Archive for Cultural Traits

Why Hispanics Live Long Lives

My mom (at age 80) and my children

My mom (at age 80) and my children

U.S. Hispanics tend to live longer than non-Hispanics despite many circumstances that negatively affect Latino longevity.  This is a fact that continues to puzzle the medical community.  On the surface it does not make a lot of sense.  Hispanics, for example, are more prone to illnesses like Diabetes and often suffer from high cholesterol.  While the Latino diet varies from country to country, most of the cuisines pay little attention to health implications and Latinos continue to use unhealthy ingredients like fatty meats and animal lard.  More alarmingly, Latinos in the U.S. have inadequate access to healthcare services / information and most of the new immigrants lack health insurance.  Latinos are also more likely than non-Hispanics to avoid going to the doctor and to not engage in preventive care.  So how is it, one must ask, that we generally live longer?  Here are some plausible explanations based on my own qualitative research exploration.

The Mañana Syndrome

It is a well known fact that Latinos are generally more laid-back than non-Hispanics. It is also a scientific fact that by not stressing over issues our bodies are more able to fight diseases and remain healthy. My paternal grandmother is a great example of a wonderful person who knew the importance of taking it easy. She passed at the age of 102 with her laid-back outlook of life completely intact. I always tell the story of when the whole family gathered to celebrate her 100th birthday. I was unable to travel to Puerto Rico with all of my children and abuela wanted to hear how her great-grandchildren were doing. She sat next to me for lunch (I remember her having a large piece of steak) and said “I may have asked you this already and I’m sure I will ask it again; you will just have to deal with that; how are the children?” Despite her age she remembered the names of my children (I had four at the time) and asked about them my name. In trying to recall the name of my ex-wife she got confused; I recall that at that point she closed her eyes briefly and said; “it is not that important to remember everything; is she still being difficult?” My abuela knew how to avoid stress; and that kept her healthy despite being blind as a result of her Diabetes. The tendency to take it easy in life have often been criticized by those who find the mañana attitude inefficient; but it may very well be the key to a long and happy life.

Abuela at her 100th birthday!

Abuela at her 100th birthday!

A Purpose At an Old Age

I have conducted many interviews with Latinos regarding the idea of retirement. When it comes to retirement, Hispanics and non-Hispanics have very different points of view. Most Hispanics feel that their purpose in retirement is to help their family in any way they can. The tendency is to move closer to the family or with one of the family members. The role of the Hispanic grandparent is very important in the Latino family and many Hispanics rely on the grandparents for support. The idea of moving to a retirement community is foreign and uncanny to most Hispanics. In my interviews with Latino seniors I often hear comments like: “Why would anyone want to move away from the family to live with other old people? I want to retire to dedicate my time to my children and grandchildren; I want to be with them.”

My mother, who is 82, lives in Miami where most of my family now lives. Despite the fact that she has many family members and friends there, she often laments not being able to live closer to me (we live in New Jersey) so that she could help us out. I invited her to come over for a few days next month because she really wants to see the grandchildren; yet she forewarned us already saying that she is not coming on vacation. She said: “Last time I was there you were catering to me all the time and I did not feel useful; I may be old but there is still a lot that I can do, so start thinking of some things that I can help with while I am there.” Latino seniors demand to be a part of the family and work hard to make real contributions to the family. This cultural tendency makes Latinos feel needed and useful in their old age; and having a purpose in life is usually linked to longevity.

Not Wanting to Die

I have written here before about the Latino fear of death and how it is not as much a fear of the unknown as it is the fear of leaving loved ones without adequate support (See Here). Not wanting to die has been proven to be a key to staying alive. The simple desire of wanting to stay in this world in order to support the family may be a potent contributor to Latino longevity.

Exercise and Physical Fitness

While Hispanics may not be as much into exercise and physical fitness as their non-Hispanic counterparts; most Latinos exercise more than non-Hispanics because they are more likely to work in blue collar jobs that require them to be physically fit.

Chispa

One of the characteristics that is generally shared by all Latino sub-groups is something that Hispanics call “chispa” or Latino wit. Latinos will agree that they know how to have fun. Latino gatherings always include music, storytelling, joking, dancing, and tons of laughter. And Latinos gather very often; at the very minimum Latino families get together for parties every weekend. Laughter is known to trigger the release of endorphins, our body’s natural painkillers. Sharing with family and friends also produces a general sense of well-being that contributes to a healthy lifestyle.

