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Volume 5, Issue 1
October 2012

Engaged Cross-Cultural Scholarship with Latino Families

  • Pilar S. Horner, Ph.D., M.S.W.
  • Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, College of Social Science
  • Researcher, Julian Samora Research Institute, University Outreach and Engagement
Picture for Girls on the Move in Michigan

Pilar Horner has worked with Latino/Latina adults and youth affected by some of the deepest human suffering, including drug, alcohol, and sexual abuse, child neglect, poverty, mental health, HIV/AIDS, immigration and workers' rights issues, and imprisonment.

As a sociologist and assistant professor in MSU's School of Social Work, and faculty member with the Julian Samora Research Institute (JSRI), Horner's Chilean heritage has influenced the way she approaches qualitative research and cross-cultural collaborations.

"The lack of scholarship with these communities is shocking, but just because a researcher speaks Spanish doesn't mean that is the only requirement necessary to conduct community-based participatory research in a Latino community," says Horner.

Horner has learned that collaborative scholarly projects involving specific ethnic populations yield better results and more satisfying partnerships when researchers are culturally knowledgeable about the diversity in the community and sensitive to the subtle cues of those participating in the research—and when researchers have a sense of humility.

"The Latino population is diverse. One situation can have so many cultural nuances and considerations, and it is important to adjust the lens and assess multiple factors going on with specific communities. What Mexican families experience may be very different from what Chilean families or those from the Dominican Republic do," she says.

Horner's approach has adapted to a host of social processes such as family structure and traditions, geographic origin, religion, gender, economic realities, subtle language differences, and insider/outsider beliefs. A major barrier to working with Latino populations is the fear and vulnerability that accompanies individuals with marginalized statuses and identities. Many Latinos experience threats to their sense of well-being, including unannounced Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids conducted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that threaten deportation and family separations. It affects their willingness to cooperate with any perceived outsider initiatives, including academic studies with researchers who hope to improve a community's way of life.

Partnerships Built with Respect and Awareness

"It is essential to work with the trusted leaders and local service agencies in a Latino community. Partnering with already established and respected voices is so crucial to forming the appropriate qualitative research plan," says Horner.

One project where Horner utilizes these connections is a nutrition education intervention directed at low-income Latino families in Michigan. The project is led by JSRI director Rubén Martinez, and is based on the Shapedown program created by faculty in the School of Medicine at the University of California—San Francisco. The program was designed as a family-based weight management program for children and adolescents; Dr. Martinez chose the model because of the emphasis on family.

Horner was brought into the project to work with the team to conceptualize the survey instruments, run the assessments, and conduct interviews at the end of sessions.

"I am proudest contributing to somebody's authentic vision of community change. Being part of the solution definitely makes the work worthwhile."

–Dr. Pilar Horner

Although UC-San Francisco provided Shapedown materials in Spanish, the team made significant changes, including language adjustments that allowed for appropriate educational level understanding and references to local eating habits and traditions.

Those participating in the program were not familiar with the rigors of academic research protocols, and Horner contributed to the design of questions and evaluation instruments that were easily explained and understood. In addition, the team had to readjust in order to meet the barriers that many Latino participants in a research study face because of ordinary struggles with things like transportation, child care, and inflexible work schedules.

As a qualitative researcher working in different cultural settings, Horner is constantly learning how to tailor the instruments to produce a high quality design capable of achieving the goals of a project. Currently she is partnering with Dr. Reza Nassiri, director of MSU's Institute of International Health, looking at socio-cultural issues affecting prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in Latin America. While working on an HIV/AIDS project in the Dominican Republic she explored the complex reality that education and information don't always compensate for long-held community beliefs. She watched one physician work toward greater understanding of the medical options available to those patients suffering from the disease during friendly, non-threatening visits and conversations in family homes.

"It's not just about behaviors, you have to understand attitudes. The why is just as important as the how. Before treatment or preventative care was introduced we had to understand the stigma facing HIV patients and their family members, because it often impedes their entire approach to taking care of themselves. Religious leaders are prominent in the Dominican Republic, and you have to work within that system to help patients understand and embrace care and treatment options," says Horner. "Then there are the everyday concerns, like can they afford nutritional food and medicine? Does the roof leak? Do they have a roof?"

Dr. Horner is a strong advocate for engaged scholarship that connects university knowledge with community-defined needs and challenges. She values long-term projects that are based on strong ties with community members and she is a big believer in working together.

"I am proudest contributing to somebody's authentic vision of community change," says Horner. "Being part of the solution definitely makes the work worthwhile."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Pilar S. Horner