Educating Students for Social Work with Latinos: Issues for the New Millennium

Article excerpt

LATINOS, people of Latin American descent, will be the largest ethnic minority group in the United States in the 21st century.(1) The growth of the Latino population in the United States, and their internal migration to new :regions will have a strong influence on social work practice. To be culturally competent when working with this population, social workers and social work students must have adequate knowledge, values, and skills necessary for work with Latinos. Yet, content on Latinos is often not included in the social work curriculum.

Social science knowledge and census data indicate that Latinos are a population at risk for poverty, poor health and mental health, and other problems. For example, Latinos have, on average, a low level of education, a high rate of unemployment, and overrepresentation in agencies of social control such as the criminal justice system (Enchautegui, 1995; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997; U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994). Yet as a group, Latinos often underutilize voluntary or preventive health and mental health services (Hough et al., 1987; Padilla, Ruiz, & Alvarez, 1989; Rogler, Malgady, Constantino, & Blumenthal, 1987; Valdez, Giachello, Rodriguez-Trias, Gomez, & de la Rocha, 1993; Wells, Hough, Golding, Burnam, & Karno, 1987). This suggests that if the challenges of the growing Latino population are to be met, social workers must figure out ways to engage this group more effectively and better serve their needs.

This article introduces ways social work educators can integrate knowledge on Latinos into their teaching in different curriculum areas. It begins with background information on the Latino population in the United States. The second section describes how Latinos have been represented in the social work literature, and describes contemporary and emerging issues facing Latinos. The final section introduces ways knowledge on Latinos and Latino populations in the United States can be incorporated into different curriculum areas. Meeting the need for education on Latino issues is certainly beyond the scope of a single journal article; nonetheless, the authors wish intention to introduce some Latino issues and encourage social work educators to develop their own knowledge, values, and skills for educating students to work with this group more effectively.

Who Are Latinos?

Although people of Latin American descent have been present in the United States for centuries, only since the late 1970s have efforts been made to create an umbrella ethnic term (Office of Management and Budget, 1978). This new ethnic category has resulted from increasing contacts between different Latino subgroups, which has led to perceptions of similarity; a recognition by Latinos that political efforts could be more effective through coalitions; and perceptions by non-Latinos of cultural and phenotypic similarities between Latino subgroups (Hayes-Bautista & Chapa, 1987; Padilla, 1990; Portes & Truelove, 1987).

While the authors use the term Latino in this article, we do not intend to obscure the great heterogeneity of this group (Castex, 1994; Hayes-Bautista & Chapa, 1987; Portes & Truelove, 1987; Zambrana & Dorrington, 1998). The umbrella term Latino includes new immigrants, descendants of some of the original inhabitants of this continent, American citizens, English and Spanish speakers, people with different national origins, those who identify closely with their ethnic heritage, and those who do not. Social work education must represent both the differences and similarities among Latinos accurately.

Research on Latinos has come from both cultural and social status perspectives. A large body of literature on Latinos has focused on cultural perspectives (Marin & Marin, 1991; Mezzich, Ruiz, & Munoz, 1999; Rogler et al., 1987; Zambrana, 1995). The cultural perspective looks at how Latinos have entered this country, how well they have acculturated (changed their cultural practices), and how well they have assimilated (participated in larger society). …