My Acculturated Christmas

An Introduction to Acculturative Stress and Cultural Buffers

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The tree has been trimmed, the stockings hung, the lights are posted, pasteles are ordered by the dozen, parranda is playing in the background, and the coquito has been filled to the rim of each eagerly saved empty wine bottle. Yes, ‘tis the season of joy, cheer, unity, family, and thanksgiving. Navidadades. This time of year is always special to me because for one day out of the year, I spend time with both sides of my family. My parents have been divorced since I was four years old and every year we’d have to scramble to schedule whose side my sister and I would be with for the holidays. My family celebrates almost every major U.S. holiday together. We take advantage of the day off of work and gather to check-in, eat, drink, and share each other’s company. Now depending on  what each parental side is doing, my sister and I choose where to go.

Fortunately, most of my family has lived in Chicago or the surrounding suburbs since the 1960’s. For more than 50 years my family transitioned from Caribbean warmth to the four seasons of the city and carried over cultural values such as language, religion and customs which help to salvage an identity and protect them from the impact that comes with adjusting to a new environment, (i.e., acculturation). Acculturation are the changes resulting from the continuous contact between two cultural groups1.

There are various theories that explain the process of acculturation in the U.S. The first is theory assumes the impossibility to fully integrate two incompatible worldviews as the final product is disintegrating identity from the culture of origin. Another theory introduced by Milton Gordan in 1964 is the critically acclaimed ‘melting pot’ theory which assumes all immigrants ‘melt’ into an American ‘white’ identity and completely dismisses not only culture but dark skin color. These early theories generally describe the assimilation process in which immigrants are perceived as inferior their culture needs to be fully replaced by American values. Many ‘white’ immigrants have no problem fully assimilating as they are accepted as part of the dominant culture, however, this is process does not apply to darker skinned individuals as they are seen as the inferior culture.

Further theories of acculturation presume four ways to adapt to the host culture which are, assimilation, integration, segregation, or marginalization. These ways of adaptation are dependent or conditional (i.e, degree of conflict and the dominant society’s tolerance for diversity). Lastly, contemporary models of acculturation assess the process dependent on context (i.e., family, education, work).

According to the ‘Latino paradox’ theory, healthy Latina/os who migrate to the U.S. tend to suffer from physical and mental health problems over time, which can be the result of acculturative stress. Acculturative stress has been defined as the “collective confusion of: anxiety, loss of identification, and  alienation”. Another defined it as “behaviors and experiences generated during acculturation that are pathological and disruptive to the individual and ethnic group”. The above definitions of acculturative stress assumes a negative outcome and do not account for the expected emotions that arise from major transitions. However, Dr. Nayeli Chávez defines acculturative stress as a,”normal and expected stress that individuals experience as they come into contact and begin to adapt to a new culture”. This simple definition provides a positive way to think about the complex process of acculturation.In order to mentally survive, the reality of the process is that there are traditions that will carry over and some new that will be learned and adapted.

Puerto Ricans have immigrated to the U.S. for over 60 years and for the first time in this century, outnumber the population in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans continue to rank highest among Latina/os for mental illnesses and have experienced their share of acculturative stressors. However, studies show that a strong cultural identity and adaptability serve as great protective buffers. My family, like many others, have found ways to hold on to our traditions brought by our ancestors and adapted them for the generations raised in a country with both similar and conflicting values. The holidays have served as a way to relate to one another and bring peace, which helps in times of distress. Some of the strongest cultural values researchers found consistent among Latinos include: simpatía (kindness, pleasantness, avoidance of hostile confrontation ), personalismo (friendliness, warm personal relationship), respeto (respect based on age, sex, social status), familismo (collective loyalty to family), y religión (religion and spirituality). These values represent a part of our cultural identity and when practiced and adapted in healthy ways, can provide for smoother transitions and state of comfortability in an uncomfortable and unwelcoming place.

My family found ways to celebrate this holiday season by integrating our cultural values with the holiday tradition by gathering for a Christmas Eve service where we reflect on the Nativity and sing praises. Then we end the evening with sips of coquito, songs of parranda, and an exchange of secret santa gifts. On Christmas day, my yearly tradition is to jump from house to house in my PJ’s to eat breakfast and exchange more gifts at a least three homes from the city to the suburbs.

To me, the holiday season represents my childhood and the happy memories I have with my family and represents loyalty, peace, love, and unity I have for them. As we share this season together, I welcome you to seek within your own cultural traditions that have impacted your life. I bid you to reflect on what your traditional values mean to you and how they’ve helped your identity development as a Diasporic Boricua.

1. Redfield, R., Linton, R., & Herskovits, M. Memorandum on the study of acculturation. American Anthropologist, 1936
2. Berry, J.W. Conceptual approaches to acculturation. Acculturation: Advances in theory, measurement, and applied research. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2003
3. Berry, J.W. Acculturation as varieties of adaptation. Acculturation: Theory, models, and findings. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1980.
4. Organista, P.B., Organista, K., & Kuraski, K. The relationship between acculturation and ethnic minority health. Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2003.
5. Organista, K. Solving psychological and health problems: theory, practice, and
populations. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007

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Dorian Ortega

Dorian Ortega is a co-founder of and an Editor at La Respuesta. Her paternal and maternal grandparents immigrated to Chicago in the 1960's from Cayey, Comerío, and Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. She's worked as a research assistant on projects related to minority health, specifically Puerto Rican children with asthma. She's been a part of a faith community since birth and is an active member of Primera Iglesia Congregacional de Chicago. The church has historically supported the release of the Puerto Rican political prisoners and was home to Rev. Jose "Viejo" Torres and his wife Alejandrina Torres, a former political prisoner. Dorian graduated from a Master's program in Clinical Counseling with a specialization in Latino/a mental health. Her interests are in feminist and multicultural psychology, Puerto Rican mental health, and racism within the Diaspora.