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Chapter 10: Latino/Latina Americans: Vignettes

Vignette 1, Miguel (client) and Melody (counselor):

Although people often think that Melody is a Latina counselor because of her dark hair and brown skin, actually she is biracial: Asian (Filipino) and white. Melody took Spanish in school, but she never thought that she would have any practical use for it. Times have definitely changed; her Midwestern hometown has seen a tremendous growth in the immigrant Latino/Latina and Spanish-speaking population. Melody works as an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment counselor, and Latino/Latina clients have begun to enter the system. Melody knew it was a matter of time before she would be assigned a Spanish-speaking client, and she dreaded putting her Spanish to the test.

That client was Miguel. Miguel entered her office and Melody noticed an expression of relief come across his face as he asked her, "¿Hablas español?" Melody hated to let him down and answered "un poco"a little bit. Miguel smiled. Melody was sure he could tell from her accent that she was already struggling.

Miguel told Melody that he was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. He entered the United States "by climbing and running" over a border fence. Miguel married a woman in a Texas border town and moved his family to the Midwest with the hope of finding a better job. He presented to counseling because he was addicted to cocaine and alcohol and was physically abusing his wife and three children. Miguel was concerned that if he were caught abusing substances or if the police were called on a domestic abuse call to his home, he would be deported.As Melody listened to his story, she knew that she would need to be aware of the stereotypes that she had already formed about Latinos. One positive stereotype was her belief that Latino men were dedicated to their family and were hard working and community oriented. At the same time, she also believed that Latinos were domineering and macho. As Miguel's counselor, Melody knew that these stereotypes would have the potential to affect the entire counseling relationship.

Other factors that Melody considered when working with Miguel included her comfort level with her own culture and ethnic identity, as well as her own acculturation status. Because her monolingual and monocultural supervisor wasn't much help, Melody sought supervision from a former professor. In the process, she read all that she could about counseling Latino/Latina clients. Through supervision and research, Melody realized that she had to broach the relationship between acculturation struggles and substance abuse with Miguel, as well as help Miguel find a way to recognize and foster his cultural strengths.

Furthermore, due to her lack of expertise as a bilingual counselor and the facility's lack of bilingual resources for clients from different ethnic backgrounds, Melody did not feel that she had the necessary personal or professional supports to ethically work alone with Miguel, who wanted to speak Spanish exclusively in the sessions. Coming to this conclusion enabled Melody to have a trained bilingual interpreter brought in to assist them with the counseling process. Rather than seeing the interpreter as a sign of Melody's ineptitude, Miguel reported that he appreciated her attempts to be culturally sensitive and understand him.

Vignette 2, Angela (client) and Terry (counselor):

Angela, a 30-year-old Puerto Rican female, comes to a local counseling center on the advice of her physician. She meets with Terry, a European American of Scandinavian descent. Angela states that she is seeking counseling to help her develop assertiveness skills because she feels self-doubt and guilt when making decisions. She lives alone, is the youngest of five siblings, and has depressive symptoms. As the initial interview continues, Terry learns that Angela has been living in the United States for nine years. She has difficulty speaking English but has secured a job as a manager at a local fast food restaurant.

Angela has a history of broken relationships, including a divorce. Currently she is dating a man and reports being afraid of this relationship not working out. She is also fearful of losing the support of her family due to her relationships. She reports receiving critical comments from her family regarding her marital status and the number of partners she has had. Angela explains that, according to her family, her relationships do not work because she does what she wants (e.g., does not seek or follow her partner's approval), is not a good housekeeper (e.g., allows her partner to cook or do the dishes), and she is too independent. Angela explains that she is tired of putting aside her needs in order to help other people who do not appreciate her help or sacrifices.

In counseling, Terry helps Angela work on the assertiveness skills that she lacks. However, as part of the work, the counselor feels that it is important to explore Angela's family dynamics. Those dynamics include the role of women and men in the family and in the Puerto Rican community and Angela's role as the youngest sibling and as a single divorced woman. Also, Angela and Terry discuss the process of acculturation and its impact on her personal and family life. The most challenging issue for the counselor is to remember the central role that family plays in Angela's decisions. Therefore, Terry tries to maintain an awareness of how her own enculturation into a more individualistic and Western mainstream culture could potentially influence her work with Angela. The counselor's seeing Angela's case from a collectivist point of view helps Angela feel understood. It also ensures that Angela includes family considerations when she makes decisions concerning her life, even if she goes against family norms.

