Latina Immigrants in Miami Struggle With Alcohol, New Study Shows

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After a day of relentless Miami traffic and working a job that barely pays skyrocketing rents, a bottle of wine snagged from Publix or an overpriced craft beer is often just the right medicine. But for young Latina immigrants in Miami-Dade County, that happy-hour drink is often a false relief.

A study recently published in the Journal of Immigrant Minority Health that studied hundreds of young Latina immigrants in the Magic City shows that those who drank more alcohol to lessen the stress of their acclimation to the United States actually exacerbated the pressure they already felt.

The study's authors looked at 530 women from a diverse group of countries, such as Cuba, Colombia, and Nicaragua, who had immigrated to Miami-Dade. The research was conducted over the course of three years beginning in 2013, though only the first year of data was used to conclude the results.

Melissa Ertl, a third-year doctoral student at the University of Albany and co-author of the study, says they found that for many women coming from more traditional Latin nations, booze was just another different cultural reality they had to adjust to in the States.

"What we were looking at was that cultural conflict when you grew up with alcohol-use norms that don't really condone drinking for women, and then you move into a society where women drink almost equally compared to men," Ertl says. "That adjustment process is what we hypothesize to be stressful."

But Ertl emphasizes the women in their study weren't necessarily alcoholics; in fact, participants usually consumed only one drink per occasion.

"Even though it's not critical levels of alcohol that are very intoxicating or bad in terms of health effects physically, it's still significantly related to stress," Ertl says.

That's because Latina immigrants already face a slew of stressors in their first few months of being in the United States. Being separated from social supports and learning an entirely new culture and language can make the transition very difficult for young women.

For those who felt the pressure to be "traditional Hispanic women," Ertl says, those pressures were even greater. Women who adopted marianismo beliefs — the idea that Latinas are the main source of strength for the family and should be subservient — expressed more stress in acclimating to the U.S. than those who didn't. However, one aspect of these norms proved to be beneficial. For those participants who supported the idea that Latinas should be the spiritual pillars of their families, less stress was reported.

Though the study includes women who emigrated from ten Latin American countries with distinct norms and values, the study's authors didn't make comparisons by individual native country. Ertl hopes to further dissect that question in future research.

"The biggest takeaway point is that recently arrived immigrants are a vulnerable population experiencing really high amounts of stress as they adjust to their new society, and our study finds that this is a really critical time period for intervention," Ertl says. "These women need assistance as they transition... So I think it's a call to psychologists who are working with these populations to really be aware that this transition is stressful and difficult and to create interventions that can help these women as they adjust."

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