Historical Background

Hispanics/Latinos can trace their ancestry back to the indigenous people of North America as well as to Spanish/European, Asian and African roots. The heterogeneity among these groups is significantly based on their historical existence in this country. The following information of the various subgroups is only a cursory description of the Hispanic/Latino origins. For a detailed historical discourse that reflects the magnitude of diversity that this population represents see Velez, Chalela, & Ramirez, 2007 chapter on Hispanic/Latino Health and Disease.

Mexican American

Early History: When Mexican Americans elders are discussed as a cohort, it is important to understand that there are many within cohort differences. For example, the ancestors of today’s Mexican Americans have resided in the Southwestern region of what is now the U.S. even before there was an independent Mexico, when the region was considered part of New Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries, and when it was part of Mexico in the 19th century. In the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo the United States acquired this land and the Mexican inhabitants (Grebler, Moore, Guzman, 1970). Thus the notion of immigration to this country for this cohort of Mexican-Americans of the Southwest is meaningless.

Elders that did immigrate in the early 20th century did so during the chaos of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. At this time there were no “barbed wire fences” between the countries, and elders who came as youth during this time period, recall that during the immigration process the only requirement to enter the U.S. was to sign a document book and to “cleanse oneself” in the showers provided by the “officiales” at the border (Talamantes, HD, 1992).

The Bracero Period: occurred during the 1940’s when the U.S. encouraged the entry of Mexicans for agricultural labor under temporary contracts during WWII and the Korean Wars. Not only were there Mexican immigrants working in the fields, but they were also fighting overseas where over 350,00 Mexican Americans served in the armed forces and were recognized with honors for serving the country (Yeo, Hikoyeda, McBride, Chin, Edmonds, Hendrix, 1998). Continued migration of Mexicans into the U.S. has been ongoing for many decades, and reasons for migration have been primarily for economic reasons and family support.

Civil Rights Movement: Political, economic and health disparities within the population have prompted the need for civil rights movements within the Hispanic/Latino communities, including the efforts made by Hispanic/Latino soldiers from WWII and the Korean wars when they established the GI forums as a way to organize for civil rights due to discrimination they faced following the wars. The Chicano Movement was marked by Mexican Americans also fighting for civil rights and political power, emphasizing voter registration and recruitment of political candidates. The United Farmworkers was founded by Cesar Chavez, an advocate for the migrant farmworkers, who fought for political, health, and working reforms for this population.

Struggles: Many Mexican American elders have experienced life long struggles to overcome discrimination and segregation including punishment for speaking Spanish in the schools, restaurant segregation, and job discrimination. Additionally, the Welfare Reform legislation of 1996 brought stressors for many Mexican American elderly who had immigrated to the U.S. at early ages and had never applied for citizenship. These elders were at risk of losing their Medicare/Medicaid and Supplemental Security benefits if they did not meet the deadline for becoming a citizen (Yeo, et al, 1998).

Cohort Analysis: For an abbreviated historical version of Mexican American elders in the form of a cohort analysis see the chart in Module 3 of the Core Curriculum in Ethnogeriatrics. The cohort analysis method can be used as a tool for providers to understand the population that is being cared for by becoming aware of their historical and sociopolitcal reality (Yeo et al, 1998).

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Puerto Rican

Puerto Ricans immigrated to the mainland as a result of the treaty following the Spanish American War in 1898. In 1917, the island inhabitants became United States citizens (Monge, 1997). During the period from 1948–1960, the United States launched an industrialization program which was intended to change the economy from an agrarian into an industrial model. United States corporations have controlled the newer production industries in most cases. One industry that developed was the sugar plantations, designed to supply the U.S. with cheap sugar.

Throughout the decades, migration of Puerto Ricans from the mainland to the U.S. has been fluid and primarily based on the state of the economy in both the island and the U.S. For example during the Depression, 20% of the Puerto Rican population on the mainland returned to the Island. A large number of Puerto Ricans also returned to the island after WWII, during the industrialization period.

Reasons for the large immigration to the U.S. mainland were due to the overcrowding on the island, high rates of unemployment, and the U.S. demand for labor in the areas in services, agriculture, and garment industries (Monge, 1997). In the 1970’s many Puerto Ricans on the mainland over age 60 returned to the island (Sanchez-Ayendez, 1988). Culturally, the older Puerto Rican cohort self-identifies themselves as Puerto Ricans and utilizes Spanish as their language of preference.

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As a result of Fidel Castro’s regime in the 1960’s, about 37,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States seeking political asylum between 1959–1961. Unlike the Mexican American and Puerto Rican elders, elderly Cubans received a significant amount of economic and social support during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations, including financial assistance for their resettlement process, financial assistance to states and local governments for public services such as education, employment and training costs, and transportation costs from Cuba (Fligstein & Fernandez, 1994).

Many of today’s Cuban elders were arrivals in this first wave of Cuban immigrants. Among all the Hispanic/Latino elder groups, Cubans are the oldest, and have the highest level of formal education and higher incomes, however, they are the least linguistically assimilated. Following the Bay of Pigs incident, immigration grew substantially (Fligstein & Fernandez, 1994). Subsequent waves of Cuban immigrants came in the 1980’s with the Mariel boatlift (Molina & Aguirre-Molina, 1994).

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