Bridging Disciplinary Boundaries (January 11 - 14, 2007)

Marina Room (Hyatt Regency San Francisco)

The Costs of Getting Ahead: Mexican Family System Changes after Immigration

Martica L. Bacallao, PhD, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.


This study explored how Mexican family systems change after immigration and how those changes impact family relationships. While there is clearly a large group of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S., we know little about these families and how they function. Most of the research on Latino immigration, acculturation, and adjustment has been conducted with adults, leaving us with scant information on adolescents and even less on family relationships (Garcia Coll & Magnuson, 2001). Little attention has been given to the 1.5 generation, that is, children and adolescents who were born and socialized in a foreign country and consequently immigrated to the U.S. (Hirschman, 1994). While much acculturation research has focused on comparison between different generations within immigrant families (e.g., children born in the U.S. versus their immigrant parents), these 1.5 generation children arguably experience the most family system upheaval and are most likely to either become bicultural or be caught between cultural systems (Garcia Coll & Magnuson, 2001; Hirschman, 1994). Further, we know little about the unique challenges faced by undocumented families who, compared to legal immigrants or refugees, live in fear of deportation and cannot easily travel back and forth to Mexico.


In-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with 12 undocumented Mexican adolescents and 14 parents who had immigrated to North Carolina within the past seven years. Verbatim transcripts were coded using Atlas.ti. First, the text was coded using codes that paralleled the different questions in the interview protocol. Then, inductive coding was used to capture themes that arose from the text itself without the constraints of predetermined categories of analysis. Second, an extensive process of network mapping was performed. Codes were clustered into families. Families of codes were imported into network maps. Finally, the author discussed codes and themes with other research staff, national consultants, and with participants during member checks.


After immigration, parents had less time to spend with their children because of demanding new jobs and mothers entering the work force. Decreased time together increased adolescents' loneliness, isolation, and risk-taking behavior. In response to perceived environmental threats, Mexican parents became more authoritarian, precipitating parent-adolescent conflict. These conflicts were not driven by acculturation gaps. Acculturation gaps served protective functions as adolescents helped their parents navigate within the new cultural system. High family cohesion and maintaining cultural traditions and rituals helped family members cope with post-immigration changes.

Implications for Practice

Findings support the need for the development of prevention and intervention programs for Mexican immigrant families. These programs should work to decrease acculturation stress, help families cope with post-immigration changes (e.g. becoming dual earner households, maximizing the little time spent together), and promote cultural protective factors such as familism and ethnic identity. Programs for acculturating Latino families have been developed and show promising results (Bacallao & Smokowski, 2005; Coatsworth, et al., 2002; Szapocznik et al., 1986), but require dissemination and further testing.