Mexican-Americans make great American citizens

Photo: Ray S. Creative Commons.

Mexican-American youth are better family members and citizens when they have a strong sense of their ethnic identity, finds study of young people.

There are those who think that Mexican-Americans don’t make good Americans. Our research suggests the opposite. We’ve found that the more young people retained their Mexican-American identity, the better they behaved as family members and, ultimately, as citizens. America might actually be a nicer place if more – rather than fewer – young Mexican-American people felt a strong sense of their ethnic identity.

We surveyed the cultural values, ethnic identity and behaviors of hundreds of Mexican-American young people from fifth to 12th grade. We found strong interconnections between whether these young people felt a sense of being Mexican-American and what are known as “prosocial” behaviors, such as kindness, helping, sharing, cooperating, and volunteering. Learning more about Mexican-American culture seemed to be integral to behaving well toward family members and, later, becoming good citizens. This picture challenges stereotypes of this ethnic group as lawbreakers. The virtuous relationship we detected between ethnic awareness and prosocial behaviors was true for both girls and boys.

Family support and obligation

We found that parents who were devoted to values of family support, family obligation, and family membership were also more likely to instill in their children an enhanced sense of themselves as Mexican-Americans. In turn, children who learned about and valued their ethnicity more when they were young tended to be more family-oriented.

“Many qualities that we value in child-rearing, in robust families and in the development of good citizenship are intricately tied up with young Mexican-American people retaining and expressing their ethnicity.”

At the core of their value system was a desire to help their families, rather than simply focusing on individualistic needs. In turn, these young people tended, as they grew older, to develop behaviors that helped people other than immediate family members. We found, for example, that young people who strongly identified as Mexican-American were more likely to help someone who sought support, who was emotionally upset, or who faced a dire situation.

Some voices in the US and elsewhere in the world increasingly suggest that immigrant identity is more of a problem than an asset. But our research indicates that—at least with respect to Mexican-Americans—many of the qualities that we value in child-rearing, in robust families, and in the development of good citizenship are intricately tied up with retaining and expressing ethnicity.

young citizens
Photo: Eneas De Troya. Creative Commons.

It was particularly important for the relationships we saw if mothers endorsed their children’s Mexican heritage; their impact was greater than the fathers’. Moms’ influence was more strongly linked to the features we observed that seem to spring from the young people’s sense of ethnic identity – commitment to supporting family and, as they grew older, to prosocial behaviors in the community. Other findings, largely among European American families, have similarly suggested that mothers may have more influence than fathers on how young people develop prosocial behaviors. However, this generalization should be taken with a grain of salt: our observation might simply reflect the fact that mothers spend more time with teens than fathers do. Mothers may also be more likely to expose young people to behaviors that support prosocial development, such as expressions of sorrow or the comforting of others.

Migrant children are not simply assimilated

Our study also reflects a wider truth, demonstrated by other research—immigrant children don’t lose all the qualities or behaviors associated with their heritage culture and simply become Americans. Mexican-Americans do typically adopt some of the qualities of the mainstream culture. However, largely through family influences, they also acquire and retain some of the characteristics of their ethnic culture that are useful to them and our society. Further, some core Mexican-American values are likely to be acquired even by young people who have lived in the United States all of their lives. Hence, although third- or fourth-generation Mexican-Americans may not speak Spanish, they may still retain their culture’s commitment to family and helping others.

“Learning more about Mexican-American culture seemed to be integral to these young people behaving well towards their family members and, when older, to becoming good citizens.”

Developing an American identity

This picture of loss and retention plays its part in shaping the notion of being “American,” which represents the integration of identities and behaviors of people from many cultures. For example, a very strong Protestant work ethic is often viewed as a core American value. However, this cultural value may have actually originated from the early northern European settlers who first came to the country that was to become the United States. It may be that some qualities of Mexican-American culture – commitment to family and others – may likewise become embedded in the evolving, broad American identity.

Our research offers insights into how young Mexican-Americans also acquire values that are more associated with mainstream American society, such as valuing material success and individual achievement. The study shows that these values were not associated with their family influences. These mainstream values are likely to be acquired through the association with influences outside the family, such as people beyond home, schools, and media.

Hence Mexican-American youth may well be exposed to two cultural education processes – one involving parents and family and one involving broader mainstream influences. Mexican-American young people thereby acquire and retain two sets of cultural behaviors and values that may be expressed as situations demand. Just as Mexican-Americans may become multilingual, they may also become multicultural and mentally agile, drawing on different values in different circumstances.

Policy Implications

Our government should continue to support the ethnic diversity of our country in the way we have for generations rather than lapse again into one of those historical periods in which contributions of ethnic minorities to our country are undervalued.

Practical Implications

Practitioners should be aware of the very important role of families, and the positive influences these families may have, in the lives of many ethnic minority youth.

George P. Knight

George P. Knight

Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, USA

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Original research and references

  1. Knight GP, Carlo G, Mahrer NE & Davis AN The Socialization of Culturally Related Values and Prosocial Tendencies Among Mexican-American Adolescents Child Development, Nov/Dec 2016, 87.6