Ethnic Identity Development among Latino Adolescents…Who, What, When, Where???

Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor, Ph.D.

For almost two decades (yikes!), I have been fascinated by the concept of ethnic identity. What is an ethnic identity? How does it develop? Does it change during adolescence? Is it a normative developmental process? Is it a context-sensitive process? Can ethnic identity protect Latino adolescents from the negative impact of culturally informed risk factors? Much of my work has focused on trying to find answers to these intriguing questions, and a majority of these studies have focused on Latino adolescents. Below, I summarize findings from various studies that have provided initial answers to some of these questions. An important caution, however…as with any area of inquiry, these answers have inevitably led to MORE questions!

1.       What is an ethnic identity? Defining ethnic identity can be tricky, as there are many different conceptualizations of this construct throughout the literature, even when one focuses exclusively on the developmental period of adolescence. Some define ethnic identity as someone’s self-identification label (e.g., If I self-report that I consider myself “Latina,” researchers consider this to be my ethnic identity); others, however, conceptualize it as a complex and multifaceted construct that consists of many components such as affirmation and exploration, as examples. My own work is heavily influenced by an Eriksonian framework (Erikson, 1968) and social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986); thus, my conceptualization of ethnic identity focuses largely on individuals’ exploration, resolution, and affirmation, a conceptualization that captures both process and content features of ethnic identity development. Specifically, the process feature of ethnic identity development is captured by exploration (i.e., the degree to which they have tried to find out more about their ethnic group) and resolution (i.e., individuals’ sense of clarity regarding the personal meaning they ascribe to their ethnic group membership); whereas the content of ethnic identity is captured by affirmation or the affect that individuals ascribe to their ethnic group (i.e., positive or negative feelings regarding group membership). Given the diverse conceptualizations in the literature, it is important that researchers clarify how they are conceptualizing ethnic identity by clearly articulating (a) the theoretical framework that drives their definition of ethnic identity, (b) the specific aspect of ethnic identity to be studied, and (c) whether their theoretical conceptualization is consistent with the measure used to assess ethnic identity. Furthermore, some researchers have used only a few items from existing measures to assess “ethnic identity” but there is no indication of which items were chosen; this makes it impossible to determine which aspect of ethnic identity is being examined in the study. There is no simple answer to the question ‘what is an ethnic identity’ and, ultimately, the answer depends on how researchers choose to conceptualize the construct based on the research question of interest. In light of this recommendation, it is important to consider that the work I am discussing in the sections that follow has focused largely on conceptualizing ethnic identity from an Eriksonian perspective (i.e., focused on exploration and resolution of an identity) as well as from a social identity framework (i.e., focused on understanding the affect that individuals ascribe to their ethnic group membership, such as positive or negative feelings toward the group).  

2.       Does Latino adolescents’ ethnic identity follow a developmental progression from early to late adolescence? In my work with Latino students (predominantly of Mexican origin) in the Midwest, findings indicated that ethnic identity affirmation increased significantly during the high school years for both boys and girls (see Umaña-Taylor, Gonzales-Backen, & Guimond, 2009). Thus, as youth proceeded from middle to late adolescence, they increasingly felt more positively about their ethnic identity (see below, Question 3, for a discussion of what may be prompting this increase during this developmental period). Importantly, exploration and resolution significantly increased during high school as well, but only for Latina adolescents. This suggests there may be a normative progression during this developmental period whereby Latina adolescent females do more exploring, increasingly become more confident about the meaning that their ethnic group membership has for them, and increasingly feel more positive about their ethnicity. For Latino boys, however, exploration and resolution did not show a general upward progression during the high school years. However, other findings (i.e., Umaña-Taylor & Guimond, 2010) noted that there was a significant increase over time in ethnic identity resolution for Latino boys when they reported that their families were engaging in ethnic socialization efforts (e.g., teaching youth about their ethnic group, attending cultural events) during middle adolescence. Together, these findings highlight important gender differences that underscore the variability that exists in this developmental process within one panethnic group. Although more research is needed to draw definitive conclusions about why these gender differences emerged, in our work we speculate that the different gender socialization patterns for boys and girls in Latino families (which have been documented in other work; e.g., Raffaelli & Ontai, 2004) may lead to the gender differences that have emerged in our studies of ethnic identity development.

