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Mexican American Women

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Due to cultural views and strict religious beliefs many young Mexican American women in the Coachella Valley are often discouraged from choosing a major that would take too much time away from future family obligations. Therefore, they are encouraged to stick to traditional stereotypical careers. It is my understanding, that both cultural view and religious beliefs play a role in young Mexican American women’s choice of a college major. I believe the information contained in this research project would be helpful to high school counseling departments and college advising groups. If we can understand that a person can have a strong religious belief and still aspire to be something more than a housewife and mother, one might be able to encourage young Mexican American women to follow their dreams and become who they wish to become.

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Graduating high school is a great accomplishment for many students, and the prospect of entering college is perceived as a new and exciting experience. However, for some students the whole process of going to college can be extremely hectic and overwhelming, for there are so many things to consider. Do you choose a public school or a private school? Do you need to consider the overall cost? What about your parents, is this where they want you to go? More importantly than where you go, is what are you going to study? The method of choosing a college major can be very complicated. It can cause a great deal of anxiety, because for some this decision will likely be one of the most important decision we make. This research paper will look at factors that influence some Mexican American women within the Coachella Valley and identify which factors are most influential. I will evaluate research on career development theories and examine the impact of culture and religion on this process. I will offer an example of my own research by presenting a summary of an interview I performed, along with my analysis of the interview. In the end, it is my hope that the knowledge gained from this paper will be used to encourage young Mexican American women to follow their dreams and become who they wish to be, not who society perceives them to be.

For clarification purposes, the term Mexican American shall be defined as an American born individual of Mexican ancestry. However, due to the deficiency of research explicit to Mexican American women, some of the materials cited in this paper will include Hispanic women and Chicanas. “The term Hispanic includes people whose origin is Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the countries of Central and South America” (Tienda & Ortiz, 1986).


Located in Riverside County, California the Coachella Valley (see figure 1) is a desert area comprised of nine incorporated cities and 3 unincorporated cities, with the city of Palm Springs being the most familiar. The Valley (as is it commonly referred to) is approximately 45 miles long, beginning at the San Bernardino Mountains and ending at the Salton Sea. It spreads 15 miles across and is surrounded by the San Jacinto and the Santa Rosa Mountains. The San Andreas Fault runs along the Little San Bernardino Mountain range and can been seen at certain times of the year.

The population within the Coachella Valley varies greatly depending on the time of year. During the cooler month of January the population can exceed 800,000, while the population in the heat of the summer in July is barely 200,000. According to the 2010 US Census Data the Race and Ethnicity breakdown of the Coachella Valley as follows: Hispanics – 71%; White – 25%, with the remaining 4% listed as Other.

Politically speaking, in 2017 the city of Palm Springs elected the nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council, consisting of a bisexual woman, a transgender woman and three gay men. According to the Riverside County Board of Voter Registration, the majority of registered voters in the county are affiliated with the Democratic Party, while large portions of the Coachella Valley (except for Palm Springs) are affiliated with the Republican Party.

Career Development Theories

“There is perhaps, no college decision that is more thought-provoking, gut wrenching and rest-of-your life oriented or disoriented than the choice of a major” (St. John, 2000, p. 22). There are various theories in which the career decision making process is seen as a systematic approach in which you simply weighs the cost of college against the benefit of the college degree. These various theories perceive the practice as strictly an objective and logical process. However, Murtagh, Lopes, and Lyons (2011) theorize that some individuals use an ‘other than rational’ approach when deciding on their career. Within their research Murtagh, Lopes, and Lyons (2011) theorize that people will sometimes use not only rational measures, but they may also depend on emotion, intuition, and cognition, either together or separately, to reach their decision.

While discussing the decision making process, we need to recognize the importance of the role that parents play in shaping their children’s education, not only through their direct resources (i.e., income, cultural capital) but also by enculturating in them values the parents perceive as beneficial to achievement. The research conducted by Sherkat and Darnell (1999) speculates that the influence of religious practices, such as regularly attending religious services, normally produces the educational outcome the parents prefer. Likewise, their research suggests that this positive educational outcome is a reflection of how religious adolescents are the type of youth who perform well in school due to their dedication to their religious studies.

