Journal of Rural Community Psychology               Volume E7   Number 2   Fall 2004


Rural Latinos Perception of Discrimination and Use of English

as a Second Language in Relationship to Using a Latino Community Support Center



Carla Reyes, Holly McFarland & Lora Tuesday Healthfield






Associations between Latino immigrants’ use of a community support center and their perceived discrimination and use of English as a second language were investigated. All variables were measured by respondents’ self-reports via a questionnaire designed to describe the needs of the Latino community in rural Northern Utah. Chi-square analyses indicated a statistically significant association between use of the community support center and acquisition of English as a second language. No relationship was found between use of the center and perceived discrimination. The results of this study support the use of English in the acculturation process of rural Latino populations the hopes of alleviating the acculturative stress experienced by when immigrating to the United States.




According to the Bureau of Census (2000), Latinos are now the largest minority group in the United States (Cohn, 2003), representing approximately 10.2% of the general population, as compared to 73.6% White, and 12% Black. Within the state of Utah, it is estimated that Latinos comprise approximately 5% of the total population, numbering at 84,597 (Bureau of Census, 2000). These numbers continue to increase with each passing year as more immigrants settle in the U.S. By the year 2050, the Bureau of Census estimates that Latinos will comprise 22.5% of the general population. As the number of Latino immigrants increases, it becomes increasingly important and challenging for states to meet their medical, social, and mental health needs. On average, Latino immigrants receive less education, employment, income, medical care, mental health care and other social rewards than other populations in the United States. Researchers speculate that this is due to Latinos unfamiliarity with the dominant culture, lack of English use, as well as the dominant culture’s reluctance to integrate Latin Americans (Korzenny & Schiff, 1987; Levine & Padilla, 1980; Sue, 1981).


It is estimated that 9% of the Latino population settles in rural areas (Bureau of Census, 2000). The exact reasons as to why a Latino immigrant would choose to live in a rural community versus an urban area have not been examined. Rural communities often offer close community networks, more opportunities for spacious living, cleaner environments, less crime, and possibly more affordable housing. However, the challenges faced by Latino Americans may be exacerbated in rural communities where medical, social, and mental health services are much less available.


As increasing numbers of Latinos settle in the United States, the challenges they may face include securing employment, finding a residence, and learning to access social, medical, and other available services. The process that immigrants go through in facing these challenges is one of acculturation. Acculturation is defined by Negy and Woods (1992) as “the transfer of culture from one group of people to another group of people” (p. 225), which is frequently viewed as a form of adaptation (Berry, 1980). In the United States, where the dominant or majority culture consists primarily of Anglo Americans, those from non-Anglo cultures are said to have become acculturated when they have adopted the language, social customs, values, behaviors, and other characteristics of the Anglo American culture (Negy & Woods, 1992). Some aspects of the process of acculturation can have a negative impact on the psychological well-being of immigrants’ such as the stresses associated with leaving behind their homes of origin and their ways of life. In addition, Latino immigrants can encounter stress in learning to negotiate daily living, in obtaining medical and other social services, when encountering discrimination, and in learning English as a second language (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Berry, 1979; Cervantes, Salgado de Snyder, & Padilla, 1989; Scott & Scott, 1989; Thoits, 1982; Vargas-Willis & Cervantes, 1987). These stressful experiences comprise what is known as “acculturative stress” which Smart and Smart (1995) defined as the stress that is created when adapting to the rules and behavioral characteristics of another culture. Rural Latinos may be even more susceptible to acculturative stress due to the lack of available support services in sparsely populated communities. The research presented examines two aspects of acculturative stress experienced by rural Latino population: perceived discrimination and acquisition of English as a second language.