3.       Is the ethnic identity development of Latino adolescents sensitive to context? YES! The integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children offered by García Coll and colleagues (1996), notes that culture, ethnicity, and the intragroup variability that exists within ethnic minority populations must be at the core of theoretical formulations that drive our understanding of child development. Indeed, several findings have supported this idea in relation to ethnic identity. I will provide two brief examples here. First, in contrast to the findings described above in which ethnic identity affirmation increased significantly from middle to late adolescence among Latino youth, in their work with Latino adolescents in the Northeast United States, Pahl and Way (2006) found no significant increases in affirmation –positive feelings about ethnic group membership – during this same developmental period. Adolescents in their sample were attending an urban high school in which Latino students made up approximately two-thirds of the student body while participants in the Umaña-Taylor et al. (2009) study were attending suburban or rural high schools with predominately European American student bodies where less than 20% of students were Latino. It is possible that participants in the Umaña-Taylor et al. study, due to their numerical minority status, experienced more discrimination and cultural dissonance in the school context and that these experiences became more salient as adolescents progressed through high school given their increased cognitive abilities to understand and attribute their experiences to ethnicity. Consistent with social identity theory, these discrimination experiences may have increased the salience of ethnicity and prompted positive feelings toward one’s group (i.e., affirmation) as a strategy to protect one’s self image. Thus, the difference in findings between the two studies could be attributed to the contextual sensitivity of this process. Of course, this is speculative and more research is necessary to empirically test these ideas.

The second example comes from a recent study (i.e., Umaña-Taylor, Zeiders, & Updegraff, 2013) in which we examined the longitudinal associations between family ethnic socialization and youths’ ethnic identity among a sample of Mexican-origin youth (N = 178, Mage = 18.17, SD = .46). Findings from multiple-group cross lagged panel models over a two year period indicated that for U.S.-born youth with immigrant parents, youths’ perceptions of family ethnic socialization in late adolescence predicted significantly greater ethnic identity exploration and resolution in emerging adulthood, while youths’ ethnic identity during late adolescence was not significantly associated with family ethnic socialization in emerging adulthood. Conversely, for U.S.-born youth with U.S. born parents, youths’ ethnic identity in late adolescence significantly predicted family ethnic socialization during emerging adulthood, but perceptions of family ethnic socialization during adolescence did not predict future levels of youths’ ethnic identity. The pattern that emerged among youth with U.S.-born parents suggested that it was youths’ ethnic identity during late adolescence that predicted higher family ethnic socialization during the transition to emerging adulthood, while evidence for the reverse did not emerge in this group. This suggests that in families where there is a more extensive generational history in the U.S. (i.e., longer history of U.S.-born generations), youth may be driving this process, which is consistent with theoretical work on ethnic identity that argues for the agency that youth have in the process of ethnic identity formation (e.g., Quintana, 1998). On the other hand, our findings for families with immigrant parents suggest that the process by which family ethnic socialization and youths’ ethnic identity inform one another over time may be largely driven by family socialization efforts and less by youths’ agency. It is possible that immigrant parents may be relatively less focused on cues from their children when it comes to ethnic socialization because of a greater personal investment in preserving their cultural heritage and passing this on to the next generation. This socialization goal may be more prominent or salient in immigrant families than in families with U.S.-born parents because of the dual frame of reference (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 1995). It also is possible that immigrant families may not necessarily be making a conscious choice to preserve their cultural heritage, but rather they are simply doing what is most familiar, comfortable, and perhaps instinctive to them. This may also help to explain why in families with U.S. born parents, youth appear to be driving the process, as U.S.-born parents are likewise doing what is most instinctive and familiar to them, which may not involve an emphasis on the ethnic group because the family is further removed from the immigrant generation. For youth with U.S. born parents, however, experiences they encounter in school or other social settings may prompt discussions with parents regarding their ethnicity, which then may be eliciting ethnic socialization. Regardless of the underlying motivations, these findings illustrate the importance of considering intragroup variability in how this process unfolds over time; furthermore, they also underscore the need to not assume that socialization processes are driven by parents and to more regularly investigate youth agency in socialization. This study describes an initial step toward understanding how ethnic identity and family ethnic socialization may inform one another over time, but more research is necessary to further explore the direction of these associations from early to late adolescence and into emerging adulthood. In addition, we have extremely limited knowledge about how parents’ ethnic identity development (i.e., beyond self-identification labels) is linked to their ethnic socialization efforts with youth, and we know even less about how parents’ own ethnic identity formation process is linked with youths’ ethnic identity development; these are areas in which future research is sorely needed.