When the counselor who was described in the opening vignette met with Miguel, the term Latino served as a filter for her understanding the individual in context: By accounting for Miguel's ethnicity, Melody reflected on her own beliefs regarding what it means to be Latino/Latina in the U.S., on her own identity as a biracial woman, and on the role this identity plays in Miguel's expectations of her. Similarly, in the second vignette, Terry remained culturally alert by keeping in mind the potential similarities and differences between herself and Angela regarding acculturation and enculturation, especially their views on gender roles, which might create conflict in their working relationship.

The two cases were presented from the viewpoints of the counselors in order to emphasize that the counselor's work is not simply to work on the client, but to be with the client. This alliance requires counselor self-reflection and personal cultural awareness.

Historical and Contextual Factors Affecting Latino/Latina Clients:

Historical and contextual factors are important in understanding characteristics of Latino/Latina clients, especially the circumstances of immigration and related attitudes toward the country of origin and the United States. For example, a Cuban who immigrated to the United States to escape Communism in the first wave of Cuban immigration (and was received in the U.S. with official resettlement programs) might have a reason to feel differently about the United States and her or his homeland than would a Puerto Rican individual who is able to travel freely between the two places. Circumstances of immigration were important in both of the opening case vignettes. Miguel feared deportation. Angela, despite being a U.S. citizen by virtue of being born in Puerto Rico, still faced serious acculturation issues in the mainland U.S.

Stereotyping by Non-Latinos/Latinas:

As the reader may recall from the first vignette, Miguel's counselor, Melody, was aware of the importance of knowing her stereotypes because they can influence the therapeutic relationship. Some of the stereotypes held by Melody are also typical of U.S. society. They include the idea that all Latinos are dedicated to their family yet are domineering, abusive machos or machistas . Latinas, by contrast, are seen as self-sacrificing and unassertive (a phenomenon called marianismo , which is discussed later ).

Latino/Latina Ethnicity and Race:

Although the growing pan-ethnic identity of many U.S. Latinos/Latinas can be considered a positive development in terms of political unity, an imposed pan-ethnic identity may also be distressing to a client who has a strong national or regional identity. It should be noted that upon entry into the U.S., many Latinos/Latinas experience a transformation of identity as they enter the binary (black/white) racial and ethnic categorization system of the United States. They previously may have defined themselves nationally or regionally along a continuum of racial descriptors found in Latin American countries. However, once in the U.S., they may be given a new ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino/Latina) and race.

This transformation can be confusing and disorienting. For example, in the second vignette, Angela is a Puerto Rican who identifies herself as an isleña , someone from the island of Puerto Rico as opposed to a Puerto Rican who was born in the U.S., and as a Tiana (a reference to the indigenous people of Puerto Rico). However, she is now identified in the U.S. as simply Hispanic and/or black. This new identification can cause an identity crisis and marginalization.

Regional Differences in the U.S.:

In the case vignettes that were provided at the beginning of the chapter, the region of the country in which the clients Miguel and Angela live might be key to understanding the clients as well as providing resources. For example, if Miguel is in an area where there are many immigrant workers, the counselor may be able to find resources in the immigrant community. Similarly, if Angela, who is Puerto Rican, lives in an area where a different Latino/Latina group (e.g., Cubans) is dominant, her family may also be concerned that she is becoming less Puerto Rican and more like her Cuban peers. The family may be distressed to hear Angela speaking Spanish with a different accent.

Language: Spanish, English, and Spanglish:

It should be noted that most (75 percent) U.S. Latinos/Latinas who speak Spanish also report that they speak English. Thus, agreeing upon the language spoken in counseling might be a decision that is based on necessity (e.g., if the client does not speak English) or choice (e.g., if the client prefers to speak Spanish). For example, in the first vignette, Miguel preferred to speak Spanish even though he could speak English.

Language-Related Problems

There are three language-related problem domains central to working with Latino/Latina clients: language choice, resources, and attitude. The reader is asked to refer back to Miguel's case, in which his counselor encounters all three of these problem domains.

Language Choice. The first domain, language choice, includes the following issues:

  • the meaning behind a client's choice of language (e.g., which one he or she chooses at which points in the session and for how long);
  • the implications of a counselor's choosing to address (or not) language use, that is, the power dynamics involved with language;
  • the effect that these factors have on the therapeutic relationship;
  • the extent to which language and related dynamics interfere with or deepen the counseling process.

