Cultural Conflict


As the eldest daughter in her family, it is Maria Sanchez’s responsibility to care for her siblings and do the housework while her parents work several jobs to make ends meet.

Every day, Maria, 15, juggles those tasks with her schoolwork and her participation in a Costa Mesa after-school program that mentors other girls like her. The demands on the bubbly Estancia High School sophomore try her patience sometimes, but when things get tough, she relies on her sly sense of humor to see her through it.

“When you’re the oldest girl, you do it all and the guys don’t do anything,” Maria said. “My brother likes his pants ironed with a perfect crease. He complains if they’re not exactly how he wants them. The other day, I did three lines in them. He left with them on like that.”


The U.S.-born daughter of Mexican immigrants who want her to grow up with their traditions and values, Maria says it is sometimes difficult to communicate with her parents about the American influences in her life.

Although Maria is managing her dual roles with a smile, the cultural contradictions in her life sometimes take a psychological toll on other Latino teenagers, especially U.S.-born Latinas who are at a high risk of feeling depressed, seriously considering suicide and attempting suicide, according to the latest national study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Teen suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people in the United States, but taking some specialists in the field and teenagers themselves by surprise is the extent of suicidal behavior among Latino adolescents revealed in the 1997 research.

According to the CDC study, one in three high school Latinas report having seriously considered suicide, compared to one in every five African American girls and one in four white girls. The study is puzzling to researchers because it uncovers high rates of behavior related to depression and suicide in Latinos, even though the actual suicide rates in Latino teens are lower than for African Americans and white teens.

Although experts still cannot fully explain the discrepancy--mostly because there is a dearth of research in the area of adolescent mental health--some believe that suicide-related behavior among Latinos constitutes a cry for help, particularly among children of immigrant parents. For some of these teenagers, researchers believe, growing up between two cultures is taking a toll on their psychological well-being.

“It’s a real conflict of cultures because you have parents who are traditional and monolingual and want to raise the children the old way, the way they were raised,” said Gil Carmona, a clinical supervisor at Families of Costa Mesa. “But the kids are growing up in America and are experiencing the Americanized way. We have to work with the family to teach the parents that the kids are being raised in urban cities where they want to do what the Romans do. With the kids, we have to deal with temper. They become infuriated with the parents.”


But few, if any, are suicidal, said Carmona and other youth workers across Orange County. While Latino teenagers express distress over the culture clash, they do not seem in any more despair than members of other ethnic groups, several social workers said.

Suicide rates in Orange County among teenagers follow national trends, according to a county report. Of the 223 people who committed suicide in 1997, 10 were 19 or younger. One was a Latina.

In the year that Diana Sanchez has been running the mentoring program at the Save Our Youth Center in Costa Mesa, where Maria Sanchez and other teenagers meet to do their homework, workshops have run the gamut of topics concerning adolescents. Not once has suicide come up, said Diana Sanchez, whose primary goal is to steer teenage girls from becoming mothers by introducing them to other choices.

“The girls growing up nowadays are more assimilated than ever before,” she said. “If anything, today’s Latinas are more strong-minded and are able to combine the best of the two worlds they live in.”

Finding out how the experiences of Latino teenagers locally relate to the behaviors reported in national studies presents one of many challenges for specialists in the field. Even as the CDC report and other studies reveal what some consider worrying trends about Latino teens’ mental health, other questions surface that may not have an immediate answer.

Most would agree that the transition from childhood to adulthood is not an easy time for anyone. But above and beyond the normal adolescence pressures, Latino girls may face a different set of issues, said Jane Delgado, president of the Washington-based National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations.


Some Latino girls who have called the Hotline Help Center Teen Line in Garden Grove have lost hope and are considering taking their lives, said Barbara Barrientos, a supervisor. But Barrientos does not blame acculturation. Latinas, she said, face the same pressures that their peers of other ethnicities must overcome: drugs and alcohol use, sex and problems with boyfriends.

They also are influenced by cultural expectations of what their roles and responsibilities should be as women, Delgado and others say. At the same time, what oozes from TV, magazines and billboards is a constant invitation to adopt the culture of mainstream America.

“A lot of the girls that I work with are having difficulty adjusting to the different standards in school, especially,” said Orleda Roa, a teen program supervisor at Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization in Orange County that helps girls in Costa Mesa, Tustin and Santa Ana.

“They’re falling behind and it’s very difficult for them to catch up. A lot of these girls have to be at home doing their chores and watching their younger brothers and sisters. It’s not that their parents don’t value education like so many people tend to think. It’s that the parents work and need help.”

None of Roa’s clients have been depressed or suicidal, but social worker Rose Escutia says that as Latina mothers increasingly join the work force to supplement their household income, more Latina daughters are dealing with depression.

As it then falls on the eldest daughter to care for her younger siblings, the responsibility of being caretakers at a young age clashes with the expectation that they also must succeed in school, said Escutia, who works at the Assessment and Treatment Services Center in Orange County.


“On one side, while going to school, society tells you to . . . be independent,” Escutia said. “But being raised in a Latino background, the family wants you to stay more dependent to the family. The girls feel stuck and they feel guilty that they can’t provide everything the family is expecting. That’s where the depression comes in.”

Escutia also has noted that the Latina adolescents who are having the most difficulties come from homes where a stepfather is in charge, or there is domestic abuse or alcohol or drug abuse. Other therapists are treating more Latinas with eating disorders.

“You don’t see the same stresses in Latino boys,” Escutia said. “They don’t have the same responsibilities at home and they can go out and play and compete in sports. They have an outlet. Girls do not come up and say they want to hurt themselves. But they are verbalizing that they don’t believe they are worth anything. They don’t think they can do anything right. And they think they don’t have a future.”

For Claudia Flores, 17, a Newport Harbor High School senior who has worked hard to be accepted into a solid university psychology department, lack of self-esteem is not the issue.

Claudia, who helps care for her two younger siblings, wants to earn her degree in child psychology at a university where she can live on campus. Her parents want her to attend UC Irvine so that she can live at home.

“My parents want me to stay home until I get married,” says Claudia, who migrated to California from Mexico when she was 8 years old. “They want me to go to college so I can have a better life than they had. But they expect me to stay home. There’s a lot of pressure. Sometimes I do feel depressed. If I go, they’re going to think I don’t care. If I stay, I feel it’s going to hurt me.”


At times, Roa has interfered in family squabbles like the one the Flores family is facing to help the parents understand what is best for the child.

“For a lot of these parents it’s the fear of the unknown,” Roa said. “I’ve told parents to arrange for child care or something so that the daughters can get involved in their schools and take a risk. A lot of times we have to educate the parents and the children.”

Escutia also encourages Latina teenagers to get involved in social activities outside the home.

“A lot of these girls get stuck trying to survive in both worlds,” Escutia said. “They don’t have role models who can show them that it is achievable, that you can hold on to your culture and be successful in this country and this society.”


Times staff writer Sylvia Pagan Westphal contributed to this story.


Teen Suicide

An average of 14 teens aged 15-19 commit suicide in Orange County each year.


1979 17 1980 13 1981 25 1982 9 1983 16 1984 14 1985 20 1986 16 1987 13 1988 14 1989 12 1990 12 1991 13 1992 12 1993 12 1994 15 1995 13 1996 12 1997 7


Source: Centers for Disease Control