Families and cultural diversity in Australia

Historical publication – December 1995

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8. Latin American families in Australia

by Lily Amezquita, Rocio Amezquita and Renzo Vittorino

Latin America is considered to stretch from Mexico to Chile, and includes Caribbean islands with populations of Spanish-speaking background. The region comprises twenty different nations, all sharing a common heritage but each having followed a different historical path. The term 'Latin America' was created by the French to define the regions conquered by Spain and Portugal at a time when France was trying to reinstate its influence and legitimise French domination of the region. The term is also a reference to Spanish and Portuguese, the main languages spoken in the region, which share common roots in the Latin language.

There are differences between and within the various Latin American countries, which relate to geographic setting, history, race, ethnicity, economic structure, general education levels and social class composition. Nevertheless, Latin American countries share some common organisational patterns which become evident in the settlement process in Australia. They have similar social and political structures, as well as legal systems which are based on Roman law. The majority of countries have a dominant class which holds political and economic power and which creates and reinforces the values imposed in each country. All dominant classes share similar social and cultural values.

Latin American migration to Australia

Latin American people have come to Australia under various immigration categories-refugee . and humanitarian, family reunion, independent, and 'special'-in two major migratIOn 'waves'. The first was in the 1970s when people came mainly from Chile, Uruguay and Argentina because of the financial and political problems in those countries. Most from Chile came under the refugee and humanitarian programs. The composition of this first wave was heterogeneous in terms of skills and levels of education.

The second wave arrived during the 1980s, predominantly from El Salvador and other Central American countries where there was civil war and general political unrest; the majority came under the refugee and humanitarian programs. The second wave was more diverse than the first, as people from all walks of life were displaced by the internal political situation in their countries of origin. The percentage of peasants was higher in this group than in the first wave. Since the 1980s other Latin American settlers from varied backgrounds have arrived in Australia as independent immigrants or under the family reunion program. The largest numbers of Latin Americans in Australia come from Chile, El Salvador, Argentina and Uruguay.

This chapter first briefly outlines key factors in the historical background of Latin America and identifies traditional family values and structures. Latin American families in Australia are then examined. Finally, the particular situations of refugee families are discussed.

Historical background

In order to understand families from Latin America it is necessary to consider the historical background and development of the region from which they come. After the 'New Continent' was 'discovered' by the Spaniards in 1492, it was invaded by people from a number of powerful empires including the Spanish, the British, the French and the Portuguese. History shows how the predominant customs and values in Latin America today have their origin in values which were imposed by Spain and Portugal in an effort to establish unity. Such values include a patriarchal and authoritarian family structure; pride, dignity and honour within the family; values related to Catholicism; and a 'double standard' of sexual morality for men and women. Shared customs relate to food, language and literature. The 'imposition' of values was facilitated through institutions holding power in the past-specifically, the various European empires and the Catholic Church.

The people of Latin America are descendants of three main racial groups-indigenous or Amerindian, European and African. The intermixture of Europeans and indigenous people has been a characteristic of the region since the European invasion, resulting in the mainly mestizo population of today. Historically, this intermixture is based on the fact that women were taken by powerful men as their concubines. In countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, the main population is of indigenous descent, as it is also in Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, although these latter three countries have a lower percentage of people of indigenous descent. In contrast, the populations of Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay are mainly of European descent. Brazil, Panama, Santo Domingo and Cuba and some regions of Venezuela and Colombia have a high percentage of people of African descent.

The imposition of social and cultural values by the Spanish and Portuguese on the original cultures was extensive. The Spanish Empire, represented by the conquerors of the 'new land', used violence to enforce strict rules. Foreign values blended with indigenous and African cultural values, creating the base of the 'new societies'. The conquerors held powerful positions in the social and political structures and became a dominant class whose purpose was to maintain, transmit and impose its own values and cultural patterns on the pre-existing cultures. However, despite this, there remain indigenous and African cultural influences which contribute to the area's heterogeneity.

The Catholic Church has also been an important instrument in the imposition and maintenance of values and customs. Its influence was present in every aspect of the invasion, conquest and subsequent settlement. 'In the name of God' the Catholic Church provided education to 'the ignorant indigenous'; through [as misiones (the missions), which were established to evangelise indigenous people, and cofradias (brotherhood), which was created in order to integrate the community into the Church by promoting community and cult activities. The Church attempted to organise the social life of the community by regulating three areas in particular: marriage, family relationships and sexuality. Nevertheless, as Willems (1975) argues, the Catholic Church could not abolish some indigenous and African practices:

Apparently the supernatural world of the Indian and African did not automatically succumb to the Catholic officialdom of the colonial city. After all, it was in the cities rather than in the countryside that. the African deities and African cult forms survived. There are many indications that in the cities of Spanish America, too, the lower classes retained forms of witchcraft and magic of mixed Iberian, indigenous and sometimes African origin. (p.71)

The fundamental cultural and social patterns which were forced on the indigenous population were based on Roman law, the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and existing practices in Spain and Portugal. The clash between 'new values' and 'old values', especially the relationship between men and women, created and reinforced some new beliefs. One was the concept that women were 'less than men'. This idea was compounded by the belief of the conquerors that indigenous people were naturally inferior. It created a clear division between two categories of women: those who must be kept pure and chaste for marriage, and those whose purpose was to satisfy men's sexual desires. This established a moral double standard, the impact of which is explored later.

