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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 3
June 2002

Latinos in North Carolina

Many of North Carolina’s county departments of social services, health departments, and other community service agencies are experiencing a steady rise in the numbers of Latino families they serve, and with good reason: North Carolina’s Hispanic population is growing faster than any population in the state. In fact, our state has the fastest growing Hispanic population in the U.S.

Given the fact that North Carolina historically has not had a large number of Hispanic residents, it is not surprising that some helping professionals find it challenging to work with this population. Because they are unfamiliar with Latinos, these professionals lack the foundation they need to understand, communicate with, and support Latino families. This article will provide some of the information they will need to begin building this essential foundation.

About Latinos

Latinos are people of Latin American ancestry. Hispanics are people who trace their heritage back to any Spanish-speaking country. While we acknowledge this important distinction, in this newsletter we use these terms interchangeably to refer to people whose roots are from the Spanish-speaking countries of North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and Spain.

Latinos are an extremely diverse group—they include individuals with a wide range of characteristics from many different countries, regions, socioeconomic backgrounds, cultures, and races. Therefore it is important not to think of Latinos as a massive, uniform ethnic group.

In this newsletter, particularly in the descriptions of generational issues and Latino culture, we share information in an attempt to support your practice. However, readers should not assume everything we say applies to all Latinos. This would be like taking a description of North Carolinians (who are themselves a very diverse group) and assuming it held true for every American from Florida to Alaska. To avoid giving offense and to increase your chances of building a positive relationship, when approaching a Latino family it is best to avoid assumptions, to treat them as individuals, and to let them tell you about themselves in their own words.

NC’s Demographics

In his introduction to North Carolina Latino demographics, Martinez (2002) notes that over the past decade, the Hispanic population in North Carolina has grown 394%. In 1990 Latinos accounted for 1.04% of the state’s population. Today they number 378,963 and comprise 4.7% of the population (Census, 1990; Census 2000).

A significant portion of this growth can be attributed to immigration. Latinos coming to the U.S. are motivated by the same things that motivate other immigrants—an attraction to our freedom and values and/or a desire to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

This growth in the state’s Latino population can also be attributed to a rising number of Hispanic births. In the 1990s annual Hispanic births in North Carolina increased more than 500%, from 1,752 in 1990 to 9,484 in 1999 (Martinez, 2002).

It must also be noted that other Latinos, many of them migrant farm workers, also live in North Carolina and are not included in the population figures above. In 2000 it was estimated that migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families in North Carolina numbered 156,893. Of these, 24,872 were children, 60% of whom were under age 12 (Larson, 2000). Many of these workers and their families are Latino. The N.C. Employment Security Commission estimates there are at least 58,000 Hispanic migrants in the state.

Most of N.C.’s Latinos trace their heritage to one of three countries: Mexico (65%), Puerto Rico (8.2%), and Cuba (1.9%). The remaining 24.8% are from other Central or South American countries, or other Spanish-speaking countries (Census 2000).

Nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s Hispanics are foreign born (64.2%). Almost all of the state’s foreign-born Latinos are noncitizens (58.3%)—only 5.9% have been naturalized (Martinez, 2002). All Puerto Ricans are born U.S. citizens.

Since so many are recent immigrants, it is likely North Carolina’s Latinos face significant language barriers. More than one-third of the Hispanics in North Carolina (34%) speak English poorly or not at all (Martinez, 2002).

Child Welfare

Historically, the child welfare system in the U.S. has struggled with serving minority children and families. This struggle, which is often discussed in terms of disproportionate representation and “differential” treatment, is most pronounced when it comes to serving African Americans (see Practice Notes, vol. 6, no. 2). Because these issues have been such a concern for our largest minority population, it makes sense that as individuals and as a system we should watch carefully to ensure that disproportionate representation, “differential” treatment, or other issues do not become a concern for Latinos, too.

In North Carolina the child welfare experience of Latino children resembles the experience of non-Hispanics when it comes such measures as the number of times they enter foster care and their chances of entering placement following an initial substantiation (NCDSS, 2002). In terms of achieving permanence in a timely way, North Carolina may actually be doing a somewhat better job with Latino children: in 2001, the median length of stay in foster care for Hispanic children was 382 days, compared to 438 days for non-Hispanic children.

We also know which North Carolina counties are seeing the most Latinos in connection with child welfare. Between July 1996 and December 2001, 1,865 Hispanic children entered DSS placement authority for the first time in their lives (in North Carolina). Eleven of North Carolina’s 100 counties cared for half of these children: Cumberland, Mecklenberg, New Hanover, Guilford, Cleveland, Wake, Durham, Johnston, Forsyth, Buncombe, and Onslow. This is not surprising, since the state’s highest populations of Latino U.S. citizens live in Cumberland, Mecklenberg, Wake, and Onslow counties—each has over 20,000 Hispanic residents (Census 2000).

Generational Issues

In addition to country of origin and other background issues, Latino families differ with regard to the length of time they have spent in the U.S. These differences are often expressed in terms of a person being first, second, or third generation Latino.