4.       Can ethnic identity protect Latino youth against the negative impact of cultural stressors? Ethnic identity may provide adolescents with the tools necessary to understand and not internalize the negative messages they encounter regarding their ethnicity; thus, when they encounter these risk factors (e.g., discrimination), the negative impact on their adjustment is minimized or reduced altogether (Neblett, Rivas-Drake, & Umaña-Taylor, 2012). What is not so clear, however, is which components of ethnic identity serve a protective function; furthermore, there is such limited research specifically examining ethnic identity as a protective factor that there is no consensus regarding which components serve a protective function for which specific outcomes…or whether they provide protection against certain risks (e.g., peer discrimination) but not others (e.g., discrimination from adults). In work with Latino adolescents, for example, some studies have found ethnic identity affirmation to significantly minimize the negative impact of discrimination on adolescents’ self-esteem (Romero & Roberts, 2003), while others have found affirmation to minimize the association between discrimination and involvement in risky behaviors (Umaña-Taylor, Updegraff, & Gonzales-Backen, 2011). More work is needed examining the nuances of how and when ethnic identity can serve a protective function to better establish patterns of associations and identify-specific aspects of ethnic identity that may protect youth against the negative impact of common stressors.

In closing, the study of ethnic identity is rapidly evolving and there are currently more questions than answers with respect to understanding how this developmental process unfolds throughout the lifespan. A strong, definitive claim, however, is that ethnic identity is a multifaceted construct that develops in a complex highly context-sensitive manner.  As research in this area becomes more specific (e.g., focused on specific constructs testing theoretically informed associations) and the depth of our knowledge increases with respect to the particular constructs that serve protective functions, I imagine we will see exponential growth in prevention programming that targets ethnic identity as a key program component when intervening in the lives of Latino youth…an exciting prospect!


Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor is a Professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. She received her PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research interests focus broadly on Latino youth and families and, more specifically, on ethnic identity formation, familial socialization processes, culturally informed risk and protective factors, and psychosocial functioning among Latino youth. She is currently a member of the SRA Executive Council. Please send her an email with your comments and questions: [email protected].



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Umaña-Taylor, A. J. & Guimond, A. (2010). A Longitudinal Examination of Parenting Behaviors and Perceived Discrimination Predicting Latino Adolescents’ Ethnic Identity. Developmental Psychology, 46, 636-650.

Umaña-Taylor, A. J., Updegraff, K. A., & Gonzales-Backen, M. A. (2011). Mexican-origin Adolescent Mothers’ Stressors and Psychosocial Functioning: Examining Ethnic Identity Affirmation and Familism as Moderators. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40, 140-157.

Umaña-Taylor, A. J., Zeiders, K. H., & Updegraff, K. A. (2013). Family ethnic socialization and ethnic identity: A family-driven, youth-driven, or reciprocal process? Journal of Family Psychology, 27, 137-146.

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