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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in the United States

Marysol Asencio,

Karen Ripoll-Núñez


Adolescence is a socially constructed category. For this reason, it should not be seen strictly as a developmental stage that is an inherent category separate from the social environment that assigns attributes, expectations, and limitations to this period of life. Lawrence Friedman and Elizabeth Goodman describe adolescence in the U.S. context as “a time of profound physiologic and psychosocial change during which the process of family separation begins, independent thought and action develop, and sexual identity emerges” (Friedman and Goodman, p. 171).

While this has become an increasingly important stage of life in the United States, research involving Latina and Latino adolescents and youth is fraught with gaps and limitations. Very little research has been done on the social and personality development of Latina and Latino youth. Rather, most research emphasizes “problem” behaviors such as school dropout, pregnancy, and substance abuse. In addition, adolescents' experiences involving Latina and Latino minority status such as discrimination, self-concept, and personal aspirations have not been researched sufficiently.

Research on Latina and Latino adolescents sometimes refers to Latinas and Latinos without discussing the cultural or socioeconomic differences among ethnic subgroups or stating whether the sample is representative of the Latina and Latino population nationally, regionally, or locally. At other times, the research is available for only one ethnic subgroup, such as Mexicans, but nothing may be written on the subject about other subgroups, such as Puerto Ricans. Therefore, information on different topics may often originate from either nonrepresentative samples of various subgroups, or from a sample of a particular Latina and Latino group.

Because of the limited research involving Latina and Latino youth, the information available on a particular subject may be based on only one or two studies rather than on a body of scholarship in the area. While more research is needed on a variety of topics, it is most important that research take a contextual approach considering multiple individual, familial, and societal factors in describing the developmental course of Latina and Latino youth. Among the macrosocietal factors affecting Latinas and Latinos, acculturation, poverty, and various forms of social oppression should be granted special attention.

In the following sections, a summary of findings in key areas will be provided. It is important to remember that there is diversity within and among the Latina and Latino ethnic groups and that while these findings are useful, they do not always address, for a variety of reasons, intra- and intergroup differences.

Latina and Latino Adolescents

Latinas and Latinos are not only the fastest growing minority in the United States, but also one of the youngest groups in the country. According to the 2000 census, while the median age for Latinas and Latinos was 25.9 years, the median age of the rest of the U.S. population was 35.3 years. At that time, Latinas and Latinos under the age of twenty-one were the fastest-growing age group in the United States. The U.S. population under age eighteen reached 25.7 percent in 2000. About 17 percent of these youth and children were of Latina and Latino origin. The Mexican and Puerto Rican populations had the greatest numbers of youth under twenty-one, while the Cuban population had the lowest number. According to this growth trend, Latina and Latino youth will continue to comprise a significant proportion of the U.S. population, and therefore issues affecting this group should be granted special attention. Moreover, the growth of this population may necessitate policies and funding related to family planning, child care, education, and youth services that may be in conflict with the needs or wants of an older general population, particularly during budget crises.

Living Conditions

Like other American youth, Latina and Latino adolescents grow up in different kinds of household arrangements. In 1994, 68 percent of Latina and Latino adolescents lived in two-parent homes as compared to 79 percent of non-Latina and non-Latino white youth. Moreover, 25 percent of Latinas and Latinos lived in single-female-headed households as compared to 17 percent of non-Latina and non-Latino white youth. More Latina and Latino youth live with relatives other than their parents than do non-Latina and non-Latino white adolescents. Latina and Latino adolescents are also much more likely than non-Latina and non-Latino white adolescents to have parents under thirty years old. Their parents are more likely to be poor, less educated, and unemployed or underemployed than parents of white youth.

Latinas and Latinos are three times more likely to be living in poverty than are whites. The percentage of Latinas and Latinos under age eighteen living below the poverty level is 34.4, versus 10.6 percent of non-Latina and non-Latino whites under age eighteen. The percentage of Latina and Latino youth living in poor two-parent families is 19.5. Among poor youth living in a mother-headed household, Latinas and Latinos are the third largest group (47.2 percent) after American Indians (50 percent) and blacks (47.4 percent). Among the three largest Latina and Latino populations, Puerto Rican youth have the highest rates of poverty and Cuban youth have the lowest.

