Hispanic Children

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The term "Hispanic" incorporates a diverse group of people comprised of individuals from a variety of countries and representing great diversity in socioeconomic status, age, history, and ethnicity. According to U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates for the year 2000, about 12 percent of the total population in the United States was Hispanic. While Hispanic people share a common language, they still represent a heterogeneous group of adults, children, and families living in various cities within the United States.

The diversity of Hispanic people underscores the difficulty in making generalizations about individuals. Because Hispanic children may differ in their attitudes and beliefs as a result of their families and their interaction with North American culture, it is important to not assume that all Hispanic children are the same. With this recognition, there are many cultural beliefs and practices, as well as elements of family structure and family roles, that are common to many Hispanic children and that can provide a better understanding of Hispanic children and their lives.

Definitions and Terms

Much controversy exists over how to describe the heterogeneity of individuals from Latin America. The most frequently used term in the United States is "Hispanic," which is derived from Hispania, the ancient name for the Iberian Peninsula. Nevertheless, because this name emphasizes Spanish origins, many prefer the term "Latino" or "Latina," descriptors that acknowledge the African-American and Indian ancestry of many individuals as well. Indeed, many individuals from Latin America are descendants of Indian nations, including the Olmecs, Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas. "Latino" and "Latina" are terms that are gaining in popularity, but Hispanic is still the most commonly used name and is the term that appeared in the 2000 U.S. Census.

Demographic Characteristics

Hispanic children include those children who are born to Hispanic parents in the United States, as well as those individuals who recently immigrated to the United States from Hispanic countries. Within the United States, the majority of Hispanic youth are Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican, with some children and families from the Dominican Republic and from Central and South America. Of those from Central and South America, the countries of origin for the majority are Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru.

As a result of immigration patterns and historical events, Hispanic families live in communities in various cities and states within the United States, primarily in metropolitan areas. Some Hispanics have come to America as a result of extremely poor economic conditions in their countries, as well as civil wars and political strife. With the goal of escaping problems and acquiring a better life, individuals and families have immigrated, both legally and illegally, to the United States. The United States has had a history of opening and closing borders with Latin American countries, and it is this ever-changing relationship that has contributed to some of the difficulties facing Hispanic immigrants, as well as the large presence of Hispanics within the United States.

According to U.S. Census estimates for 2000, Mexicans, who primarily live in California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, comprised 65 percent of the Hispanic population in the United States. After Puerto Rico became a territory of the United States in 1917, large groups of Puerto Ricans came from the island to settle, mostly in New York and New Jersey. A large wave of Hispanics from Cuba, who fled the political leadership of Fidel Castro, immigrated to states such as Florida.


Spanish is the common language uniting Hispanic people, though there are some Hispanics whose native language is French or Portuguese. Spanish is considered a Romance language, with similarities to other Latin-derived languages such as French and Italian. While most Hispanic individuals speak Spanish, there are a variety of Spanish dialects and linguistic characteristics that distinguish speakers from various Hispanic groups. Differences in daily expressions, vocabulary, and accents can be found in the Spanish spoken by different individuals of Hispanic descent.

Many Hispanic children who are raised in the United States are bilingual, able to speak both Spanish and English. Most Hispanic children speak Spanish at home and learn English at school. Hispanic children, however, also have very different degrees of Spanish and English language proficiency, depending on levels of acculturation and family and community environments.

Acculturation and Biculturalism

Hispanic children living in the United States generally experience some form of acculturation, the process whereby an individual incorporates cultural traits of another group. For Hispanic immigrants, acculturation occurs as they live in the United States and their behaviors begin to resemble those of North Americans. While living in predominantly Hispanic communities may slow acculturation in some individuals, children who attend school in the United States are usually exposed to North American cultural traits and then face the challenges of incorporating these new values and characteristics into already existing family beliefs.

For children born in the United States to Hispanic parents, acculturation may still occur as individuals live and grow in the United States. Furthermore, these children are often living bicultural lives, having the experience of living within two cultures. While many suggest that this experience can be wrought with difficulties as Hispanic children try to balance and incorporate these often disparate cultures, others believe that it can ultimately be enriching.