Conversely, “spiritual issues are minimally addressed in the career development literature as a whole and counselors are typically not exposed to coursework devoted to spiritual issues during their graduate training” (Ingersoll, 1994, p. 99). Ingersoll further expresses the need for career counselors to have access to this type of information in order to completely address the individual as a whole person. Ingersoll’s research conveys to us the necessity of incorporating all the personal dimensions when counselor’s offer advice to the students they serve.

Similarly, the research done by Milot and Ludden (2009) states, “adolescents who reported higher levels of importance of religion had more college plans, and higher levels of school bonding and learning goals, than those reporting lower religious importance, even after parental social support was accounted for” (413). Their research provides evidence “for the importance of researching the institution of religion as a separate and influential context for adolescent development” (421). Supplementary researchers, such as Rogers and Franzen (2014) also convey to us that “research has demonstrated that a person’s religious orientation has an influence on various social outcomes, such as educational attainment and income” (583).

Granted, the existing career development theories are inconsistent. Practically all of them do not take religion or spirituality into account, nor do they acknowledge cultural or gender differences. In fact, most early research that had been conducted was completely focused on issues pertaining to white males. As such, it is important to note that many career experts advocate for understanding that the process of career development is different for women than is it for men. In addition, “women’s career development is unique because of the intertwining of work and family” (Fitzgerald, Fassinger, & Betz, 1995, p. 68).

Speaking to the uniqueness of career development in women, Krumboltz (1999) reminds us that “women of color have similar experiences to white women; however, their experiences are different because of the element of culture” (xi). Furthermore, Krumboltz articulates that major career development theories ignore these cultural differences and inform us that there is not a comprehensive model to address a culturally diverse population. Yet, in the research of Rivera, Anderson & Middleton (1999) they express “that the career development process for women is considerably different from that of men with women dealing with issues related to gender role expectations, racism, sexism, and self-efficacy” (2). Moreover, we see in the work of Bingham and Ward (1994) that the researchers also noted the world of work, family involvement, community influence, language, socialization, sexism and racism all influence the career development particularly in ethnic minority women. They specifically noted that, “these categories cannot be neatly divided and they overlap and perhaps are not even separable” (168).


Colander and Giles (2008) state “the debate over a women’s ‘proper’ place is alive and well in the public sphere, and this debate is particularly salient in religious communities which have deeply rooted convictions concerning gendered roles with the home” (526).

Since its inception, anthropology has long debated the definition of culture. Culture is complex, it is not universal. Geertz (1973) states that cultures provides us with direction to establish a sense of consistency between permanence and change. Culture, as a whole, includes knowledge, customs, beliefs, morals, laws, art and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Culture can be applied to all societies as the general definition of patterns of behavior with a society. I belief culture to be one element of the career development process which holds Mexican American women back from achieving their dreams.

In his book, Hispanics in the United States, Moore (1985) explains that career decisions become even more complex for Mexican American women when we add the element of culture to the process. He expresses how Mexican American women’s career decisions are further complicated by their cultural expectations. He continues to clarify that this complexity is based on the women’s perceived responsibility to maintain their culture and to transmit it to others within the family structure. To enumerate, Segura and Pierce’s (1993) article adds that the elements of language, family structure, sex roles and religion are the foundational elements within the culture. It is these elements that impact the Mexican American woman’s career development process. Segura and Pierce (1993) continue to articulate the importance of the family structure with the Chicano culture. Their article examines ‘familism’, which in the Chicano culture includes family size, family unity, multigenerational households, and interaction with the extended family.