Three important factors influenced the construction of family organisation and patterns in the new land. They were the absence of Spanish women among the invaders (unlike invasions from many other countries, colonisation was not a family enterprise); the rape and concubinage of indigenous women, which led to the establishment of the mestizo population; and the existence of a very rigid social class system. There was often official denial of relationships between European men and indigenous and African women, and social stigma was attached to such relationships despite the fact that the practice was widespread.

Patriarchal structures and the sexual double standard (with its associated male jealousy) were sustained during the period of the institutionalisation of the invasion. Not until after industrialisation (occurring at different times in different countries) and considerable social change did these family patterns and values begin to alter. The influx of immigrants from European countries (including Italy, Germany and England) after the Second World War and the arrival in particular areas of settlers from such countries as Lebanon, Japan and China have contributed to gradual change. Internal migration from rural to urban areas, access of the middle and upper classes to mass media influences and the general dynamics of urban life have all contributed to changes in women's roles arid their dependency on marriage.

Latin American families

The family is seen as the basis of Latin American society. However, there is extreme variation of structure, organisation and behaviour, not only from country to country but also between regions within the same country. Therefore, while generalisations and descriptions of the values and cultural patterns of Latin American families presented in this chapter are useful in a broad context of analysis, the particular circumstances of each country and each family must be taken into account for a more detailed understanding of individual families.

Family patterns and values are different in rural and urban areas, and across both areas there are differences between upper, middle and lower class families within each country. In addition, there are differences related to political circumstances, educational and social levels and geographic setting between and within countries. However, in theory, it is possible to assert that rural and working class family lifestyle is organised in a similar manner, and that this is different from the organisation· of middle and upper class families. This means, for example, that there are similarities in upper class families, whether they live in urban or rural areas. What is outlined here are dominant cultural and social patterns and values of the 'ideal typical' Latin American family.

Nuclear and extended families

Both extended and nuclear family structures are common to all Latin American countries. It is difficult to establish clear boundaries between the two. Even though they commonly live in separate houses or even in different cities, nuclear families share many family concerns with extended kin such as aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family. Therefore, nuclear and extended family characteristics coexist.

Cohesion and hierarchical organisation are characteristics of traditional Latin American families. Families tend to be organised around four main values: respeto (respect) for parental authority, cohesion (cohesiveness), honestidad (honesty) and dignidad (dignity) for individual achievements (Falicov 1982). Family structure is authoritarian and has clear internal differentiation of roles and forms of communication. Roles are directly related to gender images. The father is the head of the family and his authority is considered a natural and unquestionable right; his wife and children have to unconditionally obey and respect his authority. The mother, who is usually subordinated in every sense to her husband's desires, is placed in the 'middle' of the hierarchy. She is very important in communication between father and children.

Women are responsible for looking after and educating their children and for providing emotional support to other family members. Often working class women provide income for the family by washing clothes and ironing for others, cleaning houses, or working as domestic servants in wealthy people's homes. In rural areas they usually maintain a vegetable garden and keep chickens, pigs and cows which provide eggs, meat and milk for the family. Women's financial responsibilities include distributing the husband's wage within the family.

The definition of roles helps to develop within the family a sub-system of mother and children, which reinforces the authoritarian image of the father and the protected image of the mother. For example, a mother sometimes breaks rules which have been established jointly with her husband but asks her children to keep this a secret. Mothers may threaten children with their father's authority by saying, for example, 'Wait till your father gets home', as a means of controlling the children's behaviour. Because of the bond between mother and children, mothers tend to be supported by their children during conflicts between husbands and wives.

Paternal line of decent

With the exception of Brazil, the use of names in Latin American countries tends to be patrilineal. In the majority of Latin American societies people assume the father's surname as the first surname and the mother's surname as the last surname (Bridges 1980). Married and single people possess both paternal and maternal surnames at all times. However, women and men are treated differently in relation to the use of both surnames. Men retain both throughout their life while, in some countries, women lose their mother's surname after marriage and add the paternal surname of the husband's family along with their paternal surname and the word 'de' (of), for example, Maria Perez de Gonzalez.

In relation to first names, there are similar rules for men and women. Usually the first son is given the same name as his father and, if a boy has two names, the second one can be decided arbitrarily or may come froni the father's or mother's oldest brother's name. For example, Juan (father's name) in combination with Pedro (mother's oldest brother's name) becomes Juan Pedro (child's name). In the case of daughters, one or two names can be chosen from either side of the family; generally the first name is the same as the grandmother's on the father's side. This was very common among the grandparents and parents of today's children and adolescents, although there is a tendency among young couples to do away with the custom.

Family support and control

Families both provide security and support for their members and operate as an important means of control on individuals. The degree of control may be authoritarian or much more flexible. The control exercised by parents, and usually by other family members and neighbours, is not necessarily negative and is considered essential because it gives a sense of security. An example of family control was the system which developed around relationships between unmarried men and women whereby the chaperona (chaperone), an adult usually older than the couple, always accompanied them whether they were at home or out. This system of control was aimed at supporting and assuring the dignity of women. Today, control is expressed in other ways; for example, parents usually drop off their daughters at parties and pick them up. (This can be .understood as a measure of protection as well as control.)

