CU Denver study links self-identified ethnic labels to cultural values

DENVER (July 31, 2014) – A recently released study by a researcher at the University of Colorado Denver and published in the Journal of Humanistic Counseling explores why people of Latin American descent self-identify using terms like Latina/o, Hispanic, and Chicana/o. Carlos Hipolito-Delgado, an associate professor in the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver, found a difference between preferred ethnic labels and how a person identifies with their cultural heritage and United States values.

An expert in ethnic identity development, Hipolito-Delgado surveyed college students of Latin-American descent across the country to determine if the perception of ethnic heritage and U.S. culture is linked to ethnic identifiers, or the way people identify with their ethnicity. Through his research, Hipolito-Delgado found that there is a distinction between participants who identified as Chicana/o, Latina/o, Hispanic, hyphenated American, or those who identify by nationality—the labels chosen created a spectrum of self-identifying names.

In his survey, Hipolito-Delgado asked students about their ethnic identity, how they associate with U.S. culture and values, and how closely they identify with their ethnic heritage. Participants also selected the ethnic label to which they most closely associated. Though the definitions of these labels have been long contested, generally Latino/a reflects a direct link to Latin American heritage (ethnic origins in Latin American countries); Hispanic is linked to Spanish heritage (ethnic origin in Spain) and may also include the ability to speak or understand the Spanish language; and Chicano/a can be linked to Mexican heritage but often conveys more of a political or indigenous identity.

The study found that students identifying with the label Hispanic felt a stronger allegiance to traditional values of the United States and were much less likely to identify with their own cultural heritage. These students responded positively to statements such as, "Being U.S. American plays an important part in my life" and "I am proud of being U.S. American."

On the other end of the spectrum, students who identified as Chicana/o were significantly more likely to be more likely to identify with their cultural heritage and much less likely to endorse U.S. values. Students who identified as Chicano/a responded positively to questions like, "I have a strong sense of belonging and attachment to my own ethnic group."

In the middle were students who identified either by Latina/o, by heritage (Mexican, Brazilian, etc.), or by a hyphenated derivative (Mexican-American, Guatemalan-American, etc.). These respondents were influenced both by their heritage and U.S. cultural values.

"When you identify yourself using an ethnic label, you are making a value judgment," Hipolito-Delgado said. "For example, Chicano is a label that traditionally has been associated with social and political activism whereas Hispanic may not be as politically charged."

Hipolito-Delgado's study indicates that no matter what identifier is used, people feel that it is an important part of their identity, which has huge implications for counselors and care-providers.

As a professor in the University of Colorado Denver's Counseling program and chair of the Association for Multicultural Counseling Development, Hipolito-Delgado understands the relevance of self-identification to a successful relationship between counselor and client. He suggests that counselors and care providers working with people of Latin American descent simply ask their clients how they identify themselves, instead of making a blanket assumption.

"Labels make a difference," Hipolito-Delgado said. "A counselor who uses the wrong term with a client can send the wrong message and derail a session. If a counselor uses the wrong identifier, there may be a perception that you don't get who I am as a client. That person may never come back."

Source: University of Colorado Denver