In the case of Miguel, the counselor was unsure of her Spanish language ability; therefore, she opted to use an interpreter. Miguel reported feeling comfortable with that option, which possibly deepened their working relationship. However, this level of cultural awareness does not always exist, and language can become a barrier to helping.

Language-Related Attitudes. The third domain, attitude, includes issues such as the counselor's level of comfort with both the client's and her or his own language proficiency (including reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending/communicating) and the counselor's own ethnic identity and acculturation status. The counselor Melody in the opening vignette took some risks in addressing these three domains, and the client seemed to benefit from the results.

La Familia:

Family Relationships in Latino/Latina Culture : The strong familial relationships that presented conflict and strength in both the cases of Miguel and Angela are central to Latino/Latina culture. Latinos/Latinas should be conceptualized in the context of La Familia, that is, the whole family. However, the Latino/ Latin a notion of family is not the stereotypical nuclear family. Latino/ Latin a families often extend their notion of family to include relatives and close friends.

Latino/Latina Gender Roles:

It would be to the counselor's advantage to be alert to how gender role ideologies may affect relationships, the decisions clients make, and the reasons decisions are made. As stated earlier, many Latinos/ Latin as define themselves in the context of their families. Thus, understanding the role of gender in traditional Latino/Latina cultures is crucial. In the second vignette, Angela experienced a conflict with her family related to her independence and relationship history. This conflict was no doubt rooted in differing gender role expectations for women versus men.

Issues Related to Changing Gender Roles:

As Latino men and Latina women acculturate into multiple cultures (e.g., their culture of origin and the dominant culture), they are likely to challenge more rigid and traditional prescribed gender roles. Clients' challenging and negotiating such gender roles can become very stressful, due to family and community attitudes. This was the case for Angela. She reported being criticized by her family for being too independent and for not acting on her duties as a woman (e.g., cooking for her husband). She had begun to acculturate to U.S. female gender roles and was negotiating her role as a woman in the community and her family. However, her family members did not appear to share her enthusiasm for changing her gender role and were demanding that she act in a traditional manner. This conflict is typical because not all members of a family will acculturate or integrate into the new culture at the same rate or on the same issues.

Counselor Responses to Gender Issues:

Counselors can help Latinos/Latinas reduce their role-related stress by incorporating the following elements into their interventions. First, they can demonstrate understanding of Latino/Latina gender role expectations. Second, they can acknowledge the positive dimensions of machismo and marianismo . Finally, counselors can recognize the cultural values of respeto and familismo. As Falicov (1998) has explained, although Latinas are becoming more independent, for many, their family and their commitment to their culture remain very important. If a counselor mistakenly emphasizes independence from family, Latino/Latina clients might feel alienated decline to participat fully in counseling because they may feel that their values are not shared or understood by the counselor.

In the case of Angela, the counselor first acknowledged respeto , or esteem for elders in the family , the importance of family ( familismo ), and the nature of Latino/Latina gender roles before working on her assertiveness skills. Angela's counselor also acknowledged the potential influence that her own Western mainstream culture might have on her work with Angela. The counselor kept in mind that Angela wanted to become assertive and make decisions that took her needs into account, but not at the expense of losing her connection with her family.

Emphasizing Latino/Latina Family as a Strength:

Despite pervasively negative stereotypes, it is important for counselors to focus on strengths in Latino/Latina culture. Family is one such asset. For example, there is evidence that family pride and cohesion play a particularly powerful role in the psychosocial development of Cuban American children, acting as buffers for acculturative stress. The power of the family context was seen in the case of Angela, along with her developing individual assertiveness skills. The counselor helped her make her changes within the family context, helping all of them see that they could continue to count on each other for support (thus lessening her feelings of guilt). Thus, counselors need to see Latino/Latina families as a potential source of strength for clients, rather than solely endorsing individualistic notions of independence and individuation.

Adapting Language:

Language issues were address in a previous section of this chapter. It is worth reiterating that language is often the major barrier to obtaining counseling for Latino/Latina clients who do not speak English. However, not enough is known about this issue, as language has traditionally been neglected as a counseling variable in the professional literature. The reader is reminded of the case of Miguel, in which language choice was an issue. In general, counselors should not underestimate the power of language differences in counseling.

Language-Related Counselor Attitudes:

At titude includes issues such as the counselor's level of comfort with both the client's and her or his own language proficiency (including reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending/communicating) and the counselor's own ethnic identity and acculturation status. The counselor Melody in the opening vignette took some risks in addressing these three domains, and the client seemed to benefit from the results.