What Resilient Latino Youth Are Teaching Us About Adversity

03/12/2015 11:33 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

It is hard to deny how critical young Latinos are to the future of the U.S. A quick look at the numbers reveals why:

  • At 17 percent of the population, Latinos make up the largest minority in the United States.
  • Latino youth under the age of 18 represent 25 percent of the nation's child population.
  • Within the next 20 years, one in three American youth will be Latino.

This demographic change has been well under way for several years, resulting in a large body of research devoted to examining the disparities and inequalities that plague youth in communities of color. But what about youth who overcome these hardships--poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, and ethnic discrimination, among others--to achieve success? What are the contributing personal, environmental, and cultural factors that lead a substantial number of resilient youth to learn from adversity and excel?

In a new report, Resilient Latino Youth: In Their Own Words, Dr. Patricia Foxen, Deputy Director of Research at NCLR, takes a closer look at the concept of "resilience" through the bicultural lens of second-generation Latinos who have achieved success in the face of extreme adversity.

The report focuses on the personal traits of resilient young Latino men and women as well as the familial and environmental factors that have helped them succeed. Through in-depth interviews and first-person narratives, the featured youth define the factors that have helped them persevere. The report ultimately underscores the need for policies and programs that boost resilience as part of an overall approach to reach at-risk youth.

Freddy's Story

One youth in the report whose story exemplifies how the right programs can transform lives is that of "Freddy." The 20-year-old East Los Angeles native is currently studying electrical engineering at California State University, Northridge, but his road there was a difficult one marked by alcoholism, gangs, poverty, and the difficulties of living in a mixed-immigration-status household.

Freddy possesses a number of personality characteristics common to resilient Latino youth: strong intelligence, curiosity, and adept interpersonal skills. The report explores how these very traits, in addition to adverse circumstances at home and in his surrounding environment, led him to engage in risky behavior. In Freddy's case, it was gang membership made possible by his older sister and cousin.

His association with these gangs eventually led to an altercation with police at an amusement park that landed him in jail when he was just 14. Freddy was facing some serious prison time, but his parents successfully advocated for a reduced sentence of six months of probation. Despite the lighter punishment, the experience was pivotal in a downward spiral that would last through high school.

It wasn't until Freddy's exposure to the NCLR Escalera Program that he began to thrive once again, just like he did before he turned to gangs. With the help and support of Escalera staff, Freddy applied for college and scholarships. He started to participate in extracurricular activities that included community service. The Escalera Program also took Freddy to Washington, DC, where he witnessed President Obama deliver a speech and he spoke directly with elected officials. There is no doubt that Freddy's participation in a program that nurtured his resilience was instrumental in changing his life.

Resilient Youth Need Strong Policies and Programs

FosterYouthThis snapshot of Freddy's story is but one of several highlighted in the report. All of them help make the case for programs that encourage second-generation Latino youth to view their bicultural identity as an asset and balance their two worlds pragmatically. Policymakers and foundations could show their support for these youth by putting a focus on culturally sensitive, strength-based preventative approaches that incorporate caring mentors, skill building, and a holistic approach to youth development.

But it is not enough to nurture resilience: we must also ensure that policies are in place to produce broader structural changes that lessen the chances of these youth, their families, and their communities experiencing systemic aggressions. Policy solutions that reduce risk factors for poor communities of color are crucial in this regard.

Implementing such policies and supporting strong community-based programs would go a long way in helping this critical segment of the Latino community build resilient identities. These identities will equip them with all they need to contribute to America's success.