Latina and Latino adolescents are more likely to reside in urban or inner-city areas as compared to white adolescents. Limited resources affecting schools, housing, and other institutions have plagued these areas. Latino and Latina youth usually have employment rates as high as, if not higher than, those of white male adolescents. They are also more likely to be in full-time employment. Latina youth have lower labor participation than either Latino youth or white adolescent females. The overall labor participation does not differ significantly for the different subgroups, except in the case of Puerto Rican youth, who have the lowest employment rates. Mexicans, Cubans, and Central and South Americans have rates similar to white youth. Since Latino youth are more likely to work full time as compared to white male adolescents, it is not surprising that while teenagers their earnings are higher. However, after age nineteen Latino youths' earnings decrease to less than those of white males.

Physical Development and Pubertal Changes

Two important milestones in adolescence are the growth spurt and pubertal development. Research on pubertal timing, or development relative to one's peers, indicates that timing influences the adolescent's feelings about puberty, body satisfaction, and overall psychological adjustment. Early sexual maturation has a more negative impact on girls, whereas late sexual maturation is most distressing for boys.

Latina and Latino youth ages twelve to seventeen are more likely to be at low height for age as compared to their white counterparts. Among Latina and Latino subgroups the percentages of low-height youth are higher among females than males and also higher for Mexican Americans of both sexes. In terms of development of secondary sexual characteristics, Puerto Ricans reach stages of sexual maturation at rates similar to those of other U.S. adolescents, while Mexican American youth experience such changes later than youth in other Latina and Latino subgroups and in the general U.S. adolescent population. Among Latina and Latino adolescents, females are more likely to develop a positive body image if they perceive their pubertal changes to be on time rather than if they mature early or late. For males, maturing early or on time is perceived as more positive than developing late.


In 1998, only 63 percent of Latinas and Latinos were high school graduates. Latina and Latino adolescents are significantly more likely than white adolescents to drop out of school. A large percentage of them drop out before entering high school. This makes them less likely ever to obtain a high school degree, since the closer one is to graduating when dropping out of high school the more likely one will be to complete high school at some later point. Latino adolescents are more likely to drop out than their female counterparts. Other factors associated with Latina and Latino youth school-dropout rates include marriage, living independently or with relatives, and living in poverty.

Latina and Latino youth are also more likely to be one or two school grades behind throughout their adolescence. Grade delay is higher among Mexicans and Puerto Ricans than among Cubans and Central and South Americans. Those born outside the United States are also more likely to have grade delay than those born in the United States. Those Latina and Latino youth with the lowest English language abilities have the highest rate of grade delay. The use of Spanish to communicate at home seems to be unrelated to their grade delay.

Even if Latina and Latino youth stay in the school system, they tend to score lower on standardized tests for reading, math, and science than do white adolescents. Latina and Latino students are more likely to be placed in remedial and vocational classes, and less likely to be placed in gifted or advanced programs. Not only have Latina and Latino students been found to be placed in vocational classes earlier than the non-Latina and non-Latino white counterparts, but also the vocational programs where Latinas and Latinos are placed are different from those of non-Latina and non-Latino white students. The former are more likely to be assigned to low-status occupational training (for example, building maintenance), versus the latter's placement in management-oriented training programs.

Latinas and Latinos also have the lowest college attainment rates as compared to African American, Asian, and white adolescents. There are subgroup variations in college graduation rates, with Cubans having the largest rates, followed by Puerto Ricans, Central and South Americans, and Mexican Americans, who are the least likely to graduate from college. Latinas have higher rates of high school completion than Latinos, but both sexes graduate from college at similar rates.

The educational issues of Latina and Latino youth need to be understood within the context of multiple factors, such as immigration status, English language proficiency, acculturation, geographic location, and economic status. A report by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health (NAHH) concludes that: “contrary to popular stereotypes, greater acculturation among Hispanic girls is tied to poorer … educational outcomes” (National Alliance for Hispanic Health, p. 59).

