Culture and Domestic Violence: The Ecology of Abused Latinas

Article excerpt

This study examined the predictors of domestic violence within a sample of 60 immigrant Latinas, of whom 30 had sought assistance for abuse and 30 had sought other family services. Hypotheses were derived from several frameworks relevant to understanding abuse-intrapsychic (learned helplessness), interpersonal (family violence), and feminist theory. Findings related to the specific formulations were subsequently combined into a model of abuse in which the mutuality of communication within the couple mediates the effects of husband's intoxication and environmental stressors on the occurrence/severity of abuse. The study points out the inadequacy of relying on any one existing theory and supports the idea of taking an ecological approach to the study of abuse in specific populations.

Emotional and physical abuse of Latinas by their male partners is deeply woven into the tapestry of Latino culture in the United States. As children, many of them saw their mothers being physically and emotionally abused by their fathers or their mothers' partners. As immigrants, many have joined the millions of women who are battered yearly in the United States. Although the issue of domestic violence is becoming more discussed generally, there is little empirical knowledge regarding the possible causes and consequences of abuse among Latinas. This study was an attempt to understand some of the antecedents and results of domestic violence from the perspective of immigrant Latinas who may be affected by both personal histories and cultural factors at work in their environment.

Ecological Framework

To understand a person, according to Bronfenbrenner (1979), one must consider the ecology of the individual, that is, an individual's home, workplace, church, particular roles within family or community, government agencies, and finally the overarching institutional patterns of the culture. This study assumes the Latino culture as the ecological framework, and considers several theories and formulations of domestic abuse, and hypotheses derived from them, within this framework.

Despite their heterogeneity, Latinos in the United States share certain cultural values and beliefs. The family is a central focus for Latinos, and strong feelings of loyalty, reciprocity, and solidarity are shared by family members. Latino families are usually highly integrated, and the extended family serves as a strong social support system for its members (Westberg, 1989). Traditionally, gender roles in the Latino culture have been clearly and rigidly defined. Male and female children are socialized differently from an early age. Men are the dominant, authoritarian figures, whereas women are the caregivers and nurturers, learning to take care of everyone else before themselves (Triandis, 1983). Latino gender scripts dictate a high degree of control by the male, with the corresponding degree of dependency by the female. The dependency of immigrant Latinas may be intensified by the importance of their role as mother and wife, the culturally assigned responsibility for their children (Triandis, 1983), limited education (Bureau of the Census, 1993), and few marketable skills.

The roles and expectations for each gender are changing across the Latino population, however. The rigidity of gender roles and the corresponding dependence of women vary across socieconomic levels and countries of origin (Marin & Marin, 1991) as well as by their level of acculturation (Sabogal, Marin, Otero-Sabogal, Marin, & Perez-Stable, 1987). As immigrant families face severe financial difficulties, Latinas who might have stayed at home to raise their families are increasingly joining the labor force, forcing Latino men out of their roles as sole financial providers for their families. Traditional roles are becoming less distinct and clear, thus creating new family dynamics that must be negotiated by people already confronted by majority culture values and expectations different from their own. …