Family support can take different expressions depending on the social and financial background of the family. In well-off families support may help to maintain the family's political and financial status; for example, family members may participate in building up and developing a family business. Support in poor families takes place mainly at the level of basic needs and centres on exchange of services such as child care, care for ill family members, food exchanges, the sharing of goods such as electrical appliances and helping with payment of household bills and rent. Support is commonly extended to the neighbourhood level and strong networks are developed which provide for the emotional and financial needs of families.

Relationships outside the family

The relationship called compadrazgo (godparenthood) is an extension of the structure of family and· neighbourhood support. Willems (1975) observes: 'Godparenthood or ritual kinship is an institution designed either to extend a family beyond the confines of consanguinity and affinity or to reinforce existent kinship ties' (p. 62). The compadrazgo establishes a set of permanent relationships between parents, godparents and godchild,' whereby the godparents become the 'second parents' and are responsible for the child's religious education and for helping parents at all times.

In some areas it is common to find this sort of relationship between peasants who offer their child to their landowner or patron. In others, however, it is considered dishonourable for a person who is in a good financial position or belongs to a high social class to become godparent to a child whose parents are from a lower social class. Traditionally, godparents provide money and important gifts for children. Nowadays, practices surrounding compadrazgo, such as providing gifts and money, tend not to be followed, and a lot of the formality and obligation associated with compadrazgo has been lost; however, it still operates as an important principle of social organisation (Cubbit 1988). Godparents may be chosen from relatives or friends; in the latter case kinship ties are extended even further. The 'godparents' of a wedding (the best man and maid of honour) have similar responsibilities and obligations to ordinary godparents but, rather than assisting the child, they support the husband and wife.

Sex roles

It has been well documented (Willems 1953, Staycos 1955 and Lewis 1950, cited in Bermudez 1955) that sex roles in Latin America have been organised around the 'virility and virginity complex' or machismo-hembrismo. This is still largely the case. Throughout their lives women are usually under the control of men--':"'first their fathers, then their brothers and their husbands, and finally their sons. This kind of control is supported by the typical social gender relationships as expressed in machismo and marianismo. Machismo had its origin in Europe, becoming stronger in Latin America as a result of Iberian men assuming dominance over indigenous and African women. Machismo is defined by Cubbit (1988) as 'an exaggerated cult of virility which expresses itself in male assertions of superiority over females, and competition between men. To fulfil macho behaviour patterns, a man must show no fear, demonstrate sexual prowess, father many children and exercise tight control over female kind' (p. 103).

The concept of marianismo reinforces and maintains male behaviour. Moraes-Gorecki (1988) describes it as 'an archaic stereotype relating to Latin American woman's moral virtue and chastity and her ability to endure material and spiritual hardships. The behavioural attributes of humility, serenity, tolerance and submissiveness are perceived as necessary requisites for the ideal Latin American woman in her relations with men' (p. 26).

Machismo and marianismo have contributed to the 'sexual double standard' for women and men. Men's extramarital relationships are tolerated; women are expected to be faithful to one man. Traditionally, the strong sexual desires of men have to be directed towards prostitutes or a lover, as opposed to a wife, who is associated with the 'Virgin Mary' and who, after marrying, becomes the mother of a man's children.

Marriage and divorce

Marriage is one of the most important events in the lives of Latin Americans. Before the gradual separation of Church and state (which in most but certainly not all countries occurred in the late 1800s) the only legally acceptable marriage was a religious one. Now, in the, majority of Latin American countries, the only officially recognised marriage is one registered with civil authorities. However, many people perceive the religious ceremony as important and they marry in church. There is a tendency for middle and working class families to consider the religious ceremony as a generator of social prestige.

According to Das and Jesser (1980), people from a higher socio-economic background are more likely to legally marry, while consensual unions are more likely to be acceptable in those from a lower socio-economic background. Age at the time of marriage tends to vary according to social class, being lower for working class young people and those in rural areas, and higher for the middle and upper classes. There are negative attitudes toward divorce in Latin America. The Catholic Church does not recognise separation or divorce and divorced people cannot be remarried by a priest. In some countries, where separation of Church and state has occurred, the state recognises divorce. Statistical information concerning divorce has to be used with care, as there are technical and political difficulties in obtaining accurate statistics. The existence of a large number of consensual unions in Latin America must also be considered (as they are not recorded as divorces if the couple separates). Nevertheless, statistics suggest that the number of divorces has slightly increased in Latin American countries in the last few decades (Das and Jesser 1980; Goode 1993). However, there is still a series of social taboos, as noted by McDonald (1989); under the 'masculine' conception of the family, divorce 'leaves the woman without an acceptable role in society' (p. 43).

Children in Latin American families

Within all social classes in Latin American societies motherhood, which is associated with the concept of the 'Virgin Mary', is considered to be one of most important events in the life of a woman. In upper and middle class families various practices are developed around the pregnant woman, aimed at taking care of her and providing anything she requires. The mother usually takes an important period of rest and spends her time looking after the baby. Mothers and grandmothers of the new mother are close by, supporting and helping her during the early stages of the child's life. In poor families, the new mother may also be well supported; . however, childbirth is considered a very natural process and, because of financial necessity, mothers usually return to work a few days after giving birth.