Latino immigrants may face discrimination and prejudice as they begin to adapt to the U.S. culture. They may not receive the same opportunities in education, employment, and civic and social situations that members of the dominant culture often enjoy (Black, Paz, & DeBlassie, (lora has et al here)1991). They encounter discrimination experiences in almost every situation involving employment, housing, legal matters, and other daily activities (Smart & Smart, 1994). For example, Romanucci-Ross and DeVoss (1995) assert that Latino immigrants are often subject to “instrumental exploitation” for economic purposes when they are hired as low-paid workers to work in extremely undesirable, but needed jobs. Additionally, immigrants may also experience psychological abuse from being stereotyped as “lazy,” “inherently inferior,” or “a drain on society,” and therefore less deserving of sharing in the dominant society’s ways of life (Romanucci-Ross & DeVoss, p. 327). Because discrimination fits under the umbrella of acculturative stress, it can also impact nearly every aspect of immigrants’ lives (Smart & Smart, 1995).


One of the most important adaptations to a new culture involves learning the language of the dominant culture. In fact, language acquisition and use has been a well-documented measure of acculturation (Epstein, Botvin, Dusenbury, Diaz, & Kerner, 1996; Langdon, 1996). The acquisition of a second language is affected by a number of factors, including motivation level, age, employment, socioeconomic status, and competence in one’s native language. Accessing support systems and having opportunities to learn and practice a new language are additional factors (Cummins, 1984; Langdon & Merino, 1992). Often, Spanish, the native language of Latinos, is spoken in the home which may deter Latin Americans from becoming fluent English speakers due to lack of practice time. Because conversational English is often not used in the home, Latino immigrants may not derive the benefits from learning, practicing, and speaking English casually (Smart & Smart, 1994).


Language acquisition and use can influence how Latinos are perceived by members of the dominant culture. Taylor and Lambert (1996) examined group perceptions of situations in which English or Spanish should be used. Members of the dominant culture identified English as the language that should be used in the public domain and indicated more tolerance for the maintenance of native cultures in the home than for native languages to be spoken in the home. Some research suggests that as Latin American immigrants become more proficient in the language of the dominant culture, they may perceive more discrimination (Burnham, Hough, Karno, Escobar, & Telles, 1987). Other literature suggests that acculturation, as measured by language acquisition and use, contributes to psychological well-being (Amaro, 1990; Tran, 1994; Zea, Jarama, & Bianchi, 1995). Clearly, a consensus has not been reached.


As acculturative stress increases, psychological problems can increase (Smart & Smart, 1995). Cervantes, et al. (1989) examined the levels of stress on immigrants and found that Latinos were at risk for symptoms of depression, somatization, generalized distress, and anxiety. Theses symptoms may be associated with the perception of viable options, which may then lead to increased symptomology (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The elements and effects of acculturative stress can combine with other psychological and emotional stressors resulting in an increased likelihood that mental health services will be needed (Black et al., 1991). There is a considerable amount of literature that addresses the psychological needs of Latinos which include a variety of social and psychological services. Access to formal support services such as psychologists and more informal support networks have been advocated by recent research (Cardo, 1994; Mayers & Souflee, 1990).


Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, the majority of Latinos often do not utilize these services (Curtis, 1990; O’Sullivan & Lasso, 1992). O’Sullivan and Lasso (1992) speculate that the current services offered to Latino population are incompatible with their cultural values. The Latin American culture tends to negatively view taking one’s problems outside of close friends and family circles (Comas-Diaz, 1990). Although Latin Americans tend to perceive life as being inherently difficult, asking for help from sources other than friends and family can be viewed as a weakness. Latin Americans tend to bear their burdens alone in the face of obstacles and hardship, which is believed to be an expression of dignity and strength (Comas-Diaz, 1990; Smart & Smart, 1995). Formal support services may also be too costly for recent immigrants, who are more likely to be concerned with more immediate and pressing financial needs such as food and shelter. Thus, although formal support services (i.e., mental health services) are effective, they may not always be feasible for this population.