Family Relations, Gender, and Sexuality

In spite of the dramatic changes in gender roles that have occurred in U.S. society over the last decades of the twentieth century, a parental and social gender-based double standard continues to shape gender socialization in the twenty-first century. Latina and Latino culture has been described as being more traditional regarding gender roles than the mainstream American culture. Latino adolescents are granted more privileges, such as freedom to go places or later curfews, than are females. Latinas are expected to help more with household chores and are encouraged to act in “feminine” ways. Also, females experience stricter rules about dating and sexuality than do their male counterparts. Studies on parents of Latina and Latino youth reveal that the same-sex parent tends to engage in more socialization of traditional gender-appropriate behavior than the cross-sex parent.

In various studies, Latinas and Latinos have consistently been found to place great value in being part of a family and in having a family as compared to non-Latina and non-Latino whites. Latina and Latino adolescents have a higher rate of marriage than either African American or white adolescents. It has been found that there are significant racial and ethnic differences in girls' sexual, marital, birth, school, and job expectations. Mexican American girls as compared to black, white, and Southeast Asian girls were found to want to pass through these transitions earlier and more rapidly. Unlike girls from other racial and ethnic categories, Mexican American girls were socialized for marriage and childbearing to the exclusion of work and educational roles.

Reproductive and Sexual Health

Latina adolescents' birth rates are between those of African American, who have the highest, and white adolescents, who have the lowest. Mexican adolescent females have the highest birth rates among all Latina and Latino groups. Rates of marriage for teenagers who give birth are the highest for Mexicans and Cubans and the lowest for Puerto Ricans. As compared to other ethnic groups, Latina adolescents are the least likely to be sexually active but the most likely to give birth. Also, they have been found to use contraception less than either white or African American adolescents. Latinas are less likely to terminate their pregnancy than white and African American youth and are more likely to report their pregnancy as intentional. Early childbearing has been found to be associated with lower socioeconomic status.

Initiation of sexual intercourse for Latina and Latino adolescents is between that of African American adolescents (the earliest) and white adolescents (the latest). There are gender differences, with males having first intercourse younger than females. Latina adolescents have less knowledge of sexuality, birth control, or condom use than either Latino adolescents or white females. Anne Driscoll and others observe that there seems to be a pattern for sexual activity among Latina adolescents that is different from those found for African American and white youth. Latinas are more likely to belong to three categories in terms of sexual activity: (1) those that initiate sexual activity before eighteen years of age; (2) those who wait to have intercourse until eighteen or nineteen years of age; and (3) those who by age twenty are still “virgins” (38 percent of Latinas belong to this group). In contrast, African American and white female adolescents are gradually more likely to have sexual intercourse as they age. Latino adolescents have on average more sexual partners than Latinas. Those Latinas who are sexually active are as likely as Latino males to continue their sexual activity. Latina adolescents who were born outside the United States are more conservative in terms of initiation of sexual activity and numbers of sex partners when compared to those born in the United States. They are also more likely to have planned their pregnancies, to be married, or to be living with their partner when they become mothers. It has been found that, contrary to beliefs about the relation between dropping out of school and pregnancy, Mexican American girls tend to drop out prior to getting pregnant and to be married at the time of conception.

Latina and Latino adolescents report using contraception less than white and African American youth. DuRant and others found that Mexican American and Central and South American females were more likely to use effective birth control than were Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and adolescents of other Latina and Latino backgrounds. These differences in contraceptive use among the different segments of the Latina and Latino adolescent community demonstrate that Latina and Latino “culture” is not the only source of influence on the gender roles and sexuality of Latina and Latino youth.

Latina and Latino adolescents are overrepresented in the number of AIDS cases in the United States. Adolescent Latinos are significantly less likely to use condoms than white or African American males. In 1998, the chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis rates among Latino adolescents were between those of African American teens (the highest) and white teens (the lowest). Latina adolescents have higher rates of these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than do Latino males, since females have higher risks than males in acquiring STIs from sexual intercourse.

Mental Health

Several social factors pose serious risks to the optimal development and mental health of Latina and Latino youth. Research has documented the deterioration of mental-health status that occurs intergenerationally among Latinas and Latinos after their migration to the United States. Thus, U.S.–born Latina and Latino youth are in general at greater risk of developing mental health problems than are immigrant Latina and Latino youth.