Children's informal education starts from the very early stages of life. As children (especially boys) grow older, some aspects of their education are gradually transferred from the mother to the father or substitute father, for example the grandfather, godfather, uncles or cousins. The degree of control tends to vary depending on whether children live in the city or the country, and according to the socio-economic status of the family. For example, control and education of working class children tend to be less rigid than in upper class families. Parents in poor families usually spend many hours in the workplace and children grow up without close parental supervision. In general, however, control increases considerably when children start school. Both family and teachers are responsible for creating a 'well-educated person' and introducing children to the norms and rules of the society.

At home and at school, children's education is based on the previously described clear differentiation of sex roles. Girls are taught to do the general housework, such as cleaning, cooking and sewing. Boys are taught and encouraged to do 'hard work', such as mechanical jobs and handiwork like carpentry, and are prepared for jobs in industry. Once the child becomes an adolescent the differentiation of sex roles is intensified. Males are allowed more freedom; females become more dependent on their family and more involved with housework. It is commonly recognised throughout the Latin American community that 'women have to be in the home or kitchen and men in the street'.

Furthermore, children are taught differently with respect to their feelings. The ideal for boys is characterised by control of emotions, coolness, aloofness and strength, epitomised by the belief that 'men must not cry'. Girls are brought up in a sensitive manner and encouraged to show their feelings. Parents also show their feelings differently towards sons and daughters. Mothers generally express affection towards girls and boys equally, whereas fathers generally express affection towards daughters only.

In low-income families adolescents sometimes take over the financial responsibilities of the family, which usually results in a premature abandonment of schooling. However, where children are able to continue their education, parents have high academic expectations of them. Generally speaking, the middle, uppermiddle and upper classes in Latin America encourage their children to enter prestigious professions, such as medicine, dentistry and law, as a means of obtaining security and prosperity. Parents often say: 'You have to study. We have no money to leave you; all we can leave you with is a good education'. Sometimes the emphasis on achievement can be a source of conflict within the family and adolescents rebel against the pressure. The value placed on education is related to financial and social mobility. When children obtain a degree their parents experience pride and the achievement brings honour to the family. Both parents and children consider edu~ational achievements a passport to wealth, with the possibility of moving to a higher social class.

Illegitimate children are those born outside a legal union. When the father does not accept his responsibility for the child, it is usually brought up in the mother's family. The child is treated with affection and is cared for as any other child would be. Nevertheless, there is still some social stigma attaching to children born out of wedlock and they have some legal disadvantages; for example, in some countries there may be restrictions on inheritance from the father.

Growing old

Grandparents occupy an important role in families. They are seen as a source of knowledge and are respected by their families and the community in general. Grandparents are responsible for transmitting traditional cultural values and behaviours to their grandchildren. They are generally close to their grandchildren, developing an unconscious link with them against the parents' authority. It is commonly said that 'grandparents tend to spoil their grandchildren and parents must educate them; grandparents enjoy their grandchildren and paren,ts must regulate them'. This may contribute to the competitiveness which usually exists between grandparents and parents. Usually grandmothers become more involved than grandfathers do in family matters. Consequently, especially if they are no longer contributing financially to the family, grandfathers sometimes feel they no longer command authority within the family.

When parents grow old and are unable to maintain themselves it is expected that their children will contribute to their support. If they need physical care or accommodation they often live with one of their children, usually the oldest daughter (Falicov 1982).

Latin American families in Australia

Little research has been conducted into Latin American families in Australia. It is often difficult to find detailed .statistical information about Latin American people as a group, as birthplace is not always identified in sufficient detail in census and other data. The following outline is based on data from the 1991 census, research findings, and discussions with professional workers in and members of the Latin American community.

The 1991 Australian census estimated that 71 957 people had been born in South and Central America and the Caribbean (ABS 1993a). Most had come here under either the refugee or the family reunion program. In the period 1990-91 those coming as refugees made up 41 per cent of arrivals; 39 per cent came in the family reunion category; 17.6 per cent were classified as independent arrivals; and smaller numbers came under special conditions. The majority of Latin Americans have settled in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, usually in the urban areas.

Data from the census indicate that most of those born in Latin America lived in a nuclear family structure of parents and children- approximately two-thirds lived in a two-parent family household and almost 9 per cent in a one-parent household. Most others lived with a partner or another related individual, or alone. The great majority of those aged 15-24 were living with their parents. Approximately one-quarter of those over 65 were couples without offspring living with them, and almost 30 per cent were categorised as 'other relatives' in a two- or one-parent family. It is likely that most were living with their adult children. Approximately 14 per cent lived alone. (Data provided by the ABS.)

Latin American families in Australia reflect many of the patterns of relatively recently arrived immigrant groups, the result of a younger age structure with fewer older people. The proportion of families with dependent children is higher than the average for the whole of Australia and the proportion of families with only older children at home is lower. Family households in which the reference person for the 1991 census was born in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay tended to consist of two or more family units more frequently than did households in which the reference person was Australian-born, but the overall percentages were very small (1.7 per cent compared with 0.5 per cent).

Families from El Salvador also reflect some characteristics of refugee families in census statistics. In more than 20 per cent of two-parent families with dependent children, one or both parents were unemployed (compared with 7 per cent of all two-parent families with dependent children). Also, probably as a reflection of their refugee status, Salvadoreans had a higher percentage of sole-parent families than did those from other Latin American countries (BIPR 1994f).