Cultural Values

Each Hispanic family and individual is unique, but there are many cultural values shared by Hispanic children living in the United States. Beyond the common language of Spanish, many Hispanic families also share religious beliefs and practices. These beliefs, along with family structure, food and dietary customs, and certain traditional holidays and celebrations, form the cornerstone of Hispanic communities.

Religion and Spirituality

Hispanic families and individuals engage in various practices of spirituality, including formal religion and different folk religions. Historically, the common religion of Hispanic people was that of the Roman Catholic Church, and a large number of Hispanic children are still baptized as Catholics. Nevertheless, Hispanic children today represent a variety of denominations, such as Baptist and Methodist, as well as other religions, such as Judaism. Members of some Hispanic groups also practice folk religions, such as Santeria, Espiritismo, and Curanderismo. While the belief in spirits of deceased persons differs across Hispanic cultures, many children learn about beliefs by observing family or community practices, and often see the frequency with which saints, angels, and God are invoked by adults.


Hispanic families celebrate a variety of cultural holidays and events, and children often play a large role in these events. As religion is a foundation for many Hispanic families, a number of celebrations and festivities emerge from Catholicism, such as Christmas and Easter. In addition, many Hispanic families also celebratebautismos (baptisms), confirmaciones (confirmations), cumpleañ;os (birthdays), and quinceañeras (a rite of passage into adulthood for girls at age fifteen).


Just as there is a great diversity in Hispanic children, there is also a variety of Hispanic family types. Traditionally, Hispanic families are two-parent households with fathers as economic and legal leaders of the family. Within the United States, however, Hispanic children are also likely to grow up in a home with a single parent, usually a mother. U.S. Census estimates in 2000 suggested that single mothers led 24 percent of Hispanic households. In general, Hispanic families are relatively young, partly as a result of the high fertility rates for Hispanics, as well as migration rates (individuals who migrate tend to be younger, thus more likely to have children). The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that the median age for Hispanic individuals in 2000 was twenty-seven.

Hispanic families are also likely to be larger than those of the general population. Indeed, in many Hispanic families, relatives such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, and also neighbors and friends, are often considered family and play a role in child rearing and care. It is through these extended families that Hispanic children often learn about family traditions and values and become part of communities of other Hispanics. The importance of family, both extended and immediate, is a value shared by most Hispanic individuals.

Education and Schools

Hispanic children, with the general exception of Cuban Americans, face major challenges in education as they have low rates of educational achievement and high rates of poverty. These difficulties, along with language barriers, are a key factor in Hispanic families having individuals who are less educated and more likely to be underemployed and unemployed. According to U.S. Census estimates for 2000, 44 percent of Hispanics age twenty-five and older do not have a high school diploma.

Debates over the value of bilingual education for Spanish-speaking students continue to be prominent in the United States, with proponents arguing that students learning in English as well as their native language do better academically. Opponents disagree, stating that children living in the United States should be taught in English. The issue of bilingual education is still a well-debated topic and will likely remain a controversial issue for years to come.

Several factors account for some of the challenges faced by Hispanic children and adults in the United States, including discrimination, economic conditions, and language barriers. As the fastest-growing minority population, however, Hispanics are becoming more prominent in political arenas and are making great strides toward increasing employment and educational opportunities. As society addresses the difficulties faced by continued discrimination and poverty, Hispanic children will continue to have greater opportunities to prosper within the United States.



Carrasquillo, Angela. Hispanic Children and Youth in the United States:A Resource Guide. New York: Garland, 1991.

Koss-Chioino, Joan, and Luis Vargas. Working with Latino Youth. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Rodriguez, Gloria. Raising Nuestros Niñ;os: Bringing up Latino Children in a Bicultural World. New York: Fireside, 1999.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. "Census Bureau Facts for Features: Hispanic Heritage Month 2000." In the U.S. Bureau of the Census [web site]. Washington, DC, 2000. Available from http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/2000/cb00ff11.html; INTERNET.

Lisa M.Edwards