As result of the importance of the family structure, we can accept that adherence to family traditions is expected. If we look at the family structure within the Hispanic culture we will find it is grounded by a dominant father figure. The mother, in her passive role, is dependent upon this dominate male figure. The Mexican American women not only deals with these traditional sex-role stereotypes within her culture, but she must also deal with male domination as a whole. In their article on Sex-Role Attitudes, Ortiz and Cooney (1984), examine how traditional sex roles are found to be the most prevalent in first- and second-generation Hispanic women. Their research clarifies because of the woman’s perceived maternal duties, they are not expected to contribute to the work force. This is due to the notion that as mothers they are responsible for maintaining the family structure, as well as passing down these traditions and teaching their daughters how to navigate within their culture traditions.

In addition to the importance of the family structure, is the element of religion. “For women in religious communities, the tension between career and mothering aspirations may be problematic. This may be particularly true for college aged women, who, for the first time, may be considering how they career pursuits coincide with their maternal goals” (Colander & Giles, 2008, p. 528). Women make up more than half of the Catholic Hispanic population, and as stated before it is their duty to maintain the family’s religious beliefs. This tradition, in part, helps to explain the formation of the Mexican American woman as a saintly and passive person. She is a person who must sacrifice herself for the benefit of her family. If a Mexican American women should begin a career and therefore delays having children this may not be an acceptable practice within her community.

Rogers and Franzen (2014) state, “religious discourse idealizes certain forms and functions of the family, defining them as legitimate, valuable and morally correct” (582). They continue by expressing how women’s religious beliefs construct a foundation for them to “make sense of and understand gender roles” (582). Therefore, they conclude that religion plays a big part in the shaping of women’s gender roles.

My Interview and Analysis

While working on my master’s thesis I had the opportunity to interview a first generation Mexican American woman in the Coachella Valley. Here are some of the highlights from that interview, along with my analysis.

Maria is a 20-year-old first-generation Mexican American woman who is attending a local community college. She is unmarried and lives at home with her parents and two siblings.

When we met she was still undecided in her choice of majors, and had almost given up on getting a college degree.

During our conversation she expressed how at first she wanted to become an automobile mechanic because she enjoyed working on cars with her brothers. She stated that she had enrolled in an automotive class during her first semester in college. She expressed how excited she was to be attending her first official automotive class. Yet, as she was discussing this class with me, I could hear her voice change from excitement to despair. Then she stated that on the very first day of class several of her male classmates told her that she should just go home and make babies, as no one would ever trust a female to work on their car. As you can imagine, she was devastated.

As our conservation continued she began to express to me how ironic it is to live in the Coachella Valley. She talked about how the politics on one end were so very different from the politics on the other. She explained that she felt like it she was living in two different countries. One side was telling her to be what she wants to be, the other side telling her to be what she is expected to be. She expressed her feelings on being ‘less than’ those in the LGBTQ community. She said that because she was a Mexican and a woman, her goals were not as important as those of everyone else in the community.

It is my opinion that this scenario validates the struggle that occurs as Mexican American women decide their futures, including what their college major will be. It is also my understanding that the feelings expressed by this one person, could have been expressed by many more. As noted in the background section, the Coachella Valley is primarily a Hispanic community, and as such the women are expected to act in traditional ways.


In conclusion, I would first like to say that I believe education is the foundation upon which all other aspects of personal and economic well-being are built. It is my belief that people with more education typically have better jobs, which means they have better pay. Additionally, they are more likely to live in neighborhoods with better schools. Although Hispanic parents have high aspirations for them to attend college and become professionals, Hispanic youth are actually less likely to attain a college degree.

As this paper shows choosing a college major is a complex process. It involves both objective and subjective thinking. We use rational and ‘other than rational’ approaches when working through the process. Many of us follow the traditional sex roles our parents have enculturated on us, yet some of us break these traditional sex roles and become who we truly wish to be. It is my hope that the next time a high school counselor or college advisor sits down and discusses the career development of a young Mexican American woman, they will take into account the foundational components of culture and the unique needs that are based on these specific cultural traditions and obligations.

07 September 2020

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