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How Does the Cultural Gap Hurt the Hispanic Family?

Dec 24, 2007
I remember when my youngest daughter told me that she was considering Cooper Union, an elite private university located in Manhattan. She wanted to study architecture and teachers were telling her it was the top school for that career.

I thought, "How could my daughter consider leaving her family in Florida behind?"

Since immigrating to the United States when she was only four years old, I had become concerned when she was, not only losing her Spanish, but becoming too Americanized. She became overly independent and individualistic. Like many Hispanic parents, I expected her to be interdependent and to put the family's welfare first.

A cultural gap had developed between us. It manifested itself in my lack of support for my daughter's academic aspirations. For a few months there was conflict but my daughter prevailed. She was determined that my beliefs and traditions would not separate her from her dreams. In that process, because of her teachers' support, she ended up receiving a full scholarship of more than $100,000 and is now at Cooper pursuing architecture.

What Causes Role Reversal?

Role reversal occurs when Hispanic parents either become dependant on their children or are led by their children instead of leading them, especially at an age when the child is too young to have that responsibility. The cause may be linguistic, cultural or educational gaps that gradually develop between Hispanic children and their parents following their immigration to the U.S.

In my web article, "How Does Role Reversal Hurt the Hispanic Family", I explained the impact that occurs when a linguistic gap is developed, that is, as children become fluent in English and parents do not. In a similar fashion, a cultural gap may develop as the child develops the ability to navigate American mainstream culture while their parents remain separated from it.

The development of the cultural divide often parallels the children's educational experience and the children's ability to navigate the American educational system as a student. The cultural gap widens when children acquire a higher level of education than their parents may have gotten.

What is the Process of Acculturation?

Families that immigrate to the United States are faced with the challenge of learning and adapting to a new culture. It is more than learning a language. It is adopting different beliefs and values. It is a different frame of reference; a totally new way of living life.

The same way that there are stages in the process of language acquisition, there are also stages in the process of learning the new culture.

The first stage that students go through is the "honeymoon" period. In this stage newcomers are enamored with the newness of American culture.

The second stage is cultural shock. In this stage immigrant students become aware of the differences between their culture and the mainstream American culture and feel deprived of the things that they are familiar with.

Finally, the third stage is called acculturated. In this stage, students have developed the ability to navigate both cultures. While children are moving upward through the different stages of acculturation, by attending school and interacting with teachers and other students of the mainstream culture. Their parents may not acculturate.

Why Don't Parents Acculturate?

Hispanic parents might be consumed by the amount of hours they have to work and have neither time nor energy to get involved in activities where interact with sufficiently with individuals in mainstream American culture. They are likely to live in communities and work in places with a high concentration of Hispanics. They attend Hispanic churches and watch Spanish television.

Many of these parents get stuck in the cultural shock stage. They may live in cultural disorientation. What they experience here is viewed the same cultural lens they had before they immigrated. They continue to interpret their present life experiences with the same frame of reference they had back in their native countries.

Hispanic children will likely adopt values, beliefs, attitudes and a frame of reference different from their parents. They see life in a more Americanized view. Within the family a gap develops because it is no longer a homogeneous family culture. This brings new challenges to the family.

First it affects the dynamics of the Hispanic family; it is not a single-culture family anymore. It is extremely difficult to function as a family unit when the members have different beliefs and values, different frames of references.

Second, children are found in the middle of two cultures. What might be acceptable and even admirable in one culture can be rejected and undeserving in another. In the case of my daughter, she had to choose. Would she follow family traditions with educational success being measured by her family's agreement with it, or would she embrace change and measure success based on individual accomplishments?

Parents who do not move upward in the ladder of acculturation have a difficult time leading a family in which children have already absorbed the American culture.

How can Hispanic Parents Lessen the Cultural Gap?

Parents need to be aware of their own culture and learn American culture.Schools, Hispanic community organizations, or churches can help by make parents aware of their own culture and the differences that may exist with American culture. Parents need to get engaged in conversations in which their perceptions, beliefs and values are discussed.

Parents need to learn English. The community at large needs to help parents realize in a supportive way, the importance of learning English. Language is the door to a culture. It is nearly impossible to learn a culture if you do not understand the language. Communities should positively motivate parents to enroll in programs where parents can learn English.

Parents need to interact with people from the mainstream culture. They need encouragement to venture out of their Hispanic-only world. I know that this is intimidating. I have done it. You cannot learn English if you do not practice English with people who speak English, you cannot learn the American culture if you do not interact with people from the mainstream culture. For many, a good place to start is church. Attending services in English and congregating with people of the mainstream culture is often a good place to begin.

Parents need to be exposed to the American media in English. Parents should listen to the radio and watch television in English; not all the time, but on a regular basis. Parents can learn aspects of the mainstream culture by doing this.

Parents need to share mainstream cultural activities with their children. Go to athletic events, movies, and other community or family events where they experience activities in English, together.

When I first immigrated to the U.S., I lived in Miami. I loved Miami and its culture, but I did not need English to function. It was not until I moved to West Palm Beach that I learned more English and began to understand American culture. I was even able to complete a doctoral program at Florida Atlantic University. If I could learn the language and culture, others can too.
About the Author
Dr. Lourdes Ferrer is an leader in education. She is a consultant to school systems regarding Hispanic issues including parental involvement, assessment, the No Child Left Behind act (NCLB). She is a motivational speaker and seminar presenter. She is the creator and leadership trainer for Navigating the American School System (NAES), a Hispanic Parental Involvement Initiative.Visit her Website
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