Community support centers developed by and run by Latinos themselves may be a solution that can bridge the gap between culture and increasing the use of formal support services. These centers could offer various services within the context of the Latino culture, including facilitating the process of acculturation by helping Latinos become more familiar with the local community, acquire proper legal documentation, and access employment, housing, drivers’ licenses, and other services. Because the centers would be grounded in the Latino culture, immigrants might be more likely to utilize the services offered. Once established, Latinos may feel comfortable utilizing and receiving help from these centers (O’Sullivan & Lasso, 1992). Additionally, a community center can serve as a social environment, where recent immigrants may gather to interact socially and provide support for one another. It provides an opportunity to develop new friendships and new ties that would be compatible with the Latino cultural values of seeking help from close friends and families.


Identifying and exploring the relationship between community support centers with Latino’s acquisition of English as a second language may help to influence the feasibility, location, quality, and usefulness of services offered to this population. Additionally, how Latinos’ perceptions of discrimination are related to their use of community support centers is important in the provision of services offered to rural Latino populations. The research described below examines the role that community support centers may play in alleviating these two aspects of acculturative stress in a rural Latino population.






Two-hundred fourteen surveys were administered to Latinos living in a rural township in northern Utah. The respondents’ countries of origin varied widely, representing 11 different countries. The majority of the respondents (64%) indicated origins from Mexico (n = 138). Eight percent (n = 18) indicated Guatemala, El Salvador was indicated by 8% (n = 17), Chile was endorsed by 5% (n = 11), and the countries of Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador for a total of 19% of the sample (n = 20). Fifty-two percent of the respondents were male (n = 111) and 47% were female (n = 100), while 1% of the participants (n = 3) did not indicate their gender. The mean age of the respondents was 31.2 years, although there was a slight difference in the average age of males (32 years) and females (30.3 years). Fifty-seven percent of the sample indicated they are married (n = 122), 30% were single (n = 64), 3% were divorced (n = 6) and 1.4% were widowed (n = 3). Nine percent (n = 19) of the respondents did not indicate their marital status. The average number of years Latin American immigrants have lived in rural northern Utah was 9.26.




A needs assessment survey was developed by a Latino community support center in rural northern Utah. The needs assessment, written in Spanish, by native Spanish speakers, was designed by the center to obtain demographic information on a sample of the Latinos who routinely utilize the center, as well as on those who are not aware of the center. Additionally, feedback was sought as to how the center was meeting perceived needs of the patrons and what services were still needed. Finally, the needs assessment survey provided information on Latinos’ acquisition of English, their perceptions of discrimination, and their adjustment to the community. Because the instrument was designed for use with a specific sample of the Latino population in rural northern Utah, no reliability or validity data are available.




Volunteer administrators from a local university whom were graduate students and fluent in Spanish, were familiarized with the needs assessment survey and the data collection procedures. These volunteer administrators then went to several places of worship (i.e., a Catholic church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and local businesses (i.e., a Latino grocery store) in a rural Latino community in Northern Utah to administer the survey. All Latino immigrants who came into the Latino community support center were also asked to complete a survey. Because it was anticipated that some participants may not be fluent in reading and writing Spanish, the administrators offered to assist such participants by orally administering the survey. All participants completed the survey on the spot and none requested or accepted help in completing the survey.




Data were analyzed with various descriptive techniques. The first research question addresses whether use of a Latino community social support center is associated with an increase or a decrease in Latin Americans’ own reported level of English use. A chi-squared test of association was performed using respondents’ answers to item 6, ‘Do you understand and speak English?’ and a recoded variable (Use of Center) based on item 20, ‘What services have you used?’. Respondents who indicated using one or more services were coded as having used the Center. Those who did not indicate using any services were coded as not having used the Center. A majority of the respondents (n = 133, 62%) indicated they speak at least some English, while 37% (n = 80) indicated they speak no English. Almost 43% (n = 92) of the respondents indicated they knew of the Center, but only 22% of the respondents (n = 48) reported having used the Center. Of note is that approximately 15% of the respondents (n = 32) did not indicate whether or not they know of the Center. Of those respondents who reported using the center, 77% spoke at least some English, compared to 58% of those reporting not using the Center.


