Cultural Implications and Guidelines for Extension and Family Life Programming with Latino/Hispanic Audiences

Cultural Implications and Guidelines for Extension and Family Life Programming with Latino/Hispanic Audiences

Charlotte Shoup Olsen
Associate Professor/Family Systems Extension Specialist
Kansas State University

Linda Skogrand
Associate Professor/Family Life Extension Specialist
Utah State University


Addressing the needs of Latino/Hispanic couples and families in the United States requires Extension and family life educators to be knowledgeable about the cultural context in which the families live and the research that has been done on successful programming for Latino/Hispanic audiences. It cannot be assumed that research-based information on program delivery for European American audiences will be appropriate for Latino/Hispanic families. Common Latino/Hispanic cultural characteristics are discussed although the reader is reminded that the educator must also understand the unique characteristics of the specific targeted audience within one’s community. Cultural differences may relate to the time the family has been in the United States, country of origin, migration experience, socioeconomic status, and other related factors. General implications for delivering Latino/Hispanic Extension and family life education within a cultural context based on current research are shared regarding recruitment, location of the programming, staffing and space needs, delivery, and retention.

Key Words: Latino/Hispanic families, Latino/Hispanic, family life education,Extension education, Latino/Hispanic cultures


Extension and family life educators need to have an understanding of the role that culture plays in family life among potential participants from their communities, especially if the targeted audience has a background different from the educator. Culture affects many aspects of one’s life, including family, school, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, employment, immigration situation, and socioeconomic status. Culture can be defined as “a way of life or the totality of the individual artifacts, behaviors, and mental concepts transmitted from one generation to the next in a society. It is visible and invisible, cognitive and affective, conscious and unconscious, internal and external, rational and irrational, and coercive and permissive at the same time” (Pederson et al. 2002). It is important to realize that learning about specific cultural characteristics of community residents and applying educational strategies that are consistent with their culture will more likely ensure programming success. These characteristics may differ depending on the residents’ country of origin, migration experience, length of time in the United States, socioeconomic circumstances, and related factors. The remainder of the article focuses on general cultural information and its implications for Extension and family life programming with Latino/Hispanic audiences.

Latino/Hispanic Cultural Characteristics

Latin American families originate from Mexico and many countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Most Latin Americans come to the United States in search of better economic opportunities (Leyendecker and Lamb 1999). Other reasons may be related to lack of employment opportunities in country of origin, government instability, family unification, improved life style, and more. It is important to note that although there may be some general cultural characteristics, each country and region brings its own uniqueness and individuality. In addition, most Latin Americans are mestizos (mixed Indian and European descent). Therefore, their culture stems from Indian beliefs as well as European ideas. Regardless of the diversity among families with Latin American heritage, key Latino/Hispanic cultural values can help Extension and family life educators to be more fully informed in their community work. Following are prominent concepts and ideas related to Latino/Hispanic cultural values that can help community educators in their work with Latino/Hispanic audiences.

Importance of family

For most Latinos/Hispanics, the family is highly valued and viewed as a source of joy and support. Many would also say the family is central to one’s identity (Hofstede 1980). They might say things like, “Family is everything to me,” or “My family is always there for me.” Family members typically provide social, emotional, and financial support as needed and promote close relationships among family members. There is an emphasis on cooperation and interdependence among family members and individuals are encouraged to sacrifice individual needs for the benefit of the family (Falicov 1998; Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, and Gallardo-Cooper 2002; Skogrand, Hatch, and Singh 2008).

Most Latino/Hispanic families are also embedded in an extended family network and may include friends. Close friends of the family are even called “uncle” or “aunt.” A high degree of closeness and hierarchy are common in many Latin American families with all life cycle events seen as family celebrations. The oldest male tends to have the greatest power. Autonomy and individuality are not emphasized, but honesty and preservation of one’s dignity are often highly valued.

Most families indicate an affiliation with the Catholic Church stemming from Spain’s early influences (McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano 1982). This Catholic influence may be evident even if couples and families are not practicing the faith. Some researchers indicate that this Catholic influence has affected many aspects of family life such as family size and attitudes about marriage and divorce (Falicov 1998).

