/ Beyond the Myths: Paternal Values of Latino Fathers


In many Latino families, the father is central to the nuclear family constellation as well as to the extended family network. The paper provides a brief review of the available literature on Latino fathers, addresses the issues of acculturation and immigration, and defines Spanish words which describe the concepts introduced in the article. To focus the understanding of practitioners and researchers on the dynamics of Mexican/Latino families, the authors use personal narratives that illustrate how paternal roles have influenced individual and family development. The implications of understanding Latino fathers in a rapidly evolving economic and social environment are discussed, and types of programs and interventions that will work in the Latino community are recommended.

Key Words: Latino, fathers, paternal values, parenting roles, familialism

    1. We are grateful to Linda Chapel Jackson for editorial assistance on this manuscript. We appreciate the feedback comments of Rosemary Favier, Victor Garcia, Juan Marinez, June Youatt, and Marta Sotomayor on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Partial support for the preparation of this manuscript was provided by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Grant No. 3R0IHD31893-3, and by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to the first author.return to text

    2. Francisco A. Villarruel, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, Department of Family and Child Ecology and Research Associate, Institute for Children, Youth and Families, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, 48824-1030.return to text

    3. Jaime Chahin, Ph.D., is Associate Vice President for Human Relations and University Affairs, Southwest Texas State University, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, Texas, 78666-4616.return to text

    As the Latino population becomes the largest minority group in the United States, it is critical that they become an integral part of all aspects of society. Increasingly, the well being of society will depend on the well being of this and other minority groups. More important, the well being of society will inextricably be linked to the health and resiliency of families and communities.

    In spite of early press, most notably Time magazine's proclamation that the 1980s would be "The Decade of Hispanics," the situation of Latinos in the United States during the past two decades has been tenuous (see Massey, 1992; Melendez, 1992; and Morales & Bonilla, 1993 for reviews). The reality is that they have faced enormous economic (Aponte, 1991, 1993; Carnoy, Daley, & Ojeda, 1993; Morales & Ong, 1993; Santiago, 1995; Santiago & Wilder, 1991), housing (Santiago & Wilder, 1991) and other social hardships (e.g., California's proposition 187: the "war" on immigration) which have impacted the well being of their families.

    During the past two decades, however, two significant trends have been noted. First, the scientific community has focused more attention on issues related to the health and well being of Latino families, as seen in the growing literature in an array of disciplinary based publications. Notably, there is a growing body of scientific inquiry in the area of Latino youth and families (e.g., Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 1993; Carrasquillo, 1991; Vega, 1990; Sotomayor, 1992; Zambrana, 1995). Yet upon closer review, a second and perhaps more disturbing trend emerges: There is only a limited focus on the paternal and parenting roles of Latino fathers. With the exception of Mirande's work (1988, 1991), little research has been conducted which examines the role of fathers in families from a paternal perspective. This is somewhat surprising given that Latino families are generally described as being allocentric or collective. In other words, families have been observed to possess a relatively strong sense of mutual empathy, trust in groups, and a readiness to support one another. While collective experience has been described as more apparent in times of stress and hardship (Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 1993; Hurtado, 1995; Ortiz, 1995; Sotomayor, 1992; Vega, 1990, 1995), it nonetheless serves as an underpinning for extended family relations.

    It is important to stress that while Latino families have been described as allocentric and collective, the specific roles that fathers assume within the family have not been adequately underscored. The aforementioned lack of research focused on Latino fathers does not imply a lack of parental involvement. In many Latino families, the father is central to the nuclear family constellation as well as to the extended family network, frequently assuming the responsibility for establishing extra-familial boundaries and maintaining these relationships.

    Moreover, the importance of extended family marks a unique aspect of Latino families—that of familialism. In addition to providing a relatively strong attachment to the nuclear family, the strong familial orientation provides a sense of solidarity while concurrently reinforcing the notion that the family is more important than the individual (Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 1993). Included in this kin network are compadres (co-parents) and padrinos (godparents) who maintain close ties with both parents and children (Rameriz & Arce, 1981). The compadazgo system represents a series of structured relationships that are constituted between adults through a kinship ritual (e.g., baptism). Adults who assume the role of either a padrino or compadre agree to play an important role in the socialization and affectional development of a child—the responsibility of co-parenting in concert with the biological parents. Thus, the paternal roles of fathers extend beyond the nuclear family to the extended family, and—by the same token—fathers are partially relieved of some of the parenting roles with the nuclear family. As a consequence of this formal relationship, the interaction and emotional relationship between adults is also strengthened.