Table 1 indicates the frequencies of the respondents’ reported use of the Hispanic Community Center by their own reported level of English use. The chi-squared test was statistically significant and supported the existence of an association between reported use of English and use of the Center, [X2 (3, N = 214) = 10.58, p < .05]. It appears that those Latinos who report speaking at least some English were more likely to use the Center than those who reported not speaking any English. Thus, use of the Center is associated with increased levels of English use as reported by the respondents.


Table 1

Frequency of Respondents’ Reported Use of

Hispanic Center by Perceived English Ability


Center use             Speak English        Speak a little English       Do not speak English

Use the center            25 (52%)                     12 (25%)                     11 (23%)

Don=t use center       80 (48%)                     16 (10%)                     69 (42%)


To help elaborate on the above finding, a chi-squared analysis was also performed to determine whether an association exists between perceived English use and the types of community support center services used by the respondents, [X2 (15, N = 214) = 22.14, p > .05]. Frequency data regarding the specific type of service used by respondents by their reported use of English is presented in Table 2. Findings indicate no statistically significant association between self-reported use of English and the types of services at the Center that were used by respondents. Participants who reported speaking English and those who do not, appear to use the same services.


Table 2

Frequency of Respondents’ Use of Service Type by Perceived English Ability


Services                     Speak English      Speak a little English    Do not speak English


Legal aid                         15 (31%)                    5 (10%)                     3 (6%)

Driving and                                                                                                               

transportation                              8 (17%)                     6 (13%)                     8 (17%)

Employment                    1 (2%)                       0 (0%)                       0 (0%)

Counseling/medical         1 (2%)                       1 (2%)                       0 (0%)


The second research question addressed whether an association exists between the use of the community support center and Latinos’ perceptions of discrimination. Discrimination was considered high if a respondent indicated she/he had experienced discrimination in more than half of the eight situations listed, which is consistent with other instruments designed to measure discrimination (e.g., Cardo, 1994). The survey item addressing discrimination asks whether the respondents have experienced discrimination in each of six situations (obtaining housing, shopping, employments, religion, social, and legal). The number of situations in which respondents reported experiencing discrimination ranged from none to eight.


 Frequency data for respondents who indicated discrimination by their reported use of the community support center are presented in Table 3. Over half of the respondents indicated experiencing discrimination (n = 122). A chi-squared test of association was performed on levels of perceived discrimination and use of the Center. The results of this analysis were not statistically significant and did not support the existence of an association between the use of the Center and perception of discrimination, [X2 (1, N = 214) = .64, p > .05]. The data appear to indicate no differences between perception of discrimination between Latinos who utilize the Center and those who do not.


Table 3                                              

Frequency of Respondents’ Reported Use of

Hispanic Center by Perceived Discrimination


Center use                  Perceived discrimination      Did not perceive discrimination


Use Center                            30 (63%)                                 18 (37%)                       

Do not use Center                93 (56%)                                 73 (44%)


The average number of situations in which respondents reported discrimination was 1.27 and nearly half of the respondents (n = 92) reported no discrimination events. Thirty-six percent of the respondents indicated they had experienced discrimination in the legal system, either from police or the court system, 31% in either seeking or maintaining residence, 25% in employment, and 18% in shopping. It is interesting to note that despite such a large proportion of the sample acknowledging they perceived encountering discrimination, 80% of the total sample also indicated they liked this rural northern Utah community very much.


Further chi-square analysis was performed to determine whether an association exists between perceived discrimination and the types of services used at the community support center. These data are presented in Table 4. Chi-square results were not statistically significant, and do not support the existence of an association between perceived discrimination and type of service utilization, [X2 (5, N = 214) = 4.81, p > .05]. Those who perceived discrimination were just as likely to utilize the same services as those who did not perceive discrimination. However, these data are somewhat incomplete, since many participants (n = 73) did not respond to the survey item pertaining to discrimination.