It is important for family life educators to understand the important role family has in Latino culture. Because the family is viewed as a unit, often including extended family members, the entire family should be considered important in the development and implementation of family life education programming.

Gender roles

Typically, the husband assumes the role of provider and the wife assumes the role of caretaker/homemaker. In the past, there has been an emphasis on machismo as a dominant philosophy in the Latino culture. Machismo is traditionally viewed as a belief that men have certain rights or power over women related to decision-making. However, research suggests that many Latinos/Hispanics in the United States do not follow this paradigm. In one study of strong Latino/Hispanic marriages, couples typically followed traditional gender roles, but power was shared in decision making (Skogrand, Hatch, and Singh 2008). Experts on Latino/Hispanic gender roles recommend that educators should not assume machismo or even use the word in order to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy. (For more information, see Falicov 1996; McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano 1982; McLoyd et al. 2000; and South 1993).

Role of children in the family

Children are highly valued in Latino/Hispanic families. Children and family relationships are often more important than the couple’s relationship (Skogrand, Hatch, and Singh 2008; Vega 1995). Children are the glue that holds the family together and for some there is no marriage without children. In many homes, the father tends to be the disciplinarian while the mother tends to be the nurturer. Hierarchies are clearly defined and most parents would not want to be friends with their children as that type of relationship might interfere with parental roles. They typically demand a level of respect and expect children to help with household duties. They tend to give less emphasis on achievement, and focus more on each child’s individual strengths (McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano 1982).

Parents typically will not attend an event without their children; therefore, in order for Latino/Hispanic couples to attend family life educational programs, children need to be invited, cared for nearby, and included in some aspect of the programming (Skogrand, Barrios-Bell, and Higginbotham in press). However, if an invitation is extended only to specific family members, the message should be clear about the reason for not inviting the entire family.

It is also very important to Latino/Hispanic parents that their children enjoy an event. If the children do not want to attend, the parents probably will not attend (Skogrand, Riggs, and Huffaker 2008). Consequently, it is important that children enjoy the first event in a series of classes so they will want to keep coming. The parents will attend, not only for themselves, but because they want to bring their children who are eager to return.

Cultural transition

Acculturation, the process of adapting to another culture while attempting to hold onto one’s original culture, occurs when persons and families move to a new country. Some common stressors in the process relate to family separation, including the distance from family they left behind and their ability to be in contact, lack of power due to language barriers between parents and children, loss of respect among children as they become more independent from the family, marrying into another culture, premarital pregnancy, etc. (DuPree et al. 2008; McGoldrick, Pearce, and Giordano 1982). Other factors contributing to family stress include immigration status, lack of adequate employment to support the family, and being isolated from families with common migration experiences. These stresses affect couple and family relationships.

One way to address these multiple stresses within the Latino/Hispanic community is to encourage its members to feel positive about and maintain their cultural heritage (Skogrand, Hatch, and Singh 2008). There is evidence that knowing about one’s cultural history and how people in that culture dealt with struggles contributes to being resilient and capable of handling difficulties in life (Delgado 1998). In other words, one’s cultural heritage is a source of strength in dealing with problems. In addition, researchers suggest that being bicultural and continuing to maintain one’s original cultural values contributes to one’s mental health (Falicov 1998; LaFramboise, Coleman, and Gerton 1993). Since knowing one’s heritage and utilizing cultural practices in family relationships are important for couple and family well-being, it is essential for couple and family life educational materials to be developed within a cultural context (Skogrand, Hatch, and Singh 2008).

Language usage

Spanish is the primary language used in Latin American countries although Portuguese is the national language in Brazil and French is spoken in some Caribbean countries as well as French Guinea. Indigenous languages also are commonly spoken in countries such as Paraguay, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, and Ecuador. Within the United States, Spanish is often spoken at home among the Latino/Hispanic population, especially for recent immigrants, and may be viewed as an integral part of the their culture with English being spoken at school or in the workplace (Hakimzadeh and Cohn 2007). It is important, therefore, to determine the audience’s preferred language when delivering Extension and family life education as well as their literacy level whether it be their native language or English.