    Recently, there has also been a growing recognition in American society that the father-child relationship is a significant contributor to the well being of all children. Russell and Radojevic (1992) and Marsiglio (1993, 1995), for example, have recently published reviews of fathering research. Collectively, these volumes underscore the fact that fathers continue to be under-represented in the research literature (in relative comparison to mothers), and that Latino fathers tend to be absent even from these reviews.

    Reiterating the challenges which confront researchers interested in documenting the role that Latino fathers play in the socialization and well being of their children and families might be a good place to begin. Is it safe to assume that Latino fathers are different from non-Hispanic White fathers? From American Indian fathers? Certainly, the pioneering work of McAdoo (1993, 1996) with African American fathers supports the perspective that a new paradigmatic understanding of fatherhood, with and between racial and ethnic groups, is needed if we truly desire to develop programs and policies that can benefit families. Moreover, McAdoo (1993) asserts that an ecological approach—one which encompasses multiple influences of fathering (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Lerner, 1991)—must be assumed if we are to develop a true understanding of the various roles that fathers play with their families as well as within their communities.

    The implications of understanding Latino fathers in a rapidly evolving economic and social environment will help to define the types of programs and interventions that will work in the Latino community. Thus, this article will illustrate how paternal roles have influenced the individual and family development with two Mexican families. The two families have lived separate but parallel lives in their settlement in the United States:

    • Don Teofilo immigrated at seventeen as a migrant worker following the agricultural crops in the western states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Eventually, he became a United Steel worker, and settled on the U. S.-Mexican border
    • In contrast, the Villarruel family settled out in the midwest. Originally working in the metal bending industries, Don Francisco found it necessary to find alternative employment as the economic conditions and viability of the automobile industry stagnated during the 1970s.

    Both Don Teofilo and Don Francisco would be described as individuals who had their feet in two worlds. Steeped in their culture and tradition, they sought to maintain that part of their lives which was integral to their identity and way of being. By the same token, they recognized the need for their children to walk in the world in which they had chosen to raise those children—the culture of the United States. Throughout this manuscript, six specific values are highlighted—respeto (respect and honor), nobleza (nobility, having a strong center), machismo (strength), simpatica (a sense of mutual sympathy, kindness, and tenderness), modales (exemplary models of actions and attitudes), and honor (integrity)—which guided Don Teofilo's and Don Francisco's approach to raising their children. These values are not by any means the only ones that define Latino fathers, but they are being discussed because we believe that they are critical to understanding the essence of fatherhood within Latino families.

    To examine the significance that Latino fathers have in their family systems, we have reflected on the significant contributions that Don Francisco and Don Teofilo have passed on to us, and which we in turn are passing on to our children. In writing this manuscript, we spent time reflecting on what we believe to be core cultural values (with both the Mexican and Latino cultures) that we hold as central to our roles as fathers which, in turn, we learned as sons from our fathers. We recognize that these values may be affected by other circumstances, such as acculturation, socioeconomic status, educational status, regional differences in the U. S., and generational status.

    One important note needs to be addressed before moving forward. While the term Latino (a broad term which encompasses individuals of Latin American decent) has and will be used in this manuscript, our reference to fathers of Mexican decent (fathers born and raised in Mexico who immigrated to the U. S.) is made with specific regard to our fathers—both of whom were immigrants to the United States. Given the heterogeneity of the Latino/Hispanic population, it should not be assumed that fathers of various Latino ethnic backgrounds share common parenting or familial responsibilities. From a human ecological perspective alone, socio-political differences among Latino nations (e.g., the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador; the economic hardship of Mexico and Peru; the economic growth in Argentina and Chile) are sufficient to impact paternal roles fathers can and have played in their family systems. Moreover, immigration/emigration to the United States differs in its effect across individuals, as have experiences of settling-out in the United States. Hence, rather than assume heterogeneity or experiences, we believe it is more important to assume that differences exist among Latino groups' experiences while simultaneously sharing a common value base.


    In the Latino culture, the family is the most basic and fundamental social group of support (Baca Zinn & Eitzen, 1993; Carrasquillo, 1991; Rameriz & Arce, 1991; Vega, 1990, 1995; Zambrana, 1995). It provides the sustenance and ongoing social support that serves as a link to the past and as a pathway for the future socialization of its members. Parents play critical roles in these socialization processes that involve human interaction, cultural rituals, and the shaping of individual values within the cultural context of experience (Bringham, 1991).