In addition to migration status, opportunities for healthy development among Latina and Latino youth depend greatly on the interplay of family, community, and individual factors. Poverty is associated with a host of conditions (for example, bad schools, impoverished neighborhood quality) that are detrimental to quality of life across the lifespan. Research findings about mental health issues among Latinas and Latinos should be interpreted with caution, because of possible biases in the design and instruments used. Also, the majority of studies are based on Mexican Americans, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans, and therefore the findings may not be representative of other Latina and Latino groups.

Depression and suicide.

Studies indicate that Latina and Latino adolescents have higher rates of suicide attempts than those observed in other ethnic groups. Also, Latina and Latino immigrant youth show lower self-esteem and are considered to be at greater risk of manifesting suicidal ideation than U.S.–born youth. However, the discrepancy in suicide rates between these two groups has diminished over time. Although suicide ideation and attempts are high among Latinas and Latinos, their suicide completion rates are lower when compared to other ethnic groups. There is some limited evidence that links acculturative stress and drug use with greater vulnerability to suicidal behavior.

Although research is not conclusive, studies suggest that prevalence of depressive symptoms among Latina and Latino adolescents is the highest of any ethnic group. Particularly, among Latinas and Latinos, Mexican Americans consistently report significantly higher symptoms of depression than other subgroups. As is the case in the general adolescent population, Latina adolescents are twice as likely to report depressive symptoms as are Latino adolescents. However, for both male and female immigrant Latina and Latino youth the risk of developing depressive symptoms increases, as they face contradictory expectations regarding gender roles from their culture of origin and the new culture.

Eating disorders.

Body dissatisfaction among female adolescents has traditionally been associated with being white and middle or upper class. However, studies have shown that Latina adolescents may be at greater risk for adopting disordered eating behaviors than previously recognized. Low-income Latina adolescents are as likely as white adolescent females to resort to maladaptive strategies, such as diet pills and purging, to lose weight. Adolescents who are overweight and are exposed to these behaviors in their families are at an increased risk for engaging in these maladaptive weight control behaviors. While normal weight or overweight Latina girls are as likely as females from other ethnic groups to report body dissatisfaction, lean Latina girls report greater body dissatisfaction than lean white adolescent females.

Conduct problems and substance abuse.

U.S.–born Latina and Latino adolescents are more likely to exhibit conduct problems such as school misbehavior, delinquency, early sexual intercourse, drug use, and truancy than Latina and Latino immigrant youth. Latina and Latino youth report rates of heavy drinking and illicit drug use that are comparable to those reported by white American youth. Among Latina and Latino subgroups, Mexican Americans (30 percent) and Puerto Ricans (28 percent) report more frequent use of illicit drug use than Cubans (16 percent). However, no significant differences in alcohol consumption are found among these groups (average rates are between 12 and 16 percent).

Latina and Latino adolescents ages twelve to eighteen are more likely to drink alcohol more often and in larger quantities if they are male, older, live in father-absent homes, come from higher income families, and are not enrolled in school. In addition, research reveals that increased alcohol consumption among both Latino and Latina adolescents is associated with: most friends drinking, siblings drinking, smoking cigarettes, marijuana use, and finding it easy to obtain alcohol. Based on these findings, adolescent alcohol prevention programs need to directly affect social factors related to drinking and involve family members.

Use of mental-health services.

Studies conducted among the general population of youth indicate that Latina and Latino children and adolescents have lower rates of mental-health service utilization. Mental-health service use is especially low among Puerto Rican youth living on the island, although use rates are low among youth of various ethnic backgrounds living on the U.S. mainland as well. More research is needed in order to assess and improve the adequacy of health services provided to Latina and Latino youth. Also, issues such as insurance availability, information about mental health services, and having Spanish-speaking support and treatment staff should be included in the mental health agenda for Latinas and Latinos.

See also Drug Abuse; Education; Female-headed Households; Poverty; and Teenage Pregnancy.


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                                              Marysol Asencio and Karen Ripoll-Núñez