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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 4, No. 1
February 1999

Improve Your Ability to Serve Hispanic Families

The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing group in the United States, and that by the year 2050, Hispanics will be the largest--and youngest--minority group in the U.S. (Day, 1997). Because people of Hispanic origin, especially immigrants, face discrimination, economic difficulties, language barriers, and other obstacles, social workers are increasingly likely to encounter Hispanic clients (Sotomayor, 1991). Elba Montalve, of New York City's Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, has said that "One of the major problems in foster the lack of cultural competence in service to Latino children" (Mayo, 1997).

Hispanics fall into many ethnic groups, including Native-American, European, African-American, a mix of these, or "other". We should respect whatever term our clients choose for themselves, whether or not it is recognized by the Census Bureau. We should also remember that many Hispanic clients were born in the United States, speak English, and lead a typical American lifestyle. Don't assume anything. Ask questions and listen with respect.

Combatting Stereotypes

Other Americans may harbor racist notions about Hispanics, sometimes without realizing it. One way to dispel prejudices about Hispanics is to try to understand why they come to North Carolina. Of course, there will be different reasons for each family. Some will be new to the area, others will have been here for generations.

Many of those new to North Carolina come as migrant agricultural workers, and in that capacity are subject to low wages, unsanitary conditions, isolation from social services, toxic chemicals (herbicides, pesticides, etc.), and fraud on the part of their employers (Steinberg, 1998). But more and more, Hispanics are settling in North Carolina permanently (NC Geographical Data Clearinghouse, 1998).

In the Southwestern United States, Mexican-Americans are the largest minority group, and were settled there long before English speakers arrived (Day, 1997). Being aware of the long-standing position of Hispanics in the U.S. may keep non-Hispanics from harboring racial stereotypes.

Another way to avoid stereotyping is to allow clients to teach us about Hispanic culture. This is superior to learning from books or other resources because, while some sources can be helpful, they may reinforce our stereotypes if not supplemented by more personal cultural education.

Gender Roles

For example, in books about Hispanic culture, much is written about machismo, a term that reflects a concept of masculinity. It is useful to learn about machismo, but be careful not to generalize--not all Hispanic men are dominant, and not all Hispanic women are submissive.

In many ways, machismo is a strength in Hispanic families. Despite the popular conception of macho Hispanic men as violent or animalistic, machismo can mean a nurturing, protective man (Mayo, 1997). The one-sided, violent view of machismo is reinforced as much b American culture as by Hispanic tradition, and may have the effect of encouraging Hispanic men to fit the violent, controlling image of masculinity portrayed by Hollywood (Mayo, 1997).

With a fuller understanding of machismo, social workers may help clients develop strong, caring machismo that benefits the whole family.

The flip side of male dominance would apparently be female submissiveness. It is true that in many Hispanic families, as in the families of most cultures, women are expected to defer to their male partners. Yet this is changing slowly, as "mainstream" ideas and economic demands take their toll. However, it remains true that Hispanic women are often responsible for the upkeep of the home, child care, and relationships with extended family (Mayo, 1997).

While this may be frustrating to those who find such gender roles to be outdated, it can be a strength. Hispanic women often maintain relationships with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and godparents. The extended family is still very important in Hispanic culture (Harper & Lantz, 1996) and it is a wonderful resource. Hispanic women are often in the best position to utilize that resource.

Family Ties

The family is at the center of Hispanic life. When one has become very friendly with a Hispanic person, one may be told that one is como familia--like family. When a Hispanic person wants to welcome us into the home, we may be told to feel en familia--in the family (Mayo, 1997).

The tendency of Hispanics to maintain close ties with extended families has sometimes even been the source of jokes and racist stereotypes. This is unfortunate, because large families are actually a great strength for immigrant populations (Harper & Lantz, 1996). It is important to understand that because of economic need, religious beliefs (Catholicism is by far the dominant religion among Spanish-speaking people), and cultural tradition, you will probably encounter some large Hispanic families.

For a family struggling financially, the extra income and the emotional support offered by living with a large family (not to mention the money saved on rent) can be essential to survival. In fact, the family has been referred to as the Puerto Rican social security system (Mayo, 1997).

Family ties often extend beyond blood relatives to agregado--those related by marriage, and very distant relatives (Mayo, 1997). This extended network can be an excellent resource that social workers can help clients draw on, especially when other resources are unavailable.

This is not to say that having a large family won't present difficulties for some clients. Our society is not set up to support extended families, and there is a lot of pressure on them to assimilate by living only with their spouses and children (Harper & Lantz, 1996). As family-centered practitioners, we should help Hispanic clients maintain their traditional family systems, even in the face of great obstacles.


One important part of family relationships, and any relationship, is personalismo, the Spanish word for interpersonal relationships. Perhaps the most important aspects of personalismo are respect, honor, and courtesy (Harper & Lantz, 1996). Clients may take offense if they feel we have insulted members of their family, even slightly, even if we are trying to help. They may also take offense if we disparage their traditions.

For example, some Hispanic clients may want to seek help with physical or emotional ailments from curanderos and spiritualists, traditional healers in Hispanic communities (Harper & Lantz, 1996). While we may be tempted to dissuade them from this unscientific approach, we must take care not to insult this system of care, for it is a time-honored and often successful tradition. Healers often use herbs to treat common maladies, and they may be willing to listen to our client's dilemmas for much longer than we can. This system is an important strength.

To learn more ways to effectively join with Hispanic families, see "Tips for Working with Hispanic Families".


Day, J. C. (1997). Population projections of the United States by age, sex, race, and Hispanic origin: 1995-2050. U.S. Bureau of Census, Current Population Reports, p 25-1130. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Harper, K. & Lantz, J. (1996). Cross-cultural practice: Social work with diverse populations. Chicago: Lyceum Books.

Mayo, Y. (1997). Machismo, fatherhood, and the Latino family: Understanding the concept. Journal of Multicultural Social Work, 5(1/2), 49-61.

North Carolina Geographic Date Clearinghouse [Online]. (1998). <>. (Web address no longer functional.)

Sotomayor, M. (ed.) (1991). Empowering Hispanic families: A critical issue for the 90s. Milwaukee: Family Service America.

Steinberg, M. (1998). Farm workers win early legal battle. The Prism, 9(7), 1-3.

1999 Jordan Institute for Families