    As immigrants, our parents could have chosen to alter their values—instead they chose to maintain the Latino values that reflected the significance of the Mexican culture. While an "outsider" might interpret their strength, the sternness of their voice, or their stubbornness, as "macho" (or alternately, interpret these behaviors as an "authoritative" style of parenting), a member of the familia would view them as unos hombres nobles (honorable men). They did not have the mistaken misconception that abusing women and raising hell was machismo (Anaya, 1996). To our fathers, being noble and macho meant being a man of respeto, simpático, bién educado y de palabra as exemplified by the giving and keeping of their word of honor. To command respeto, they had to respect their families, their spouses, elders, extended family, and the institutions of which they have been a part throughout our families' lives. To gain the respect and honor that they held in our eyes and in the eyes of those who knew them, they had to be involved in multiple ways in all of our lives—in all of our environments.


    The values and beliefs that our fathers had and which were important dimensions of our childhood socialization were reflected not in their words, but in their actions. Without a doubt, these values varied depending on acculturation level and socio-economic status. In our worlds, however, they were a strong connection to the immediate and extended family, and by facilitating the interdependence on our familia for assistance and points of reference:

    It was not altogether uncommon for Don Francisco to come home from working a 12-hour day, only to forgo dinner to visit a familia member who was ill or to help him with household repairs. Other times, Don Francisco would make arrangements to meet at the family home—to eat and often times spend the night—so that his children would have the opportunity to be near him and to be with their extended family. Even when he was too tired, Don Francisco would see to it that all of his children knew he was home—taking a moment, albeit brief, to speak with each of them and to stress the importance of education and work.

    Both Don Francisco and Don Teofilo's interpersonal conduct provided the family with a semblance of continuity and a model of respect. This was conveyed be the way they treated others and the courtesies they extended to them. Their courteousness and polite behavior did not mean that our fathers were in agreement, but only that they acknowledged the comments and presence of others.

    By the same token, our fathers could be either directive or confrontational if necessary. Yet they could also be non-confrontational, expressing themselves in a manner characterized as muy simpáctico. Our fathers showed empathy for the feelings or conditions of other people, thus teaching values within a cultural milieu which emphasized the dignity of self and others. They carried themselves with dignity and respect, accentuating their position and striving to mediate conflict. To this day, Don Teofilo projects these values when he deliberates family matters. For Latino families, the importance of family relations is a lifelong commitment to a relatively large and supportive social network of caring and concerned human beings.


    Access to and membership within a family network—one that includes uncles, aunts, grandparents, children, distant relatives, and compadres and comadres—protects the family from social isolation and economic hardship. Despite the fact that the second generation continues to migrate to urban areas, our fathers are still central in the organization of family reunions and in maintaining family support systems that are reflective of our culture. These family support systems, our fathers would argue, are needed to deal with the risks of poverty, unemployment, isolation, minority status, unexpected hardships that may confront any of us in the course of our lives, as well as health consequences associated with aging. The challenge to the future for our families will be to maintain these extended family relationships despite urbanization and accommodation to these challenges as well as to changes associated with the process of acculturation.

    Care and devotion to the elder members of our extended family always seemed to be a responsibility that our fathers welcomed—whether distant or in close proximity. While resources may not have always been plentiful, they were nonetheless reserved for our grandparents and great-grandparents and their siblings who lived nearby. In turn, these cherished abuelos (grandparents) became a part of our family, and as they aged, our fathers took greater responsibility for their care and well being. As children, we learned from our fathers to have patience, empathy, and respect for our elders, and—perhaps more important—to appreciate them for the vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom they possessed. In observing our fathers, we became cognizant of how noble they were and why our extended families respected them. From our abuelitos, we learned the sacred values and customs of our family and our culture, while concurrently maintaining our rich language and developing and appreciation and deeper understanding of the important interdependence among family members that had been a part of multiple generations before us.

    The extended family plays a central role in defining norms, mores, values, customs, and traditions of a particular group of people; and it is the father who serves as the catalyst for the internalization of these cultural qualities via the establishment, maintenance, and extension of such networks. Through an examination of the cultural traditions, one may better understand the connections between a particular family and its identity:

    In the Chahin family, for example, Don Teofilo accentuated a strong kinship network that served to connect the family members, thus seeing itself as a larger interdependent family unit. This connection could be observed during celebrations as well as during times of crisis. Don Teofilo maintained a strong family network through religious traditions and practices at births, baptisms, marriages, and coming-of-age celebrations (known as quinceaneras).

    These celebrations provided opportunities for interaction between the families and created other extended family connections as padrinos and madrinas. The padrinos and madrinas, or godparents, were chosen because they were respectful and honorable people who would look after the children if anything happened to the parents.

    As elders in the community and in the family, our fathers continue to be invited to serve as padrinos for children completing their first holy communion and young couples getting married. Some of the invitations come form la familia who are living in close proximity, others from as far away as Mexico. In times of crisis, like a death in the family, our fathers have joined the larger family and provided moral support, food, and financial assistance to the members of the family or extended family that was suffering the loss. Whether it is a celebration or a crisis, these events allow the family to unite and further strengthen the support system.