Personal relationships

Warm, friendly, and somewhat informal, interpersonal relationships are an important part of Latino/Hispanic culture (Santiago-Rivera, Arredondo, and Gallardo-Cooper 2002). There are often lots of hugging and expressions of affection among people who are Latino/Hispanic. This focus on warm and positive interpersonal relationships is especially important when developing new relationships with people outside of the Latino/Hispanic culture.

Personal relationships are also evident in how Latino/Hispanic people learn (Skogrand, Barrios-Bell, and Higginbotham in press). Lots of talking, discussion, and interaction are evident in culturally appropriate learning environments. Any gathering of Latino/Hispanic couples and families usually involves a meal with traditional foods.

Because some Latinos/Hispanics are undocumented, the development of trust is extremely important. Government raids on undocumented residents have made many Latinos/Hispanics cautious about participating in events that they think might require a social security number or other forms of legal documentation. There may even be concern about providing their name and address which could lead to arrest and deportation.

It is important, therefore, to develop trusted personal relationships with Latinos/Hispanics in order to encourage participation in family life education events, starting with the recruitment phase. One study found that a personal invitation was the most effective way to make Latinos/Hispanics feel welcome (Skogrand, Riggs, and Huffaker 2008). This invitation could come by way of a telephone call, but participants in the study preferred a visit to their home. This type of invitation begins to build a personal relationship, but also helps the families trust that the event is a safe place for their children and themselves. In addition, these researchers found that this personal connection helps people feel that they are truly welcome and will not experience discrimination.

Implications for Practice

The cultural characteristics described above have implications for the structure and process of Extension and family life education for Latinos/Hispanics. To create an atmosphere that is inviting for Latino/Hispanic families and will support Latino cultural values, the following recommendations for family life education should be considered.


Know whom you are recruiting for programming. Are you focusing on new immigrants who have been in the United States for five years or less, those who have been here from five to ten years, or those who were born here? The ability to speak and read English when it comes to recruiting will vary depending on the length of time in the United States (Cutz 2005). If flyers are used in recruitment, they should be in Spanish and English and other languages depending on the targeted audience. Although it is likely most Latinos/Hispanics will prefer Spanish, some may only read English, depending upon the amount of time in this country.

Consider having facilitators personally invite participants by visiting potential participants’ homes. This will begin building personal relationships that are so important in the Latino/Hispanic culture.

Trust is an important issue for this population because of past immigration raids which target undocumented workers. A personal invitation also results in an atmosphere of trust and will let potential participants know they are truly welcome. Let potential participants know that this event will be a safe place for their family. Recruit potential participants through organizations that are already trusted by members of the Latino/Hispanic community because these organizations do not have a history of immigration raids and include schools, social service organizations, churches, and markets that target the Latino/Hispanic community. Indicate that legal status is not important in recruiting.

Invite the entire family to the event. Children typically will not be left with a caregiver since children typically attend events with their parents.

Focus some aspects of recruitment on the children. For example, recruitment flyers might say, “Lots of fun activities for the children.” If parents anticipate their children will enjoy the event, the family is more likely to attend.

Focus on family language when marketing the educational program. For example, a title “¡Viva La Familia Saludable!” (Long Live the Healthy Family!) is likely to be more inviting than a title such as “Enhance Your Couple Relationship.”

Location of the course

The course should be taught in a location that is considered safe and is already being used by members of the Latino/Hispanic community, such as schools or community buildings. Catholic churches, or other churches frequented by members of the Latino/Hispanic community, are especially inviting to Latinos/Hispanics since religion is so highly valued.

The location should accommodate both adults and children since the entire family is likely to attend. Rooms for children should be near the adults, as Latino/Hispanic parents typically do not want to be far from their children.

Staffing and space needs

Staffing and space needs for programming with Latino/Hispanic couples and families are greater than is typically needed when providing programming for European American populations. Having a meal and including children requires staff for organizing the meal, space for a meal, and accommodations for children of various ages.