There is a common belief in the Latin American community in Australia that the frequency of divorce among Latin Americans is greater in Australia than in Latin America. Existing divorce statistics make it difficult to determine whether this is true or not, but there are no strong indicators that it is so. Chileans began to be identified as a separate birthplace group in the annual divorce statistics for 1990 (ABS 1991).

Family values in Australia

The immigration and settlement process may bring changes in values, in family structures and functioning and in communication in families, especially between males and females. Previous patterns may become more rigid or more flexible. In the Latin American community some cultural patterns and values have been maintained, while others have already changed or are in process of changing. Latin American families see themselves as choosing to change in some cases and being forced to in others, sometimes in order to keep families together. For a recently arrived immigrant community, changes in some areas have been rapid.

Family cohesion and support are still strong in Latin American families in Australia. Cohesion is· defined as an internal unity based on close contact between family members. This allows many families to handle the stresses of migration. Traditionally, families helped each other to migrate from rural to metropolitan areas in their country of origin. Now families help each other in coming to Australia, particularly through family sponsorship. A study undertaken by Morrissey, Mitchell and Rutherford (1991) showed that important reasons for sponsoring family members were 'to provide ... relatives with a better material life' and 'to rescue [them] from war or civil disturbance'. Once they are in Australia, family members outside the nuclear family are an important support network and are called on to resolve conflicts, help in disciplining children and act as interpreters.

While family cohesion and support are generally maintained, gender roles and traditional social and cultural patterns surrounding communication between males and females are changing. The degree of change in these areas varies across families. Only changes which have become evident in the settlement process and are a source of confrontation between generations are discussed below.

What causes shifts in family values and patterns? The reasons are complex and are rooted in the interaction of particular characteristics of Latin American and Australian society. The socio-economic situation in Australia is a significant contributing factor. Families come with expectations of financial security and improvements to the life they left behind. While unfulfilled financial expectations do not always lead to changes in family values and patterns, high unemployment and job insecurity in Australia have had a major impact on family relationships. In addition, the loss of the extended family support system, lack of English-language skills, prior family history of domestic conflict and the growing emphasis on individual freedom also contribute. These factors need to be taken into account in any analysis of specific changes, such as shifts in images of women, male power, parental authority, relationships with children, the place of the extended family and the role of the elderly.

Changing gender roles

Today, machismo and marianismo are openly criticised by many people but some (both men and women) still maintain such roles in their private lives. At present there is a general tendency in the Latin American community to perceive Australian culture as allowing women too much power and allowing men to lose power. There are conflicts between the expectations of the 'new' society and the 'old' society. Some Latin American men believe that women are offered facilities and advantages which may give them 'too much' freedom. This conflicts with what is considered to be the natural and unquestionable hierarchical order within the family. These men think that life for women is very easy in the new society and that women are freed from many of their household responsibilities.

Men argue that the many regulations in place to protect women allow women freedom to go out, thus avoiding household work, while they, the men, are working to provide money to meet the family's needs. This 'freedom' is often linked to the existence of electrical appliances at home that make housework 'easier'. In a critical reading of this situation Moraes-Gorecki (1991) argues that 'the acquisition of modern household appliances has helped to emphasise rather than reduce [women's] so-called feminine domestic tasks' (p. 178). There are also more possibilities in Australia for women to work outside the home and have a different style of life which includes access to child care. Latin American women are dealing with the changes to their lives in different ways; some feel comfortable, others are finding it difficult to adjust.

Men's roles in families are changing. Men are losing their traditional power, and parental authority within the family is affected. Unemployment and lack of proficiency in English are playing a major part in the shifts. The Latin American community is one of the minority groups most affected by high rates of unemployment in Australia. When a Latin American man is unemployed he loses his traditional position as the breadwinner in the family. Sometimes this role is taken on by women in the family; otherwise families live on unemployment benefits. In either situation there are high levels of stress for men and an increasing loss of self-esteem and status within the family. Morrissey, Mitchell and Rutherford (1991) note that Latin Americans often suffer dramatic changes in the type of employment they gain on arrival in Australia. Many have been professionals, technicians or managers in their country of origin, but in Australia they are working in unskilled jobs. This affects their experience of settlement and their self-esteem.

Parents' lack of English skills also alters the typical dynamic in a family. Communication with teachers, landlords and institutions outside the family is considered to be primarily the father's responsibility. However, children tend to adapt and to learn English more quickly than their parents do because of their daily integration in schooling and general community activities. Often parents come to depend on children for translation. As a result, children mediate between their parents and the world outside the family, changing the relationship between parents and children. The potential for conflict in this situation may be larger when the parents have left their country for reasons other than by choice.

Employment and families

According to a recent statistical report (BIR 1992a), most Latin Americans who arrived between 1982 and 1991, and who were categorised as being in the workforce, were skilled workers (69 per cent of the total in this period). Almost one-quarter (22.7 per cent) were semi-skilled workers and 8.0 per cent were unskilled workers. A little over one-third of total arrivals, (38.6 per cent) were not in the workforce, a percentage which included dependent children and spouses. However, in a high percentage of instances level of skill was not stated.

After emigrating to Australia the overwhelming majority of Latin American married women enter the labour force; sometimes as a result of agreement between a married couple before they arrive, sometimes because of the family's financial needs in Australia. A study of Spanish-speaking women in the workforce (DIEA 1987) showed that they were heavily concentrated in semi-skilled and service occupations, and particularly in manufacturing. The women's paid workforce participation was higher in Australia than in the home countries and there had been a drift from clerical, administrative or commercial jobs and from professional and technical work into semi-skilled and service occupations (p. 18).

