeezed because, with household incomes also tight, many had to work to supplement family earnings.
It is time for public services to stop making it so hard for Latinx families to succeed.
It is disturbing that Latinx youth, who had made many recent gains in college entrance, now have the highest rates of dropout and the lowest levels of enrollment, in both high school and college. These statistics highlight how policy failures force these young people to choose between family and work/education – choices their more privileged peers typically do not face.
Pressures on family
When family cohesion faces such stressors, how far can it be stretched before it snaps? It is hard to know precisely. Low-wage work is deeply problematic, setting tight limits on what parents can do for their children. If a mother works two or three jobs, who cares for her children? When can a mother or father engage with the school if they are both working long hours? When is there time to navigate the health care system?
How can one ensure good child care? If work is unreliable and unstable, with no benefits and few hours required on short notice, children may have to be placed in three or four different child care arrangements. Typically, there is no formal child care on weekends, so low-paid Latinx families are forced into an informal network of supports, some of which are not of very high quality.
How do parents square the circle of wanting to spend loving time with their children and earning enough money to feed their family? One father we know works three jobs, getting home at 11 pm every night. His two-year-old naps until 10:30 pm, then is wakened so she can play with her father for half an hour — but she is tired the next day.
Backing up Latinx strengths
These and other stories speak to Latinx strengths that are insufficient in themselves to ensure that children and families thrive. Latinx families need back-up from services – be they around education, health care, or child care – which should properly tie in with family capacities. Unless they do, no amount of family cohesion, Latinx optimism, a love of learning, and a strong work ethic is enough to carry children through challenging times.
Changes in U.S. Latinx communities
But these services often do not engage with the levels — and the flexibility — of provision required to make the most of the strengths of Latinx families. This inadequacy is often rooted in a failure even to understand the complicated backstory of a particular Latinx community. The term “Latinx” does not begin to explain huge differences between, for example, those born and raised in the United States and recent arrivals in terms of language, education, and literacy. The term also tends to assume fluency at least in Spanish, but many women and families from rural areas may not speak even Spanish, being fluent only, for example, in the Guatemalan oral language Mam.
This lack of understanding is compounded by shifts over the past 20 years in Latinx settlements beyond their traditional locations in California, Texas, and New York into jurisdictions that are much less familiar with their needs and cultures. The diversity of the Latinx populations and their languages may overwhelm rigid, unfamiliar systems, leading to frustration. As a result, Latinx people are easily blamed and seen as problems. Parents are criticized for not seeking services the right way, not filling in forms correctly, and coming to administrative offices in person to apply for programs instead of applying using a computer. In these ways, seeking help may be perceived as a deficit behavior.
Health care and child care struggles
Likewise, child care systems typically fail to understand the complexities in the working lives of struggling Latinx parents, who may find a child care desert when they seek solutions that reconcile work and parenting commitments. And severe limits in the availability of health care insurance, via Medicaid, leave many families uninsured or, because of discrimination against individuals whose immigration status is not regularised, some family members covered and other deemed ineligible.
They have tended to take Latinx families for granted and then leave them to sink when everything becomes too much.
These are not new issues. Research has been identifying them clearly for decades. And the costs of such inflexible and unperceptive bureaucracies are plain to see in Latinx children not reaching their potential. Latina adolescents have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide attempts in the country – despite all the strengths their families bring to their lives. Longer-term consequences are documented in poor cardiovascular health, diabetes, and suboptimal functioning in adulthood.
A manifesto for change
The answer to these issues lies in developing bureaucracies that acknowledge, value, and support what Latinx families are already doing to help themselves. These systems need to be much more flexible and sensitive to the needs and experiences of Latinx communities and their very diverse memberships. That should start with a more child-centered approach in schools so different Latinx backgrounds are not barriers to, but rather starting points for, providing education.
This shift should also consider what we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to know which children had their educational disruption minimized due to parental engagement and which children missed a year or more of early education. It is also vital to build an understanding of this great variability of childhood experience into future provision of services.
In terms of service infrastructure, we should extend the co-location of services and schools so the places where children are really known – and that parents can trust – are equipped to provide a straightforward approach to meeting other needs. Community schools have proved their worth in, for example, improving access to childhood health care and reducing the administrative burden of other services on hard-pressed parents.
It is time for public services to stop making it so hard for Latinx families to succeed. They must also respect the rights of Latinx individuals: Most young children of immigrants are U.S.-born, making them citizens of the United States. As such, they should have access and rights/privileges equal to all other U.S. citizens.
Latinx families bring such strengths — so much energy, skill, and commitment — to raising their children well. Services need to align with and build on these strengths. For too long, they have tended to take these families for granted and then leave them to sink when everything becomes too much. We must move past that time and do better.