Identity Choices in Immigrant Adolescent Females

Article excerpt

Ego identity, according to Erikson's (1968) theory of psychosocial development, is the "more or less actually attained but forever to be revised sense of the self within social reality", and the development of a sense of identity is the key developmental task or "crisis" of adolescence. Although it is clear that "becoming oneself" is a complex issue for all adolescents, it is obviously more problematic for some groups than for others. For ethnic and racial minorities, for outsiders of all sorts, and in some ways for girls and women, the process of identity formation may be especially complicated and difficult. This paper explores identity formation in a group for which this developmental task may pose particular difficulties--immigrant adolescent females. The special issues and dilemmas faced by this population are presented, and results from interviews with several adolescents, all recent immigrants from Latin America, are discussed.


Although the identity process neither begins nor ends with adolescence (Marcia, 1980), for nearly everyone adolescence is the time of life during which concerns about the self are most salient. It is during this period that dilemmas about sexuality, independence, and the future take on new meaning and seriousness. It is also during this period that the young person makes choices and at least tentative commitments, and comes to realizations that form some psychological sense of inner core--an identity that is in some ways distinct from that of parents, background, and ascribed roles but in other ways must include them. It is also one which involves both distinctly individual preferences and attachments to larger social groups (Goodenow, 1992). A successful resolution of the identity formation period results in a coherent identity which includes those aspects of the self subjectively felt to be important, central, and valued. On the other hand, the identity must also be one which makes sense or in some way fits into the larger society. Possible unsuccessful outcomes include the development of a "negative identity," based primarily on opposition to others' wishes (Erikson, 1968); a foreclosed identity, based on rigid and unexamined adherence to a particular way of life (Marcia, 1980); or identity diffusion, which is the inability to form a clear identity at all (Erikson, 1950).

For immigrant adolescent females, several different influences on the identity development process need to be considered. First, there are the problems, issues, and double binds faced by virtue of holding the status of immigrant; these include the issues involved in being a newcomer and, in many cases, those concerned with being a member of an ethnic minority group. Second, there are the problems, issues, and double binds that are tied to the female sex role in both American and the original culture. Third, there is the interaction between the first two: in real life, ethnic or cultural identity and gender are not separable, but intersect and influence each other.

Immigration and Adolescent Identity

Generally, the special problems of identity formation faced by an adolescent immigrant in the United States involve carrying out developmental tasks in the context of a new culture and in the absence of the home culture's "average expectable environment" (Hartmann, 1964; Ticho, 1971). The social reality that has formed the backdrop of childhood has disappeared and another taken its place. While most adolescents try out aspects of identity with reference to others whose verbal and nonverbal language they understand, this is not true of most immigrants. Rodriguez, in Hunger of Memory (1982), and Hoffman, in Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989), have written evocative and poignant autobiographical accounts of their experience of having to relinquish the public use of a "mother tongue" and endure the difficulty, bewilderment, and alienation entailed in the struggle to understand and be understood in a new language--a struggle that often left them mute. …