Including Latino/Hispanic children in adult programming requires staff available to care for the children of all ages. There may be children under one year of age that need almost one-to-one care with the likelihood that there also will be children as old as 16 or 17 years. One might expect that there will be at least two children attending with each family. Typically children in Latino/Hispanic families speak English and, therefore, staff caring for children need not speak Spanish or other languages used in their native countries. Teens who attend might be invited to help with younger children’s activities. It may be useful to have one large room or two smaller rooms to accommodate children of various ages with activities and toys appropriate for these various age groups.

It is also helpful to have someone assigned to setting up, serving, and cleaning up the food. The number of people needed depends on the degree of preparation needed and the number of people attending. Because children are likely to attend the event, planning a meal should include the likes and dislikes of children.

The person leading the adult sessions should speak Spanish if the audience is comprised of recent immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. Although it is preferable to have a native Spanish speaker, someone who is not native, but speaks fluent Spanish, is preferable to using a translator as translations are time consuming and can result in inaccuracies. Furthermore, it is recommended that children of participants not be used as translators during recruitment or any phase of program implementation.


The cultural heritage of the participants should be supported and celebrated in all aspects of the course content. Since most family life materials have not been designed to be culturally specific to a Latino/Hispanic audience, the family life educator needs to adapt or select a curriculum that will resonate with the target audience.

Because family is most important in Latino/Hispanic culture, the content should center on family life even if the focus is on couple and marriage relationships.

Couples and family members may be experiencing cultural transition stressors such as language issues, separation from family members, employment, and deportation problems. These stresses may result in participants feeling overwhelmed. Be prepared to know how to deal with situations when the class content appears to be touching on issues that are emotionally difficult to handle for a participant. One way reduce tension is to merely reflect feelings and empathize (e.g., you seem frustrated right now…that must be difficult…this must be really important to you, etc.). Usually this can be calming for an individual. It may be advantageous to shift the discussion to the issue in general and provide closure in some way for the individual. If problems arise that are beyond the educational nature of a program (e.g. domestic violence, addiction, etc.) and it is inappropriate for the participant(s) to continue taking the class, be prepared to know how to make a referral to a professional who is trained to address the specific issue.

It is preferable that the facilitator has knowledge of Latino/Hispanic culture, as well as knowledge of the subject matter in the family area. It would be helpful for the facilitator to have a degree in a social science field and/or be a Certified Family Life Educator.

Each class should allow for ample time for discussion and interaction rather than lecture. This facilitation style allows also for relationships to be developed with other members of the class. Considering that Latinos/Hispanics tend to avoid confrontation, it is important to assure that the message was understood by asking general questions related to the issue. Optimal class size is twelve to twenty persons, as a larger number of people might make some participants less likely to join in class discussion. However, too few participants can set the stage for inappropriate disclosure of personal information beyond the scope of an educational class.

The class time should include a meal for the families to eat together, preferably at the beginning of each class. Traditional foods typically eaten by the target population tend to be the most popular. A meal contributes to the development of warm and personal relationships among participants and with the program staff and those who will be leading the classes.


Because personal relationships are important in the Latino/Hispanic culture, it is advisable that the program staff develop a personal relationship with participants. Taking time to personally talk to each participant is one way to do this.

It is useful for the facilitator who conducts the class to contact the participants personally if they miss a class. It is likely that this contact will be especially meaningful since there is already a personal relationship in place. The family is more likely to feel that someone really cares about their participation.


Because each Latino community will have unique cultural characteristics depending on country of origin, degree of acculturation, socioeconomic status, and other factors, each target population may differ in terms of the appropriateness of the above recommendations. It is important to understand the unique characteristics of the Latino/Hispanic population one is planning to serve. Extension and family life educators who are not a part of the target audience can become more knowledgeable about a Latino/Hispanic cultural group by becoming immersed in the community and its events, read literature about Latino/Hispanic families, observe the mass media directed towards the target population, and/or learn from a Latino/a cultural mentor within the community.




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Cite this article

Charlotte Shoup Olsen and Linda Skogrand. 2009. Cultural Implications and Guidelines for Extension and Family Life programming with Latino/Hispanic Audiences. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 14 (1).




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