Previous skills were lost or underutilised. The same study showed that 50 per cent of women interviewed were working to provide money for essential bills and/or to help with home mortgages; other reasons given were 'saving for a house', 'a better future for the children' and personal satisfaction.

In Latin American families a woman's wage is generally considered to complement that of her husband. Paid work does not relieve women from domestic duties; on the contrary it is an additional responsibility (Moraes~Gorecki 1991). Women therefore undertake a 'double shift'-in the home and in paid work. Changes in women's traditional role have produced conflicting feelings for men, particularly middle class men. For financial reasons men must allow their wives to go out to work, but this is totally contrary to the attitudes they have grown up with. The fact that women's incomes are generally seen to 'complement' men's is an expression of the hierarchical and machista family organisation, where a woman may go to work as long as her husband 'allows' her to do so.

Extended family

The lack of extended family and friends in a new country cuts families and individuals off from an important source of social contact, gives rise to anxiety and stress and makes it difficult to cope with the process of adaptation. Latin American families usually do not expect to meet all the family'S needs by themselves (Garcia-Preto 1982} .. 1t is expected that some will be met by cooperation between the nuclear family and extended family members, for example when godparents or grandparents help parents with the discipline and education of children.

Many families have strong ties with their country of origin, sending money to or supporting the extended family at home in other ways. Moreover, it is not unusual for Latin American families to re-create the extended family in the new land by assisting parents, brothers and sisters to come to Australia. Once in Australia grandparents can be a considerable help, for example by looking after grandchildren while parents go to work. In times of crisis, help from grandmothers, cousins, aunts and other relatives can become a major cohesive element which holds the family together.

However, sometimes there is conflict between parents and grandparents in Australia. Grandparents may feel they have lost authority because they are no longer head of the family. Parents of younger children expect that they will receive help from grandparents (their parents) as was the custom in their country of origin, but older grandparents may be unable to give this because of their age limitations. In Australia such conflict may indeed end up with the grandparents moving out of the family home, a situation which would be extremely unlikely in their country of origin.

Parents and children

Latin American families consider that the child's education is the decision of the parents. Most parents regard the discipline of children as a private matter, and they reserve the right to punish their children as they consider appropriate. Sometimes they use physical or psychological methods of correction, giving ownership of children as their reason. A father expressed his feelings to one of the authors this way: 'My children are mine ... I know what is the best for them, I want them to finish high school and then go to university'. When he was asked about his children's opinions about the future, he replied: 'I came to Australia to give them the opportunities which I did not have ... they must finish their studies; they are my children so that I can make future decisions for them and nobody can interfere with my decisions'.

There is little research on Latin American adolescents in Australia. But informal evidence and the authors' experience suggest that some of the issues identified in research relating to immigrant young people in general are relevant. For example, some have difficulty dealing with differences between the values of their parents and those of their peers at school. There are conflicts with parents, particularly when parents try to exercise rigid control. In general, Latin American parents in Australia try to maintain family cohesion and preserve the honour of their family by instilling values and correct behaviour in their children, even though sometimes these patterns may have already changed in their country of origin. Some parents have high academic expectations of their children, and children find it difficult to live up to them.

Some parents do not encourage their children to take on part-time or casual work while they are still studying. They would prefer young people to devote themselves full time to study, and they are concerned and sometimes afraid that the money their children earn allows them to go out instead of studying.

Problems such as drinking and violence in the Latin American adolescent community reflect problems in the general Australian adolescent community. The authors' experience is that adolescents identify various sorts of behaviours, such as heavy drinking, as being related to their parents 'not understanding them' or to pressure to achieve from parents or the educational system.

Love is regarded as a prerequisite for marriage and parents do not take part in the selection of children's partners. Intermarriage is not strongly opposed by parents or by the Latin American community in general. Nevertheless, parents often express the hope that at least one of their children will marry a Spanish speaker because this would make communication easier and because it would be more likely that Latin American traditions would be continued.


Some Latin Americans are closely involved in their religion, and religious celebrations and observances are an important part of their lives. Some people find mass in English difficult and would prefer to have it said in Spanish. There are Spanish-speaking priests in suburbs with a significant Spanish-speaking population.

For some Latin Americans religious practices offer a way to cope with and overcome settlement problems. Moreover, religion plays an important role for the faithful in providing social networks and support and the possibility of re-creating lost extended family. Most Latin Americans in Australia were originally Roman Catholics. Some have since joined other Christian groups in Australia, in part because these groups offer much needed material and spiritual support for new arrivals. In some cases strong attachments to the new religious groups may lead to conflicts within families and, in extreme cases, to family separation or to major difficulties in communication between parents and children.

Family adjustment

It is possible to enumerate some common problems of adjustment among Latin American families in Australia, such as learning a new language, understanding new social, economic and political systems, and becoming part of the labour force. The authors' experience is that Spanish-speaking Latin American families cope with the new environment in Australia i.n very different ways. Many families remain together; some couples separate; other families have problems but stay intact for financial reasons or to maintain social prestige.

