Latino Ethnic Identity Development: Parenting and Telenovelas

Telenovela viewing better predicts Latino adolescent ethnic identity than parenting styles and acculturation.

Debby Almonte1, PhD
Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey

Latinos comprise 16% (approximately 50 million individuals) of the U.S. population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010).  Census projections predict that this population will continue to increase by 2050 to comprise 30% of the “New American” population.  Hispanic psychology research (Padilla, 2002) and business/marketing have become important vehicles to understand Latino ethnic identity, and their educational and cultural experiences.  However, few studies have examined the extent to which Latino cultural experiences (e.g., family environment, acculturation) and societal influences as reflected in the media affect Latino ethnic identity.

Broadly speaking, ethnic identity refers to an individual’s identification with a particular cultural group in terms of three components: exploration, resolution, and affirmation (Supple, Ghazarian, Frabutt, Plunkett, & Sands, 2006).  Researchers typically examine ethnic identity among adolescents because adolescence is generally seen as a time of identity development (Erikson, 1968).  Studies suggest that parenting style, acculturation, generational status, and cultural exposure influence identity formation during adolescence (e.g., Rios, 2003; Villarreal & Peterson, 2008).  Adolescents whose parents provide opportunities and encourage them to participate in cultural traditions are more likely to report higher levels of ethnic identity than adolescents not provided with these opportunities (Supple et al., 2006).

Findings also suggest that media contributes to ethnic identity development among Latino adolescents (Villarreal & Peterson, 2008) who use Hispanic television to escape routine tasks, learn about U.S. society, and maintain ties to their own culture (Woods, 1998; Rios, 2003).  Telenovelas or Spanish television soap operas are particularly salient as sources of information about U.S. society and Latinos’ home culture (Rios, 2003).  Mayer (2003) found that adolescent Mexican girls regarded watching telenovelas as integral to being “Latino” and experiencing Mexico while living elsewhere.

Less is known about how viewing telenovelas impacts adolescents’ Latino ethnic identity development in conjunction with parenting styles to which they are exposed.  My study examined whether parenting styles (i.e., authoritative, authoritarian, permissive), parents’ and adolescents’ acculturation levels (e.g., assimilation, marginalization, separation, and integration), adolescents’ generational status, and Spanish media consumption patterns—notably, telenovela consumption—would predict ethnic identity development among Latinos adolescents.

A national sample of 204 Latino mothers and their adolescent children (14 to 17 years-old), was obtained using uSamp, a data collection company.  Latino mothers completed the Parenting Styles and Dimensions Questionnaire-Short Version (Robinson, Mandleco, Olsen, & Hart, 2001).  The adolescents and mothers completed the Brief Acculturation Rating Scale for Mexican Americans-II (Cuellar, 2004).  Adolescents also completed a media scale based on Greenberg’s (1974) work to assess an individual’s television viewing motives.  Finally, adolescents’ degree of ethnic identity development was measured using the Multigroup Ethnic Identity Measure-Revised (Phinney & Ong, 2007).  Although Spanish measures were made available, all participants chose to complete the English version of the measures.

A factor analysis on Greenberg’s TV viewing motives items which traditionally yields six factors (i.e., companionship, diversion, learning, pass time, arousal, and relaxation) yielded one factor, referred to as General Telenovela Viewing, among this Latino population.  A step-wise hierarchical regression indicated that authoritative parenting and adolescent acculturation predicted Latino adolescent ethnic identity only when reasons for telenovela viewing were not considered.  When considered, the General Telenovela Viewing factor was the only variable positively associated with ethnic identity.  Collectively, the results suggest that among Latino families, telenovela viewing is associated with adolescent ethnic identity more than parenting style and adoption of native or host country traditions.  One reason ethnic identity may be so closely linked to telenovela viewing is because telenovelas depict Latino culture very explicitly (e.g., characters live and work in a Latin American country, speak Spanish, and portray specific cultural behaviors such as particular linguistic nuances) while acculturation and parenting style may be less explicit.  These findings provide preliminary evidence that telenovelas may play a role in forming adolescents’ Latino ethnic identity.


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1. Debby Almonte received the 2013 Student Dissertation/Research in Media Psychology Award from APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology.

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