The Society for the
Study of Social Issues

Fear of Rejection Can Challenge sense of Identity for Latinos with Less Spanish

Biennial Conference press release, June 23, 2012  – Non-Spanish speaking Americans from Latino backgrounds may not self-identify as Latino for fear of rejection by other Latinos. That is the finding of a study by a team of psychologists from Rutgers University and Davidson College which was presented today at the Biennial Conference of The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The team, led by Diana Sanchez of Rutgers, carried out a survey which asked participants who self-identified as Latino to rate their Spanish speaking ability. Next, they were given a series of questions to rate in terms of how much similarity and collective identity they felt with other Latinos, and the level to which they sometimes have felt rejected by other Latinos.

Results showed that Spanish language ability was crucial in determining how likely participants would be to have positive feelings about their membership in the Latino community. The study also tested whether this would be different for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation Latinos, and found that there was no difference. Regardless of the length of family history in America, language ability was still important and the reason it was so important was largely that Latinos feared rejection from other Latinos based on their Spanish speaking in ability. This runs counter to the prevailing theories that Latinos prefer to acculturate to gain acceptance in the mainstream American culture. Instead, these findings suggest that some Latinos may acculturate to avoid rejection by the Latino community.

In a second study administered to students who spoke little or no Spanish, participants filled out a survey about the connectedness they felt to their Latino identity. Half of the participants were initially given the survey instructions in Spanish but the instructor then apologized and reverted to English so that everyone could understand. In the results of the survey this group expressed lower levels of Latino connectedness. They had been reminded of the salience of Spanish to being Latino, and were aware of their own lack of proficiency.

“These findings are remarkable in that they show that Latinos with low Spanish proficiency can feel their group membership is threatened even if their identity as Latinos is otherwise meaningful”, says Sanchez. “When Spanish is emphasized as a badge of Latino identity, non Spanish speakers prefer to avoid choosing that identity for fear of rejection by other Latinos.”

The authors of the study, in press and scheduled to appear at the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology in August, say that ethnic and racial identities are made up of many other cultural practices such as food, religion, dress, or values. However, Spanish speaking is something that brings a strong sense of belonging for many Latinos and is an important sign of the way that acculturation processes are in tension today as young Latinos seek to find expressions of their distinctive heritage.

According to Sanchez, “because American society is increasingly multicultural and multiracial, with individuals who can identify and self-categorize in a multitude of different ways, it is increasingly important to understand the circumstances and situations that increase and decrease self-categorization into ethnic groups.”

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