Mexican Americans are the largest subtype of Hispanics in the United States, comprising some 13.3 million out of a total of 20.8 million Hispanics, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1991. Other terms that are synonymous with Mexican American include Mexican and Chicano. As the major component of the largest and fastest-growing minority in the United States -- Hispanics, Mexican Americans have a unique values system and culture, but they also share a common experience of discrimination.
Among Mexican Americans, the Spanish language is still an important vehicle for communication. It is estimated that Spanish is spoken in more than half of all Hispanic homes. For Chicanos, Spanish is the best way to express emotions and to provide a link to shared Mexican-American heritage.
In many Mexican-American homes, extended relatives live within the family unit. Family values are stressed in the Mexican-American home as is the spirit of cooperation. Respect and loyalty to family are also important values. The oldest members of the family have special privileges and are the ones who have the power of making important and even less important decisions on behalf of the family. Within the hierarchy of the Mexican-American home, parents play a close second to the elderly, followed by men.
Gender roles are well-defined within the Mexican-American family unit. The father takes primary responsibility for the family while mothers are the nurturers and those who sacrifice on behalf of their spouses and their young ones. Men are brought up to be independent while women are brought up to depend on others. There is no thought to challenging these roles or responsibilities; however, urbanization and greater mobility has begun to soften the boundaries between the sexes.
In the culture of Mexican Americans, having a large family and lots of supportive friends is desirable. Friendship is emphasized as a value. The preservation of religious beliefs and the practice of religious traditions are very important to Mexican Americans. Religious values that are central to Mexican Americans include charity, enduring wrongs and personal sacrifice.
Mexican Americans have long existed in poverty. According to the 1991 U.S. Census, 25.7 percent of Mexican American families subsist below the poverty line. As a result, a large portion of Mexican Americans depend on some form of government assistance, for instance, food stamps.
One can find varying levels of "Americanization" among Mexican Americans. Some Mexican Americans have completely acculturated to American ways while others consider themselves very Mexican. Still others partake in the best of both worlds in a sort of cultural blend.
Due in large measure to poverty, crowded living conditions and inadequate medical care, Mexican Americans have higher than average rates for infant mortality, tuberculosis and many other chronic diseases associated with poor living standards. Some of the illnesses experienced by Mexican Americans are related to work conditions or to the actual work performed. Often, abuse of alcohol and drugs for a lengthy period leads to chronic medical conditions with the younger generation particularly vulnerable.
Poverty and circumstances have also taken a toll on the mental health of Mexican Americans. This large minority suffers from a disproportionate rate of stress and depression. Some migrant agricultural workers have been reported to have auditory hallucinations after exposure to pesticides and chemicals used in agricultural work.
Mexican Americans are unique in that they have a strong belief in folk illnesses, termed curanderismo. These folk illnesses are very real to Mexican Americans who will even seek professional advice in response to the perception that someone is afflicted with curanderismo. Such folk illnesses include but are not limited to susto (fright), mal ojo (evil eye) and embruyo (hex).
Language difficulties and low levels of education have led to limited job opportunities for Mexican Americans. Mexican Americans with the least amount of acculturation to American society have been found to have the lowest levels of educational and vocational achievement. In this group, 57 percent work as laborers. Of those Mexican Americans who identify themselves as a cultural blend of Mexican and American, 20 percent have white collar jobs. Only 26 percent of Mexican Americans with the highest level of acculturation were found to hold white collar occupations.
While Mexican Americans are the largest Hispanic group in the United States, they are also the least educated. As a group with economic disadvantages, Mexican Americans are vulnerable to illness and disability. The challenge remains to provide better health care, education and vocational training programs to this significant minority.