David Becerra is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Colorado State University. His research examines academic success, substance use and poverty among Latino youth.

Eighth grade Latino males have the highest rate of use of hard drugs. By the time those students reach the 12th grade, the numbers decline but the improvement is deceiving; many of those who abuse the hardcore drugs have dropped out of school. For those who remained in school, the higher the student's grade point average, the less likely they would be to use drugs.

Moreover, there is a phenomenon at work here: the more Latino youth become acculturated to American ways, the more likely they will resort to substance abuse.

Those were the sobering findings of research conducted by David Becerra and colleagues. They point to solutions that many politicians might not want to hear: holding on to Latino family values, language and culture have benefits that can outweigh the goals of acculturation.

Becerra's research conducted in 2009 involved 1,000 youths and measured language acculturation as well as acculturation on a broader scale. It found that Latinos used drugs more than Latinas. And by both measurements, the research "indicated that the more acculturated they are to the U.S. culture, the more likely they are to use drugs," Becerra said.

The findings, he noted, "were significant in that the more acculturated the students were—the Latino males were, the more likely they were to use drugs and not just acculturation, but age also. The older the Latino male students, the more likely they were to use the substances. Just like with the other studies, (the findings showed) the higher GPA, the less likely they were to use drugs."


Becerra said that it is natural for people to adapt to their living conditions and acculturate. But that poses problems for many Latinos.

"As I mentioned before, people whether they're Latinos or not, they're going to acculturate to whatever their surrounding is. Unfortunately, the majority of Latinos live in low (income) or lower (income) communities. Often time they have higher rates of drugs use and those types of things, and so our youth kind of adapt those traits and those behaviors."

The findings from his research and that of others, indicates that youth from families that hold on to traditional Latino values can avoid some of these pitfalls.

"What's important with all of this talk is that Latino culture has really positive traits. Studies have shown that the more Latinos hold on to those cultural traits, the family cohesion, respect of elders, use of Spanish or being bilingual, they're protective factors against lots of things. What's happened is you have all these increase of policies to get—kind of speed up the acculturation process. Let's get rid of bilingual education. Let's get rid of cultured diversity and ethics that is courses like you have here in Arizona. The English only initiatives that get passed down from the state level or even that pushes in the national level to get—make English the official language.

"Well, all of these thing, all they do, they're good for politics, but they're not based on any research. We don't really know the effects of all these things. Your politicians are promoting all of these things for political purposes without really understanding the impact it's going to have on our youth."

Becerra said it important that policy-makers and the media are made aware of this type of research so that it can enter the public debate.

"If Latino culture has these very positive protective factors, why not promote that, why not develop programs in schools and communities that use those protective factors to help our kids, instead of just saying the latest thing right now is to be anti-immigrant and anti-Latino 'cause that's going to get you votes? We need to do a better job using the media and all these things to promote the research to say that's—all you're doing is causing more harm by promoting these policies."

Discussion/questions from participants

QUESTION:

"One of the things that we find also is when they get to college, a whole different thing that happens. We have a high drop-out rate... (some kids) go to college but don't know who they are. I think sometimes we—those of us that do this work, we say…if we can get them out of high school and graduate and get them to college, we're successful. I think we're missing a whole other part that you're basically the enforcer…(For college students substance abuse) can be part of the coping mechanism."

BECERRA:

"I agree… When they do get to college, when they're asked to be critical thinkers, they don't know how to do it because they were never taught to do that…

As for Latinos, I think we have so many strong cultural values that kind of do get ignored by the mainstream education system. We do need to figure out a way to incorporate all of those things because there's a reason why we have a high drop-out rate. There's a reason why Latino parents don't feel connected to the schools because they don't feel welcome. It's totally different. Either the teachers don't speak Spanish or you have, at my son's school, that you can—the parent/teacher conference, you're not allowed to bring your kids with you, so how are you going to do that with babysitting and those types of things. It's totally different. It doesn't fit with Latino culture.

QUESTION:

"In terms of the gang, it's also kind of a survivor life. The…point which is what you were talking about, the addictive culture. The gang piece is a method of survival."

BECERRA:

"I think that plays a big part in the acculturation process, too, because as—somebody had asked the question earlier about how the images get internalized—the negative images get internalized. I agree, not just the violent images, but negative images. Acculturation, as people become—as Latinos become more acculturated, they tend to adopt the same negative view points of new immigrants. So that's why you see a lot of Latinos in California, a lot of Latinos voted for Proposition 187. Here a lot of Latinos are in favor of SB1070. As they get more acculturated, they adopt the same negative perceptions that the media portrays.
If we don't do something about it and don't get a different message out there, then you're going to continue that process of kind of incorporating those negative messages into Latinos."