Table 4

Frequency of Respondents’ Reported Use

of Service Type by Perceived Discrimination


Services                Perceived discrimination                  Did not perceive discrimination     


Legal aid                                12 (30%)                                 11 (28%)        

Driving and                                                                                                   

transportation                                    16 (33%)                                 6 (27%)          

Employment                          1 (3%)                                     0 (0%)

Counseling/medical               1 (3%)                                     1 (3%)


Although the chi-squared analyses indicated no differences between Center users and nonusers in the perception of discrimination, there was a slight difference in the severity of discrimination reported by participants. The mean for Center users was 1.3 while the mean for nonusers was 1.16. A t-test was conducted to further examine the association between severity of perceived discrimination and use of the Center. The results of this t-test were not statistically significant, and did not support an association between use of the Center and number of discrimination events endorsed [t (213) = 4.03, p > .05]. These results appear to resemble the general trend of the overall discrimination results.




There were a number of interesting demographics noted in this rural Latino population. First, the average age of the respondents was 31.2 years, which is higher than the estimated national average of 25 years for Latinos. The average age of the participants more closely resembled that of the general U.S. population, which was estimated at 31.4 years (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). One explanation of this discrepancy could be that younger Latin Americans may prefer to remain in states that are closer to their countries of origin, prefer to live in the more populated urban areas of the state and have not immigrated to this northern rural Utah community.


The average number of years this sample pf Latin American immigrants reported living in rural northern Utah was 9.26. Additionally, most (n = 170) indicated they liked living in this area of the country very much. This is contrary to some literature has suggested that many Latin Americans often live and work in the United States for only part of the year and return to their countries of origin for the remainder of the year (Comas-Diaz, 1990). It is possible that this sample of Latinos living in rural northern Utah have chosen to relocate permanently, unlike the migration patters of the seasonal migrant worker. These immigrants may perceive that there are considerable benefits to living in rural northern Utah and remain for that purpose. However, because the needs assessment did not specifically request information about seasonal migration patterns, it is also possible that these respondents do frequently return to their countries of origin and maintain close familial and cultural ties, but still perceive rural northern Utah as their primary residence.


While it appears many Latin American immigrants who are aware of the existence of the Latino community support center also utilize its services, the data also seem to indicate that a substantial portion of this sample were aware of the Center, but they do not utilize its services. There are several reasons that these respondents may not be utilizing the Center. The most likely explanation is that respondents may be using similar services offered by other service agencies. It is also possible that they are not familiar with the types of services the Center has to offer or how they may benefit from them personally. For example, much of the population in northern rural Utah identifies with and participates in the predominant religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as Mormonism. It is possible that respondents who are aware of the Center and choose not to access its services are utilizing services offered through their church affiliations. Finally, the acculturation process one faces when moving to the United States is filled with new knowledge, daily struggles and can be very overwhelming. These individuals may know of the existence of the community support center, but simply have not had the time, energy, or available transportation to access the services offered.


Data indicate that the Latinos who used the community support center tended to perceive themselves as more fluent English-speakers than those who did not use the Center. Participants who utilize the Center may be more acculturated, and therefore more likely to access other services and participate in other activities where they are exposed to more English. Smart and Smart (1995) argued that immigrants who are more acculturated have better English skills. The process of this acculturation of language could be facilitated by use of the community support centers. The specific mechanisms in the Center that may be promoting acculturation are difficult to determine from the data presented here, but could be examined in future research. It is important to note that the Latino community support center does not currently offer programs that facilitate the acquisition of English. At one time, English classes were offered, but because these classes received only minimal support in the way of participation, the Center subsequently stopped providing this service. The possibility of the Center facilitating English acquisition would seem unlikely based on this information; however, there may be other factors that could explain this fining. Smart and Smart (1995) have suggested that Latin American immigrants who are more fluent in English are also more acculturated than those who are not as fluent. It is possible that using the Center facilitates the process of acculturation by encouraging a sense of belonging and group membership rather than language acquisition per se. Participants who use the center may then be more likely to utilize other sources of support and be involved in other community activities. This could subsequently increase their exposure to and use of English in these different environments.