    Another type of familial networking is achieved when a son wants to get married to someone in the community. Because of his status and trustworthiness in the community, Don Teofilo is frequently asked to request the young lady's hand in marriage (pedir la mano) on behalf of the young man. Don Teofilo is trusted and commands respect in the community because he is know as a man of his word. Even though asking for a bride's hand is no longer a common practice in many families, it is a respected tradition that has been maintained and continues into the second generation of the Chahin family as a result of Don Teofilo's continuous involvement in the community.


    Despite their ages, our fathers continue to be the heads of their respective families. Their wisdom and guidance continue to be sought among family members. Their influence perseveres as their children continue to practice and explore their values, and perpetuate the customs and traditions into the next generation.

    In the Villarruel family, leadership was manifested not only by example, but also by vision. Don Francisco was always cognizant of his environment. He was not afraid to step forward to do things that others feared. Moreover, he knew that the path to success for his children was work, discipline, and education. A man that some might have called undereducated, his children knew to be bién educado. His sacrifice was working six or seven days per week, eight to twelve hours per day, to provide an opportunity for them all to achieve a shared vision. Yet in that quest for achievement, one thing was never lost—the commitment and tie to la familia and nuestra comunidad. The commitment to this vision still burns within each of the Villarruel children. More important, the sacrifice and strength of his wisdom is still valued.

    Despite the personal, academic, and professional successes of his children, Don Francisco continues to be the primary person upon whom they call when advice is needed. There has rarely been a career choice made where the input of their father has not been solicited and valued. While the father may not have benefitted from the educational opportunities that have been afforded the children, he possesses a unique quality that endears him to those who know him—a dignity, strength, and passion—a tie to the past and a tie to the future. They are the backbone that he has contributed to who his children have become and who they are yet to be.

    Future Challenges to Latino Families

    In an effort to understand Latino fathers, health and human service professionals need to look at the implications of the community-building strength of the Latino father's role. Devore and Schlesinger's (1991) model of ethnically sensitive practice recognizes ethnicity as a source of cohesion, identity, and strength. Ethnicity, however, can also be a source of discordance and strife as a result of changing family configurations. Likewise, it is important to recognize, for ethnic families, that the unique cultural traditions which unify them can erode and create distance as they interact with institutions and persons outside their culture—a process frequently referred to as acculturation. The ethnic identification and family configuration will determine the values, norms, and mores that become the common practice of the family. These cultural traditions will delineate for the practitioner the manner in which the family and the father carry out their responsibilities. As this social acculturation affects the way in which values are manifested in institutional and interpersonal interaction, the expectations of the father's role will be concurrently affected.

    For example, the often divisive demands and influences of the larger society create situations in which the father is absent and young Latina teenage mothers need, therefore, to return to their family networks for support and assistance in raising their children. As a consequence, the paternal grandfather serves a dual role in both relationships—as father/grandfather to the young infant and as father/support person to the young mother. Others may join their family networks as a result of unemployment, divorce, or the death of a spouse or significant other. The (grand)parents become a support system for housing, parenting responsibilities, and economic and emotional support.

    Intervening practitioners need to understand and use the strengths of the culture and family configuration in order to be respected by clients as competent (Castex, 1994). As practitioners are able to understand the different cultural roles—specifically the role of the Latino father—as well as customs and Latino family traditions, their ability to intervene and assist families will be enhanced. Demographers forecast that as ethnic diverse populations and multicultural groups assimilate, they will adjust and redesign the fabric of American culture. The integration and merging of changing cultural (and societal) traditions and lifestyles may impact upon and create different family configurations. As a result of interracial and interreligious marriages, marriages among those of different generational but similar ethnic backgrounds, and marriages resulting from workforce interactions, cultural groups will operate more and more outside their cultural boundaries—and social institutions will be required to change if they are to be of service. These institutions will have to reflect the fervor of the multicultural environment and be more responsive to the networks and extended families of the cultural groups which will also represent a critical portion of the workforce.

    Some of our fathers' family values—and the family values of Latino parents in general—will continue to be explored and expanded in relation to contextual demands and social pressures. These evolving responsibilities, and their centrality within the culture of Latino fathers, will reinforce the significance that fathers have in the health and well being of the Latino family system and the community. Through the challenge of modernity and the diversification of the assimilationist tendency of American culture, the role of Latino fathers—their traditional sense of family and responsibility—can be the unifying force that stabilizes the Latino community.


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