Some families who separate do so as a result of inability to cope with the stresses of immigration and settlement, but quite often it is a case of previous marital problems being exacerbated by immigration. The authors' experience suggests that it is common for family members to see the immigration process as responsible for family separation, sometimes without their recognising pre-existing difficulties in the family or the marriage. The pressures of settlement may be 'the last straw'. Experiences such as the following are relatively common. A woman who had been married for 20 years was abandoned by her husband after three years in Australia. She argued that the immigration process was the reason for the family breakup, saying: 'We were a happy family when we were living in our country. We loved each other and our children'. However, some time later she admitted: 'We had some problems because his family did not accept me and he never protected me. One day I found a letter from his lover'. In other situations family members recognise that their family breakup is a consequence of one or both of the partners being unable to cope with the pressure of immigration and settlement. In such cases individual difficulties are emphasized.

Some families remain together in the same household under conditions of chronic conflict and stress. They share bills, general duties and education of the children but have no emotional commitment. Despite this, such relationships may help people to deal with the process of adaptation. As noted above, a couple may also maintain the facade of a functioning family for purely practical reasons, such as financial necessity, or because neither one of the couple has extended family members in Australia who can offer support.

Studies suggest that families who successfully adapt have generally been through various stages. Many studies have shown that cohesive forces, for example respect, emotional support and reciprocal protection among family members, usually increase the possibility of successful coping. Berry (1990) suggests that there are different degrees of behavioural change in the process of successful coping, with specific outcomes and a particular internal dynamic. They are: rejection of the new society's values and an acceptance of the old ones which, he says, leads to separation from the mainstream; rejection of the old values and acceptance of the new, leading to assimilation; adaptation of the new values into the old ones, resulting in integration; and rejection of both the new values and the old, leading to marginalisation in the society.

The experiences of a family which emigrated to Australia in the early 1970s illustrate 'separation from the mainstream'. The family has lived in the same suburb since its arrival and is involved in many Latin American community activities. The parents have a poor command of English and an unhappy relationship with Australian society. Their style of life is quite separate from the mainstream. Their child has a very negative perception of Australian society, and questions why he should have to study things which are not useful. He is experiencing learning difficulties and is having problems adapting to the Australian education system.

Two issues currently receiving attention in Australia-domestic violence and incest-are considered very private matters in Latin American families. Many women endure domestic violence because they consider it shameful to speak about it outside the family; they usually feel that it is their fault and that therefore they have to accept the 'punishment'. Some do not know about the support which is available in Australia; others do not have a concept of seeking help or do not see the possibility of doing anything about domestic violence. Others stay in marriages because they hear that women's refuges do not provide appropriate support for Latin American women.

Older people

Little attention has been paid to the problems of older people in the Latin American community in Australia. The number of elderly Latin Americans grew considerably during the last wave of immigration. Older people in the community have commonly arrived in Australia later in life and under the family reunion program. They, especially the Spanish-speaking, are likely to be at risk because they have recently arrived or because they are refugees. As people grow older they normally face changes in social, family and cognitive status and in routine activities such as work. These can become more acute with immigration (Minas, Klimidis and Stuart 1993). Social networks are lost because friends and relatives are in the country of origin. Because of English-language difficulties older people may be isolated and lack contact with the new society. Minas, Klimidis and Stuart also argue that normal intergenerational conflict between younger and ageing people becomes more evident because of the combination of the elderly cutting their ties with the country of origin together with failed expectations after immigration.

Older persons' experiences differ according to whether they came to Australia for economic or political reasons, whether or not they are refugees and at what stage of their life they arrived in Australia. Some who have grown old in Australia have developed a social life here. Those who left for political reasons when they were older have experienced aggression in their own countries towards themselves or towards family members, and may have been living in fear and uncertainty for a long period. Despite different experiences, elderly people tend to face similar problems. Generally they are isolated from Australian society; they speak little or no English, and are usually confined to home, looking after their grandchildren or doing housework. Poor English skills can have a severely isolating effect. A lack or inadequate command of English may result from people having to join the workforce soon after arrival in Australia and hence not having access to classes, from not having time to learn the new language or from difficulties in learning a new language because of problems of motivation or reduced cognitive function.

Often the structure of the older person's family has undergone profound changes - children have grown up or have moved out of home, or the older person may have become widowed. The Victorian Transcultural Psychiatric Service has reported that elderly people of Spanish-speaking background have said that lack of finances and political power have prevented them from creating a 'healthier environment' for themselves. Depressive reactions and anxiety conditions are not uncommon in this group (Minas, Klimidis and Stuart 1993).

Attendance at social and sporting clubs varies. However, club de abuelos (grandparents' clubs) provide a very valuable network for older people. These have their own management committees and work to meet the needs of the elderly. The clubs are one of the most active parts of the community and have clear ideas about old people's needs and rights. Grandparents' clubs have an impact on the individual and the society. When people become more involved in social and cultural life they gain a sense of satisfaction and self-esteem. This is reflected in their participation in a variety of recreational activities and situations where they share or exchange experiences with other people who 'can understand them'.

Refugee families

There is insufficient information available about Latin American refugee families in Australia to allow us to make more than general comments about the realities faced by such families. While the refugee experience profoundly affects all family members, women and children are considered particularly at risk.