Latinos who used the community support center tended to perceive experiencing discrimination at the same level as those whom did not use the Center. The most likely explanation for this is that discrimination based on background and origin is not impacted by using the Center. Of interest is that while not statistically significant, there does appear to be a trend in the opposite direction of the hypothesis (i.e., more of those who use the Center perceive discrimination than those who do not use the Center). The Center offers specific services to combat discrimination, including legally fighting suspected racially based accusations, speeding tickets, and other legal problems. Additionally, the Center works to educate local law enforcement about the prevalence of discrimination. This is in an effort to increase awareness of and prevent discrimination. Thus, it may be that more Center users reported perceiving discrimination because they rely on the services the Center provides to help them challenge it.




There are several limitations of this study that must be addressed. First, the small sample size limits the generalizability of the sample to the population. The results may not apply to Latinos living outside of rural northern Utah. Because the survey was designed specifically to yield information from a specific rural Utah population, results may not be applicable to other populations, particularly urban populations. It is possible significant different exist between this population and other populations. As already noted, mean age differences exist between the sample used (32 years) and the national sample (25 years). Variables such as housing, income, crime rate, and support from religious sources, and the number of people who live in the community could all be factors that influence whether a participant utilizes the Center.


The needs assessment, the instrument used to assess reported use of English and perception of discrimination, is itself limiting in that it is generally subjective in nature and without behavioral validation. Because the survey instrument relies primarily on self-report, therefore, participants can respond in a manner that is inconsistent with their actual behavior. Additionally, the specific items used to gather information on English use and perception of discrimination did not offer definitions of these terms and, as such, may be subject to different interpretations by different participants. Finally, survey items were not sensitive to different levels of discrimination and English use. For example, the item measuring English use was not scaled to provide respondents with options for endorsing different levels of English proficiency. Thus, a respondent who speaks only minimal English and a respondent who speaks English fluently may both have endorsed the “Speak English” response. This limits the study in that the data may not provide a complete picture of a participant’s level of English proficiency or frequency of use of English.


Finally, the paper-and-pencil self-report method of data collection may be problematic within this population. One characteristic of the Latino culture is that it is very interactive and disclosing personal information via survey is not typical. A more culturally sensitive method of data collection would be qualitative in nature and include personal interviews (Curtis, 1990; Negy & Woods, 1992).




Research results indicate that Latinos who utilize the community social support center have perceptions that differ from nonusers. Patrons of the Center tended to perceive themselves as better English-speakers. Since patrons of the Center are offered services in their native language, it is unlikely that increased use of or fluency in English is a direct benefit of using the Center. However, it is possible that using the Center promotes acculturation, resulting in increased participation in community activities where exposure to English is more likely. Given the fact that use of English can reduce the amount of acculturative stress (Langdon & Merino, 1992), it may be worthwhile for other community support centers to resolutely promote the acquisition of English in order to facilitate acculturation. Introducing English classes could have the benefit of increasing acculturation to an even greater extent than presently exists. If Latinos can acquire English more easily or more quickly via the use of a community support center, then this population would be well-served by the development and promotion of community support centers (Cervantes et al., 1989; Smart & Smart, 1995).


Directions for Future Research


Future research should focus on determining whether study results are generalizable to Latin American immigrant populations in other rural locations. As there is relatively little empirical research on rural Latinos populations, determining the extent to which the rural and urban populations are alike and different from each other may allow government, state, and local agencies to better serve the needs of these two populations. Because the literature documents the widespread phenomenon of acculturative stress and its impact on the lives of Latinos, future research should continue to determine how to best serve this population to help counterbalance the effects of this stress. A more thorough investigation into the advantages of using a community support center may provide valuable information and a more complete picture of whether and how utilizing a community support center can increase Latinos access to the benefits of mental health services. Larger sample sizes would allow for more accurate statistical analyses. Finally, future studies may consider utilizing more qualitative methods of data collection, involving interviews in one-on-one settings, which may more closely resemble the interactional nature of the Latin American culture. With the proportion of Latinos taking the lead in size and continued growth in America, it is critical that research continues to focus on meeting the needs of Latino Americans, particularly its mental health needs.




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