We provide the first assessment of how differences in acculturation experiences and social contexts of reception in new vs. historical receiving communities shape the psychological well-being of Latino youth. We examine how positive and negative social interactions in schools, the community, and the family influence the psychological well-being of Latino youth growing up in NC, a new receiving state with urban and rural settlement communities, and LA, a historical receiving city.
We found higher levels of both positive and negative daily psychological well-being among youth living in NC compared to youth in LA and found no differences in daily psychological well-being between youth living in rural and urban NC. North Carolinians in both areas experienced more happiness on a daily basis and more symptoms of depression, but only rural youth experienced more anxiety. We found that both overall and daily social interactions influenced the daily psychological well-being of Latino youth. Negative social interactions in youths’ schools and communities significantly increased their psychological distress (i.e. depression and anxiety), while positive social interactions, especially feeling respected by teachers, significantly increased positive well-being and reduced psychological distress.
Unexpectedly, we found that both daily positive ethnic treatment and encouragement from school adults were positively associated with anxiety. Thus, while positive ethnic treatment promoted daily happiness, it also contributed to feelings of anxiety. This seemingly contradictory result may relate to research on stereotype threat, which suggests that the prospect of being stereotyped triggers feelings of anxiety and self-doubt among youth from marginalized groups (Steele and Aronson, 1998
). It may be that any ethnic treatment—positive or negative—makes students feel that individuals perceive them as “different” and leads to heightened anxiety.
Nativity differences in the Latino populations in each location of residence largely explained differences in the daily depressive symptoms and daily anxiety of Latino youth in NC and LA but did not explain the differences in daily happiness. Proportionally more foreign-born youth resided in both urban and rural NC than in LA. Compared to US-born Latinos, foreign-born Latinos were both more likely to be happy and more likely to experience depressive symptoms. These results suggest that both acculturative stress and immigrant optimism are at work. On the one hand, acculturative stress associated with migration places foreign-born youth at risk for mental health disorders (Padilla and Duran, 1995
). On the other, immigrant optimism increases the likelihood that youth will feel happy, joyful, and calm upon moving to the US (Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco, 2001
Despite experiencing more discrimination than youth in LA, Latino youth in urban and rural NC consistently expressed higher levels of daily happiness than youth in LA. This greater happiness largely stemmed from differences in the prevalence of positive social interactions. Regardless of nativity status, Latino youth in both urban and rural NC experienced more positive social interactions than Latino youth in LA. The results strongly support the segmented assimilation model by demonstrating that the social contexts of reception influence the adaptation of children of immigrants (Portes and Rumbaut, 2006
). Because they tend not to live in ethnic enclaves or attend ethnically segregated schools, Latino youth living in a new receiving community such as NC are more likely to have both positive and negative social interactions outside of their ethnic group and these interactions strongly affect their daily well-being.
We found that ethnic identification reduced youths’ sense of negative well-being, and family identification promoted daily happiness and reduced daily anxiety. The protective influences of family relationships operated on a daily basis as well. Positive daily relationships with parents increased youths’ daily psychological well-being. These results are consistent with other studies demonstrating how Latino adolescents overcome daily stressors by relying on ethnic and family ties for support (Yip and Fuligni, 2002
There are several limitations to this study. First, though our results were robust to individual and school level fixed effect models that control for school and neighborhood characteristics, additional studies are needed to further explore how distinct characteristics of new and historical communities shape assimilation experiences by immigrant generation (Portes and Rumbaut, 2006
). Second, while the majority of the Latinos in both our LA and NC samples were of Mexican descent, future studies should examine how settlement location affects other ethnic groups. Lastly, our results should be interpreted as associations not causation.
For educators, health providers, and policymakers, this study demonstrates the need to develop policies and programs that limit the prevalence of social discrimination and promote positive inter-group relations. Intervention research indicates that teachers can encourage racial-ethnic tolerance in the classroom context by creating opportunities for youth to cooperatively interact with different ethnic/racial groups (Molina and Witting, 2006
Overall, this research suggests similar assimilation processes exist in new and historical receiving communities, but that the frequency of acculturation challenges and availability of support systems differ between them. Discrimination and social acceptance shape the psychological adaptation of Latino youth, no matter their settlement location. Latino youth in new receiving urban and rural communities, however, are exposed to both more social discrimination and social acceptance. To extend this research, additional comparative studies of Latino and other minority immigrant youth living in historical and new receiving communities must be undertaken.