First generation Latinos were born in another country and came to the U.S. These families are most likely to adhere to the traditional Latino values described in the following section, and to have less proficiency in English. Children in these families may speak English well (Union County DSS, 2002).

Second generation Latinos are born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. Most of these families speak English in their own homes but speak Spanish to their parents. Educated and raised here, many second generation Latinos have assimilated into American culture (Union County DSS, 2002).

Third generation Latinos (fourth generation, etc.), the descendants of Spanish-speaking immigrants, may have lost much of the connection to Latino culture and the Spanish language, but may still be very proud of their heritage.

It may be helpful to think about generational differences among Latinos as the result of the process of acculturation, which is defined as adaptation or loss of one’s cultural values and behaviors as a result of contact with another culture. Acculturation can have both positive and negative consequences. Hispanics who embrace mainstream American culture may be better able to take advantage of our country’s economic and educational resources.

Yet in the process of adopting the ways and values of the dominant culture they may weaken protective connections to their families, communities, and cultural traditions, which may in turn make them more susceptible to mainstream social problems. For example, although most first generation Mexican American women consume little alcohol, research has shown that successive generations come to approximate the drinking patterns of the general population of American women (Grayson, 2001), putting them at greater risk for alcohol abuse.

Religion and Spirituality

Faith plays a critical role in the everyday lives of most Latinos. Most are Christian, with the majority belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. As it does for many people, religion offers Latinos a sense of direction in their lives and guidance in the education and raising of their children. Participating in church also gives Hispanics a sense of belonging to a community, something very important to immigrants who have left the communities they know behind.

Depending on where they are from (and other factors), some Latinos also believe in or practice spiritismo and/or santeria, non-Christian faiths from the Americas and Africa. These individuals may see these beliefs as perfectly compatible with the Christianity they practice. They may also seek medical or mental health care from folk healers known as curanderos.

While some of these beliefs and practices may be strange to us, we must take care to show respect for our clients’ beliefs and traditions, which are time-honored and an important source of strength (Pajewski & Enriquez, 1996).

Traditional Culture

Despite their differences, traditional Latinos from diverse countries often have common values and cultural norms, such as:

Familismo (family). The family is at the center of everyday life, providing members with support and a deep sense of belonging, identity, and purpose. Traits/actions that reflect a Latino’s role in the family include:

  • Obedience and respect towards authority figures
  • Honesty, helpfulness, generosity, and loyalty towards the family
  • Responsibility, sacrifice, and hard work for the benefit of the family

Familismo is particularly important for Hispanic mothers, since they are the family’s primary nurturers and caretakers. Mothers play a vital role in preservation of the family as a unit, as well as in sustaining contact with the extended family (Castellanos, 1986).

Because family is so central, Latinos hesitate to go outside their communities for help, and they treat strangers with caution. Especially if they are new to this country, Latinos may be reluctant to ask public agencies for assistance. Instead, they will turn to those they know for help (Grayson, 2001).

Value of Children. Latino families are child-centered. Parents are often very affectionate, and may playfully call young children papito (little father) or mamita (little mother). Yet in some homes (but certainly not all) children are expected to be seen and not heard (Union County, 2002; Pajewski & Enriquez, 1996).

The value Latinos place on children is reflected in the size of their families: 13% of Hispanic households in North Carolina have four children under age 18, compared with just 3% of non-Hispanics. Nationally, the average Latino household contains 3.63 people; non-Hispanics average 2.6 people per household (Census, 2000).

Personalismo. Traditional Latinos place great value on close interpersonal relationships. They like to think of themselves as being friendly and hospitable and strive to be viewed as simpatico, a term that encompasses “such qualities as being charming, congenial, agreeable, open, and outgoing. Behaviors or qualities that express this cultural norm include loyalty, honesty, and generosity toward one’s friends; hospitality towards others; a sense of mutual trust; and a willingness to help others” (Castellanos, 1986).

From the perspective of personalismo it may be irrational to engage in confrontation, even if it is warranted. Thus, Latinos may avoid being a bearer of bad news or upsetting anyone. To avoid disappointing people, Latinos may say what they think the other party wants to hear or give ambiguous responses (De Mente, 1996).

Respeto (respect). A core Latino conviction is that all people deserve to be treated with respect and courtesy. “Older Latinos expect and receive respect from younger Latinos . . . . Related to respeto are qualities such as humility, deference, submissiveness, and obedience” (Castellanos, 1986).

Dignidad (dignity). “Latinos often strive to present themselves in a dignified manner, especially in public. The violation of one’s dignity by another (seen as a lack of respeto) is experienced as shameful and humiliating. Qualities associated with dignidad are a sense of self-respect and self-pride, such as might be demonstrated through responsibility and hard work” (Castellanos, 1986).


A growing number of Latinos are calling North Carolina home. They bring with them a culture that has shaped and supported Hispanics for centuries. Yet like any immigrant group, Latinos are under pressure to adopt the practices of mainstream American culture, though doing so may cause them a great sense of loss and impair their ability to function.

Rather than adding to this pressure, child welfare workers should make every effort to learn about Latinos and find out how they have traditionally solved problems.

References for this and other articles in this issue