This is not to say that there is no drama or stress in a Latino gathering; there definitely is. But in my experience doing ethnographic work with Latino families I have witness the positive effects of music, dancing, and laughter. The Latino tendency to have fun is a very strong antidote to the disease ridden stress and negativity that often permeates our American society.

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The Other Side of Machismo

 If you are not Hispanic or are not enthralled with the Latino culture you may think that the concept of Machismo is an American stereotype of the quintessential Latino man.  There are many misconceptions regarding Latinos; but the concept of Machismo is definitely not mistaken- it is real!  There are, however, many different ways to describe Machismo.  To many Latinos it is simply the belief that a real man needs to strive to be the most manly he can possibly be.  The word machismo comes from the word “macho” or male; and it is often defined as exaggerated manliness.  In Latin America it is common for “the man of the house” to be portrayed as the master of his domain.  Latinas do not disagree; because in the traditional Latino family the man is supposed to be in charge.  A Latina wife wants her husband to be also seen by others in the community as manly.  As a result, most Latinas that I interview say that their husband is the head of their household.  Further probing often paints a different picture; but the pretension is always to uphold the male’s position of dominance.

There is a fine line between Machismo and male chauvinism.  One thing is to pretend that the man is always in charge; while a very different situation is to actually have a man dominating a woman.  In my interviews with Hispanics I have witnessed many instances of Machismo crossing over to the realm of chauvinism; but those cases exists across all cultures.  The Machismo that I feel is unique to the Latino community is the cultural acceptance of the pretension by both males and females that the man is actually in charge.  This charade goes on in the U.S. Hispanic community despite the fact that Latinas in this country have managed to move away from the cultural tendencies of Marianismo(1).  Why then do we continue to ensure that machismo stays alive by exaggerating the male manliness in the Hispanic behavior?

I have a theory.  We rely on Machismo because we (Latino men) are too emotional.  Being emotional is not considered a particularly manly characteristic.  The fact that Hispanic men are emotional is no secret; it has been very well documented and is often portrayed in the media as a typical Latino male point of difference from non-Hispanic men.  In fact, just yesterday I was watching the movie Spy Kids with my daughter and was reminded of how far Hollywood has gone in substantiating the fact that Latino men cry.   At the climatic conclusion of the movie, the father character (played by Antonio Banderas) meets his long lost brother- a rough macho man played by Danny Trejo.  In the exchange Danny’s character sheds a tear, at which point the brother comments in a comical fashion “Latinos!”  I laughed at that when I saw the movie for the first time in the theater, and I laughed again yesterday.  How true!

I remember my father telling me as a child not to cry because “men do not cry.”  Men may not cry in other cultures; but Latino men have trouble separating themselves from those darn Latino emotions.  My father was not one to preach about not crying, because he would get emotional with something as mundane as watching a parade!  But he countered his emotional nature with a good dose of Machismo; and I think we all do to an extend.  This is especially the case here in the U.S. where many men are not as emotional by nature and would perceive an emotional tear as male weakness or even sissyness.   So, what do we do?  We step up the Machismo a couple of notches!

There is another trick that we use to counter the portrayal of being sissy.  Being emotional is a quality more often associated with females; which is why emotional men can be seen as being effeminate.  The best way to battle that position and show our manliness is to demonstrate that we are better at getting the attention of the girls.  A womanizer is not a sissy; and Giacomo Casanova himself was known to win the women’s affection by using his emotional nature.  So, if our Machismo is not convincing enough we can always fall back on positioning ourselves as the Latin Lovers!

  1. Traditional Latina roles dictate that females are supposed to live as a martyr in order to satisfy the needs of their family.  This cultural trait is also traced to the Hispanic religious background that is heavily rooted in Catholicism.  Some have referred to this tendency of self-sacrifice as Marianismo (after the Virgin Mary).   Marianismo is considered the female counterpart to Machismo.  (Stevens, Evelyn P. “Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo in Latin America,” Wilmington: Jaguar books on Latin America ; no. 7, 1994)

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