When it comes to media representation, Hispanics and Latinx dealing with addiction don’t have many options. It’s either drug lord dramas or drug thug side characters in Law and Order episodes, but these stories don’t cover the various nuances existing within the Latinx community that affect a person’s likelihood to misuse substances.
The ‘80s introduced these clichés, as a result of both warning-scare stories from “Just Say No” campaigns and influence from romantic Miami Vice depictions of drug crime culture in South Florida, and would eventually develop the stigma against drogadictos, or “drug addicts,” in the nation.
But beyond pop media are several realities in the Hispanic and Latino realm that shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to addiction. Things like: immigration status, stress of acculturation, harsh legal punishments against Latinx, and the lack of cultural services in recovery treatment. Latino addiction is much more complex, full of contradicting statistics and a long list of case-by-case scenarios.
Just as how the United States is filled with diverse populations, so are the drogadicto outcasts within Latinx communities.
Diverse People in a Diverse Nation
As of 2015, there are 55 million Hispanic and Latinx people in the United States, constituting 17 percent of the nation’s total population, according to the US Census Bureau. With their cultures deriving from over 20 Latin American countries across the Americas, the label “Hispanics and Latino,” as defined by the Bureau, is used to categorize “individuals of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.”
As such, when it comes to gathering efficient data to study Hispanics and Latinx, many factors come into play that might accidentally have studies contradicting one another. The Partnership Attitude Tracking Study at Drugfree.org, for example, released a report in 2013 that dictated 54 percent of Hispanic teens reported having used an illicit drug and 62 percent of Hispanic teens had been offered some sort of narcotic at least once.
That’s a big claim.
Particularly when the study only interviewed 3,884 teens in total, of which 1,185 were considered Hispanic. And yet, this is the kind of study that has CNN shaping their headlines like, “Hispanic teens more likely to use drugs, study says.”
The danger behind this rhetoric is that these statements generalize a whole mass of people without considering the various nuances that come with what it means to be a Hispanic and Latinx person—and how it affects an individual’s addiction. Nor does it consider socioeconomic and psychosocial variables that occur within Latinx communities, e.g. social class, nativity, English fluency.
Studies from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) between 2010 and 2012 reported much lower numbers among Hispanics and Latinx ages 12 and older, stating rates of 8.1 percent who exhibited current illicit drug use and 9.7 percent with substance dependence or abuse during the past year. And even then, “12 and older” is a much broader group. A Latinx-American 12-year-old has very different issues from a Hispanic immigrant just turned 80—but who is more susceptible to fall under addiction?
Different Status: Immigrant, First-Gen, Second-Gen Realities
A more thorough study on Latino addiction was performed at the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at Harvard Medical School, directed by Dr. Margarita Alegría. Her report covered several variables that impacted Latino addiction, from age of immigration to sub-ethnic groups.
Like the SAMHSA studies, overall, substance use disorders were found less prevalent among all Latinos, at 11.3 percent, but take in the factor of whether the person was born in the United States and the rate would rise to 18.9 percent.
“The rates vary dramatically nationwide,” said Alegría to The Fix. In the analysis, rates of substance use “gradually decreased as immigration age increased,” with rates at 11.3 percent for people who immigrated to the United States between zero and six years old, 5.4 percent for ages seven to 17, and 4.9 percent for ages 18 and older.
Studies also showed that first-generation immigrants who were older when they arrived in the US (e.g. late teens to adulthood) had fewer problems with substance use than younger first-gens. Their children, referred to as second-generation and/or first-generation Americans, exhibited the most issues with substance use.
In 2015, the University of Texas observed nationally representative demographic data and also found that older immigrant adolescents were statistically less likely to engage in violent or substance use behaviors, as compared to US-born Hispanics and Latinx. They dubbed this phenomenon as the “immigrant paradox.”
“That is,” explained Christopher Salas-Wright to NBC News Latino, “that despite greater social disadvantages compared to US-born Americans, immigrants tend to be less involved in problem behavior such as violence and crime and misuse of alcohol and drugs.”
Cultural Diaspora in Latino Addiction
Researchers at the Columbia University School of Social Work released their own studies on Latino addiction—particularly among first-gen and second-gen Hispanic and Latinx adolescents—this year, and found that:
“Negative self-image, higher levels of stress, weaker coping skills, peer drug use, lower levels of self-control, goal-setting, problem-solving skills, and self-efficacy, and high intentions to use drugs in the future were associated with increased odds of past-month drug use. Youths with higher self-images who spoke mostly English at home were less likely to use drugs than youths with higher self-images who spoke mostly Spanish at home.”
Drug abuse risk and protective factors among Hispanic adolescents.” Preventative Medicine Reports.
Cultural diaspora is much more present in younger immigrants and second-generation children, who may not feel a sense of identity as their parents. Hispanic and Latinx teenagers who battle between US and Latin American cultures may find it more difficult to “belong” to a specific community.
This was prevalent in Dr. Margarita Alegría’s Harvard study as well, which may reflect the nature of acculturation and the difficulty that comes with it.
“We see a very strong relationship with other co-morbidities like depression, anxiety, and PTSD,” said Alegría, noting that substance use in this age group could be a “way of coping with isolation [and] solitude,” especially for teens with fragmented families, as in families in separate countries and thus a lack of a familial support group.
In the Hispanic and Latino culture, “family” plays a huge role in a Latinx person’s identity. Immigrating to another country, thereby separating a person’s family, can cause a psychological shift and may confuse an individual at a young age. Being from one country, but growing up in another and/or being raised by immigrant parents with values and traditions different from their American peers are both dichotomies first- and second-gen Hispanic and Latinx face every day.
So when it comes to the reality of Hispanic and Latino addiction, the answer is simple: It depends.
This is an ethnic group filled with binaries and questions. Are you more Hispanic/Latinx or American? Are you immigrant or US-born? Do you mostly speak English or Spanish? Even in the label, are you Hispanic or Latinx?
Just as how every addiction story is different, so are the realities of Hispanics and Latinx people struggling with substance abuse. They are more than drogadictos, but gente. People.
Here at Ocean Breeze Recovery, we treat our clients with respect and care. If you, or a loved one, are struggling with addiction, feel free to call one of our treatment agents at 855-960-5341 anytime, any day. We’re happy to guide all of our clients in the right direction—toward recovery!
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Ocean Breeze Recovery is proud to participate in National Recovery Month alongside Delphi Behavioral Health Group and its other affiliated treatment centers. All throughout September, we’ll be posting feature articles on important topics in addiction and recovery. Go to our schedule page here and learn more about what’s in store!