Eduardo and Graciela Valdez met on the dance floor of a New York salsa club in 2000. Graciela, a single mother, had returned to her childhood Catholicism after giving birth to a son out of wedlock. The only reason she had gone dancing that night was to humor her cousin, who was celebrating a birthday. Graciela felt a tap on her shoulder. It was Eduardo, asking her to dance. She rebuffed him, but he persisted. She then “saw something in his face and in his eyes, just like such kindness, and I just saw a lot of things that I don’t see in too many people.” Eduardo turned out to be graceful, courteous, and not overly forward, all things that she was looking for in a man at that point in her life.
Yet both had doubts. Eduardo and Graciela were each ambitious in their careers, which led to a lot of quarreling about priorities. Both were children of divorce and had experienced fractious family lives. “I was scared of marriage, the whole concept of giving yourself completely and unconditionally, like tying yourself to another person, which obviously takes a lot of trust, a lot of compromise,” recalled Graciela.
Eventually this Mexican-American couple from Spanish Harlem got help from a priest friend of Eduardo’s, Father Ron, in working through their apprehensions. Father Ron encouraged them to make their relationship their top priority, guided them through Pre Cana (the Catholic Church’s wedding preparation program) after they became engaged in 2003, and told them to live their faith. His counsel and the example of other Catholic friends gave them hope. “Luckily, because of the church and the people that we’ve met [at church], I realized. . . that there are happy marriages, and that even if [some] weren’t, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have” a happy marriage, said Graciela, now 28.
The Valdezes’ faith-driven capacity to appreciate one another’s strengths and weaknesses, their sense that God was present in their relationship, and the support and counsel they received from Catholic laity and clergy played a key role in helping them navigate the often conflicting priorities of romance, career, and parenthood. Their faith also strengthened their confidence in marriage, a confidence that had initially been fragile because of their own experiences while growing up. Indeed, the Valdezes, who are happily married today, are living proof that the past need not be prologue to an unhappy future. They attribute their decision to get married and their happy family life in large part to the power of their religious faith and their involvement in the Catholic Church.
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We interviewed the Valdezes in the course of writing our new book, Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos. Much of the recent news about American Latinos has been negative, highlighted by invective about undocumented immigrants. We wanted to learn what was going right for Latinos and their families. Ten years ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that Latinos “are like a booster shot of traditional morality injected into the body politic. Immigrants work hard. They build community groups. They have traditional ideas about family structure, and they work heroically to make them a reality.” Much of Brooks' upbeat assessment, we were happy to learn, was validated by our examination of national data. Many Latinos are indeed like Eduardo and Graciela Valdez.
Source: National Survey of Family Growth, 2006-10.
Source: National Survey of Family Growth, 2006-10.
A quick look at Latino family demography reveals a unique set of dynamics. Latinos marry and divorce at about the same rate as do white Americans. Their intimate relationships, married or otherwise, are just as happy. This is striking, given the stark differences in social class between these two groups. According to the most recent Census report, the average Latino household has a median income of about $42,000, compared to $60,000 for whites. Twenty-five percent of Latinos live below the poverty line, while just ten percent of whites do. In general, a higher income increases the odds of getting married and staying married, so clearly Latinos are the beneficiaries of a paradox: They are more likely to be stable and happily married than we would otherwise expect, given their financial resources. Latinos’ distinctive family demography is evidence that not all family behavior can be explained on the basis of social class.
So what's special about Latinos? A great deal, as it turns out. A common thread in their lives is a special sense of familism, an orientation that places family interests first. Pretty consistently, Latinos have attitudes and behaviors that are more closely aligned with familism than either whites or African-Americans, which helps explain why they enjoy marriage outcomes that far surpass what we'd expect based on their socioeconomic status.
Source: National Survey of Religion and Family Life, 2006.
Second, besides familism, the faith of Latino couples like the Valdezes also matters when it comes to understanding contemporary Latino marriages. Latino couples who attend church together are nine percentage points more likely to describe their relationships as happy compared to their non-churchgoing peers. This holds for married and unmarried couples alike, and it doesn't seem to much matter whether they attend a Catholic or Protestant church. Latino men—but not women—who attend regularly are 62 percent more likely to be married than are their contemporaries who don't participate. Finally, frequent religious participation decreases the chances of a nonmarital birth by almost 50 percent for Latino men and around 20 percent for Latinas in comparison to their white peers. Generally speaking, then, faith is one factor fostering stronger families among Latinos.
These statistics about religious practice raise as many questions as they answer. Why should association with organized religion, so often associated with disapproval of nonmarital sex and unmarried relationships more generally, benefit couples irrespective of their marital status?
Based on our interviews with Latinos in California, New York, Virginia, and Texas, we concluded that priests, pastors, and lay religious leaders only occasionally mention sex, childbearing, or marriage in their sermons or in other religious venues. Instead, they espouse the importance of loving one’s neighbor—in this context, children, spouses, and romantic partners—and embracing comparatively uncontroversial Christian virtues like forgiveness, fidelity, and redemption. Perhaps this is why churchgoers seem to have happier relationships irrespective of marital status. Thus, many Latinos appear to be encouraged to embrace beliefs and behaviors that indirectly foster marriage, but are not always directly pushed to pursue marriage itself. Still, these Golden Rule virtues sometimes help guide Latinos toward marriage—and consequentially, away from nonmarital childbearing.
Not all the news about Latinos and marriage is good. Strong economic and social gains typically accrue to immigrant populations as they establish roots in the United States—and generally speaking these gains benefit marriage rates and stability. But that hasn’t been the case for Latinos: as they acculturate, their marital behavior regresses to the national mean. Marriage rates go down, and divorce rates go up. These findings are the result of studies that compared first-generation Latinos with those who’ve been in the United States longer. The latter still benefit from the paradox of strong families coupled with lower incomes, but not to the same extent as do new arrivals. In other words, Latino familism is attenuated by exposure to mainstream American culture. (To be sure, this is not entirely negative—for instance, strains of sexist machismo also seem to be attenuated.)
Thus assimilation brings both cultural change and upward mobility for American Latinos, but elements of familism remain. Many Latino families are doing well, and this is good news to report in an era of ceaseless denigration emanating from Donald Trump and other national politicians. And to the extent that second- and third-generation Latino marriages are more fragile than are first-generation Latino marriages, that seems to be more of an American condition than a Latino one.
Nicholas H. Wolfinger (@NickWolfinger) is a professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Studies and an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah.
W. Bradford Wilcox (@WilcoxNMP) is the director of the National Marriage Project and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.