In the great majority of refugee families at least one member has endured traumatic experiences, such as torture (physical and emotional), rape or witnessing a family member being raped, and separation from other family members who were· killed or who disappeared. Many refugees lived in war zones where they suffered harassment by military forces and could not trust anyone. Thus they had to leave their countries against their wishes, sometimes alone or accompanied by only a few members of their family. In addition, they were unable to bring material possessions, and were perhaps unable even to say goodbye to family and friends.

Besides these traumatic experiences, refugees have to contend with difficult aspects associated with immigration. For example, some have both left their country and begun to live in an urban area for the first time. Most are also confronted with learning English and understanding new political and social systems (Langer 1990). Studies indicate that refugee women are particularly at risk. Often women whose husbands have been killed or have disappeared become the head of the family, a new woman's role which produces serious conflicts with old values (Ferris 1989; Pittaway 1991). Women have to join the workforce and find alternative care for their children, so traditional child-rearing patterns have to be changed; this has the potential for creating guilt in women. Discipline of children can be a problem because of the lack of the father, who traditionally imposes discipline and instils respect for the family.

Pittaway (1991) argues that many children are traumatised by their experiences during war and civil strife and they do not have adequate help:

It is ... known that many of the children of refugee women have experienced severe trauma, such as having watched the death, sexual assault or brutalisation and/or humiliation of one of their close family members. Many have also suffered from the effects of split families, often without communication and for prolonged periods. There is no specialised counselling services for those children. At best there are ad hoc services for those lucky enough to be identified as needing help. (p. 28)

As well, most of these children have a poor level of education because they have not had access to the education system. Refugee children in Australia have to join an unfamiliar educational system without an adequate command of the English language. As a result they may have problems in adapting to school. Difficulties in adaptation may result in family conflicts and may increase intergenerational differences. Sometimes parents punish their children in an attempt to control the conflict.

Although the pre-arrival and settlement experiences of refugee and non-refugee Latin American families are often very different, it "is not possible to identify clear differences between non-refugee and refugee families as far as changes in values and cultural patterns are concerned. Nevertheless, it is possible to recognise some issues, described below, which occur repeatedly in the experiences of refugees and are widespread among the refugee community. Such experiences make settlement and adjustment extremely difficult.

As a result of experiences with the government in their country of origin, refugee settlers have often completely lost trust in any government service. For them, going to the Department of Social Security in Australia and being questioned by staff about their personal details may feel like being interrogated by the police or the military in their country of origin. They may also fear that the information given could be used' against them.

Alcoholism has been identified as an increasing problem among refugees. Research on the adaptation of Salvadorean refugees in Canada shows that alcoholism is a serious problem, especially among men (Sehl and Naidoo 1985). In Australia, refugees have been identified as at risk because of their previous traumatic experiences (Romios and Ross 1993).

Organisation of the refugee family's social life serves to protect the family from outside influences which could disrupt the security of individual members. Generalised fear and lack of trust are the principal elements which contribute to the development of an abnormal social life. Refugee families tend to be closer as a result of not having much contact with the rest of the community. For example, young Salvadorean widows are likely to be isolated; they do not look for community support because some community organisations are run by men and the women fear sexual exploitation and gossip among the community. In addition, people fear that others may send information back to El Salvador which could create problems for their families there (Langer 1990, p. 78). Isolation often affects mental health, the ability to obtain and hold down a job and the ability to participate in political life.

There may also be increased potential for conflict between parents and children in refugee families. Such families often leave their country without preparation; on arrival, they find many things strange and threatening. Parents may restrict normal activities in which children generally take part. As a consequence of their inability to understand and relate to the world outside, parents may be very fearful and express this through lack of trust in their children and excessive control over their possessions and over all members of the family.


Latin American families in Australia are dynamic units. Families have been changing in Latin America as well as In Australia, reflecting general shifts In both societies. The historical background and traditional origins of the Latin American people provide a context in which family changes can be understood. For example, intermarriage is an important characteristic of the Latin American community in Australia, which probably stems from the widespread incidence of 'mixed' relationships and the general tolerance of intermarriage throughout Latin American history. In spite of the differences between Latin American families, it is possible to identify common patterns and values evident during the settlement process in Australia.

Latin American family values and traditional family structure are changing in Australia and the changes are linked to aspects of the Australian economic and social systems. Specific changes relate to gender expectations, the role of men and women, intergenerational communication, child rearing and family decision making. There are fundamental differences between the traditional Latin American family perspective and the perspective found in Australian society; family dynamics are altered as a result of the immigration process. The increased daily contact which mothers and children have with the world outside the family is an important contributor to change. For children, schooling and peer group contact are important; for women, their incorporation into the labour force is the key factor. On the other hand, some values, such as family support and cohesion, have been reinforced, helping families to deal successfully with adaptation to the new land and compensating for the lack of an extended family.

Studies show that among the Latin American community in Australia there are several groups with special needs, especially refugees who have been victims of torture and/or violence in their country of origin. Because of the traumatic experiences they have faced they respond to the immigration process in different ways, and their adjustment to the new situation is often much more difficult.

A major aim of this chapter has been to explore ideas about both the shared cultural background and the heterogeneity of Latin Americans of Spanish-speaking background. Preparing the chapter has revealed the dearth of research on this community and reinforced the importance of carrying out detailed studies of Latin American families in Australia. We have attempted to provide relevant information which we hope will permit a more accurate description of such families in the future and possibly highlight the similarities and the differences between them.