CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Racial discrimination and family issues are key contributors to the acculturative stress experienced by Latina immigrant women in the U.S., new research suggests.
But whether the stress of adapting to a new culture leads to psychological distress in Latina immigrants depends on a variety of contextual factors, according to a study published in the Journal of Immigrant Minority Health.
Researchers Venera Bekteshi and Mary van Hook examined the impact of various contextual factors on the psychological distress and acculturative stress experienced by more than 630 Latina immigrant women who moved to the U.S. mainland from Cuba, Mexico or Puerto Rico.
"Using an ecological-based model called family stress management, we found that acculturative stress did not always lead to poor mental health," said Bekteshi, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois. "It really depended on what we controlled for and what was going on in the person's life. When Latinas had many negative things going on, such as discrimination, poverty and family-culture conflict, the acculturative stress lost significance because there were all these other issues that they were dealing with. But when they had fewer positive elements in their lives, such as family support, the acculturative stress did lead to poor mental health."
Participants' length of residency on the U.S. mainland varied from less than five years to more than 20 years. Latinas who had lived on the mainland U.S. between five and 10 years experienced the highest levels of acculturative stress, the researchers found.
Recent immigrants may not be as vulnerable to acculturative stress because they are focused on the potential opportunities that they foresee and are working hard to benefit their families after they relocate, Bekteshi said.
"But after a while, the excitement may wear off, and they've got issues with their children, because not everyone acculturates and learns English at the same pace," Bekteshi said. "This leads to depression and anxiety, since it's very important to Latina women to be good moms and to feel a connection with their children. Plus, these women also may be working multiple jobs, very difficult jobs, yet they have all these domestic tasks awaiting them at home, which their spouses may or may not help with because the men believe in traditional gender roles."
Because family is a key source of identity for Latina women, familial issues - including difficulties maintaining close ties with family living abroad and cultural conflicts within the immediate family - were particularly stressful.
Family support, and the women's endorsement of the Latino cultural value "familismo," which promotes interconnectedness with family members, emerged as protective factors against psychological distress for all three groups of women.
The amount of racial discrimination that the women perceived in their communities and their families' economic constraints also were significant influences on the women's acculturative stress levels, according to the research.
While women who relocated from Puerto Rico experienced less acculturative stress than Latina immigrants from Cuba or Mexico, Puerto Rican immigrants perceived racial discrimination to be a more pervasive problem than did the other women, Bekteshi found in a related study, which she co-authored with Lenore Matthew, a doctoral student at Illinois.
Even though the women born in Puerto Rico were U.S. citizens, when they relocated to the mainland, they found themselves marginalized by current anti-immigrant sentiments and factions.
For all of the Latinas in the studies, the acculturative stress that peaked at five to 10 years in the U.S. declined the longer that they lived in the U.S.; however, as the women aged, they became more vulnerable to depression and anxiety.
The researchers' data samples were drawn from the National Latino Asian American Survey, a mental health study that included more than 2,500 Latinos.
Van Hook is a professor of social work at the University of Central Florida.